Poland and Hungary declare victory in their fight with Brussels over a plan to make EU funds conditional on upholding the rule of law. But the mechanism is still coming in.

Central European leaders headed to the summit of EU leaders in Brussels buoyed by a compromise plan to end the block by Hungary and Poland on the EU’s vast budget and coronavirus recovery package.

On Thursday evening, the other 24 member states gave their assent at the two-day summit to the compromise solution that Germany, which holds the rotating Presidency of the EU, had hammered out with Poland and Hungary the previous day.

European Council President Charles Michel spoke for many when he tweeted: “Now we can start with the implementation [of the budget and recovery package] and build back our economies.”

Under the compromise deal, the wording of the original text remains unchanged, though the European Commission will refrain from implementing the rule-of-law mechanism – which will make EU funds conditional on upholding fundamental rights – until Hungary and Poland have the opportunity to challenge its legality at the Court of Justice of the European Union. Furthermore, funds made available under the current budgetary framework will be excluded from the rule-of-law conditionality and only applied to the new 2021-2027 period.

What the compromise effectively means is that the effects of the new rule-of-law mechanism will only appear years from now, which allows the Polish and Hungarian governments to sell the deal as a victory domestically.

In Poland, this has also meant a victory for the more moderate voices in the governing coalition, namely Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and Jaroslaw Gowin, deputy prime minister and leader of one of three parties in the coalition. Over the last few days, Gowin had been pressing to avoid a Polish veto of the EU budget by marginalising the position of hardline Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro in the eyes of Law and Justice (PiS) leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski. On Wednesday, Gowin had said his faction had rejected the idea of “veto or death” (the formulation used by Ziobro’s party to define Poland’s negotiating position), arguing that, in fact, “veto was death”.

On hearing about the new deal, Ziobro tweeted his dissatisfaction: “‘Interpretative conclusions’ and ‘criteria’ are not law! The regulation is law. If the regulation linking budget and ideology comes into being, this will mean a significant limiting of the sovereignty of Poland and the breaking of EU Treaties. We do not agree to this!!! We keep fighting for Poland’s interests.”

Speaking on Thursday to the Polish Press Agency PAP, Kaczynski said that, “Knowing the reality, if the proposal, which is ready in this moment, goes through, then it will be ok.” Kaczynski said the negotiations were complicated, but he believed it would be “not bad at all” in the end for Poland.

Typically, the Hungarian government declared victory, with Prime Minister Viktor Orban declaring on Facebook that, “common sense has prevailed” and, earlier, that the “winning cards are in our hands”.

Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto commented: “We have fought for our national interest. Should we have not done so, tomorrow a decision would have fallen in Brussels that we have to accept illegal migrants and if we were not willing to do so, we would be stripped of our EU funds.” Experts pointed out that the EU budget and recovery package, as well as the compromise, had nothing whatsoever to do with migration.

The opposition also saw the deal as a victory – for themselves. Using a soccer metaphor, typical of the prime minister, Socialist MEP Istvan Ujhelyi wrote on Facebook that, “Orban says he won, but in reality he just hit the post”. Ujhelyi explained that no matter what Orban promised his voters, he could not stop the EU introducing the rule-of-law mechanism. The deal also reveals, as Ujhelyi argued, that Fidesz was lying about its real motives: their veto had nothing to do with sovereignty or migration, but merely served the purpose of preserving their power. “The conservative values they preach only serve to disguise their mafia-like system of stealing,” Ujhelyi summarized.

Anna Donath, an MEP for the liberal-centrist Momentum, wrote that finally Europe’s strongman – meaning Orban – had been defeated, and EU funds could no longer be stolen systematically as before. But the fight is not over yet, she warned, as Orban will try to hinder the mechanism, launch a media campaign against it, attempt to blackmail the European People’s Party or turn to the Court of Justice of the EU. She also sees bitter long-term consequences for Orban: “The prime minister has been retreating in the last two years, he is losing his European allies, he is alone and pushed to the periphery of Europe.”

Remarkably, the biggest controversy was caused by a disappointed Facebook post from a well-known leftist-liberal sociologist, Maria Vasarhelyi, who accused Chancellor Merkel outright of “digging the grave of Europe” for giving in to Orban. “The EU has let Hungarian democrats down, Angela Merkel has made an unprincipled compromise with the Hungarian dictator. Orban has been given a lifebelt for the 2022 elections”, she wrote, referring to the next parliamentary elections. The post made huge waves on social and online media, dousing the over-optimistic voices of the opposition while earning opprobrium from government-loyal commentators.

Perhaps Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa, one of Orban’s few remaining allies left in Europe, described it best in comments to POLITICO: the deal is “not good, not bad. As good as possible… Typical EU compromise,” he said.

For the Czech Republic and Slovakia, which have had no time for the antics of its neighbours, there were more pressing matters at hand than the EU budget.

Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis was initially more worried about the pickle he’s got into at home with a package of tax cuts making its way through the opposition-controlled Senate, and had even planned to give the summit a miss. And who better to represent Czechia’s official position than Poland’s Morawiecki? “I will be in the Senate for as long as necessary because of the tax package, even if I am represented in Brussels by the Polish prime minister,” Babis tweeted on Tuesday.

But by Thursday he had released how awkward that could prove. Would Czechia swap sides and join Poland and Hungary in their veto, or would he be asking Moriawiecki to cast a vote against Poland’s cause? So he jumped on a plane at the last minute, while explaining to the abandoned senators: “I am not able to find a country that would represent Czech interests in everything.”

Babis has offered few clues throughout the veto crisis what those interests are exactly. Indeed, he’s kept as far away as possible from the issue, even as it has helped increase the toxicity around the Visegrad brand. The PM will hardly be happy with the threatened delay to EU funding, especially ahead of elections in late 2021, yet like Slovakia, Czech representatives in Brussels continue to consult with Hungary and Poland over their position.

That will please Babis’ sometime-ally President Milos Zeman, who made clear where his sympathies lie. Following a meeting with Polish counterpart Andrzej Duda in Prague on Wednesday, the outspoken populist called for his country to support its Visegrad neighbours and to replicate the “unity” that earned the Visegrad Four such “success” during the migrant crisis.

Meeting MPs on the parliamentary committee for European affairs on Thursday morning, Slovak Prime Minister Igor Matovic called the veto of Hungary and Poland a “key issue”, but said that since the negotiations had moved forward, an agreement should be reached. “So probably the biggest topic will become one that really deserves it: the climate,” he said during the meeting.

Writing on Facebook, Matovic said: “I believe that I will come back with a significantly increased ambition in our common protection of the climate.” While he hoped for higher numbers, he expected the compromise cut in emissions to reach 55 per cent by 2030. Matovic is under increasing pressure from the Slovak public over the climate. This month, a parliamentary committee approved the petition of a group of young climate activists with over 120,000 signatures, and Greenpeace Slovakia organised a 65-hour strike in front of Government HQ this week to push the PM to argue for a 65% cut in emissions by 2030. “If there is [political] will, let’s talk about higher goals, but I haven’t felt the will for that at the last council meeting,” he told the parliamentary committee.

Media takeovers and protests in Poland

The Polish state energy giant PKN Orlen announced this week the purchase of Polska Press, the owner of the largest regional press share in the country, including 20 titles of newspapers and online portals popular on a regional and local level. By purchasing the company from its previous German owner HKM, Orlen gets access to over 17 million readers.

Journalists working for the newspapers now belonging to Orlen have declared they are in no doubt that what will follow is a “cleanup” of critical voices, as the head of Orlen is an ally of Law and Justice (PiS) leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski and seems always ready to implement any political agenda of the government. When it came to office in 2015, PiS took over the state media, which it turned into a propaganda arm of the government. Critics now worry the same will happen with Poland’s influential regional media.

Poland is still very much wracked with protests of one kind or another. On Wednesday afternoon, it was turn of young protesters to march to Prime Minister Morawiecki’s office in Warsaw and call for the Polish government to take determined action on the climate. They demanded that the government refrain from vetoing the EU budget and recovery fund, money from which they believe will contribute to a green European recovery. The action, organised by Fridays for Future and Extinction Rebellion, was supported by the Polish Women’s Strike and the students’ protest group (which is currently organising a week of protest against controversial Education Minister Przemyslaw Czarnek).

Huxit? Unlikely

The Hungarian government’s continual wrangling with the EU notwithstanding, the Hungarian public remains staunchly pro-EU, regardless of what happens in Brussels and how political forces frame the narrative on European developments. A recent poll by Median, conducted in mid-November, reveals that 85 per cent of voting-age Hungarians support the country’s EU membership. This also implies that the government’s EU bashing propaganda and constant labelling of Brussels as a font of all evil does not resonate much in Hungarian society. Even among Fidesz voters, support for the EU reaches 77 per cent, which makes speculation about an eventual ‘Huxit’ misplaced.

Czech party cut short; nuclear dance

Czechs rushed to the pubs in early December as they reopened after weeks of lockdown. The party was short-lived. With infection numbers on the rise again, government officials have spent the week variously scolding, begging and ordering the country to act more responsibly.

The crush at the bar is a particular target. After only five days of operating, pubs had their opening hours curtailed. They must now bolt their doors at 8pm, Health Minister Jan Blatny ordered, blaming the move on numerous breaches of restrictions by watering holes. The number of new cases rose to 6,402 on Wednesday, the first time in two weeks that the number was above 6,000 and the government’s PES risk assessment system has reached the point that should mean the closure once more of all pubs and non-necessary shops. However, the government is holding off on such action.

This dance around imposing strict and clear measures only seems to be antagonising the country further. The media made much of the fact that the police have blatantly contradicted Blatny, saying they have not seen any violations of restrictions. Parliament’s patience is also wearing thin. On Wednesday, the lower house restricted an extension to the state of emergency to 11 days compared with the government’s request for 30.

A merry jig also continues around the tender to build a new unit at the Dukovany nuclear power plant. The nuclear energy committee decided this week that its discussion over the conditions for the competition will extend to the end of January. Most of the committee members, including those from the security services, have urged that Russia and China be blocked from participating due to security risks. However, the government and state-controlled energy group CEZ insist on having as many bidders as possible.

The committee is now mulling four options: the admission of all five current candidates – companies from Russia, China, US, France, South Korea – the exclusion of Russian and Chinese bidders, participation of Russian and Chinese companies in consortia in junior positions, and postponement of a decision until after the elections in October.

The delay pushes the process offtrack. According to the original time-schedule, the tender was to have been launched this year, with a contractor selected in 2022. There is speculation, however, that the prime minister would like to see the process decided after President Zeman – who seems inordinately keen on a Russian or perhaps Chinese win for some reason – completes his final term in early 2023.

Slovakia’s judicial reforms

While the Hungarian and Polish governments continue to deride rule-of-law principles as a condition for receiving EU funds, the Slovak government continues to take long-overdue steps to strengthen the rule of law at home.

On Wednesday, Slovak Justice Minister Maria Kolikova (For the People/Za ludi party) persuaded parliament to vote for a change in the constitution that will lead to far-reaching reform of the judicial system. Despite some criticism from the opposition and judges, the move was welcomed across the coalition, as well as by President Zuzana Caputova. “The reform of judicial institutions is an important step in strengthening justice,” said Caputova in a statement on Wednesday.

Veronika Remisova, leader of For the People party, said that the reform is an important step in the fight against corruption in the country. “Corruption has been one of the biggest problems in this country,” said Remisova, adding that her party has adopted 10 different laws this year aimed at combating corruption and promoting more transparency.

“People can’t even keep up with the long lists of [arrested] policemen, judges, prosecutors – names like Gaspar, Bodor, Lucansky, Kovacik – anymore. They will go into history as symbols of the abuse of power,” said Remisova, referring to the latest arrests of top officials in the police and prosecution service.

The new laws are aimed at introducing more transparency, public control and a restructuring of the Slovak judicial system. The reform will create a new type of court in Slovakia that deals with administrative trials, disciplinary actions against judges or prosecutors, and some election complaints or lawsuits against the state. Via changes in the Constitutional Court and Judicial Council, the changes attempt to bring in more public control, while also allowing judges to comment on and explain their rulings to the public. “In other words, nobody will be able to say now that the judge could just sit quietly in the court room,” said Juraj Seliga, vice-chairman of the parliament. “It is a soft tool that helps people understand what is happening in the courts.” The Judicial Council will also gain more powers to review and investigate the assets of judges and their families, which has traditionally been difficult.

Justice Minister Kolikova said she wanted to win back public trust in the justice system. Since the spring, over a dozen prominent judges have been arrested and charged with crimes associated with corruption, including a former state deputy at the Justice Ministry, Monika Jankovska, who had been nominated by the former governing party of SMER-SD. According to the latest Eurobarometer survey, conducted before the arrests, over 72 per cent of Slovaks don’t trust the judiciary.

Following the reform of the judicial system, Justice Minister Kolikova is preparing the next step – a new “map of courts”, which would cut the number of courts in the country and make them more specialised in chosen areas of the law.

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