DEMOCRACY DIGEST: HUNGARY AND POLAND REFUSE TO JOIN EU JUSTICE LEAGUE

The two countries have decided not to join the new European Public Prosecutor’s Office, whose first cases will include the Czech prime minister’s conflict of interest over EU subsidies.
Hungary and Poland, perhaps not surprisingly, announced this week they would not participate in the newly established EU prosecutor’s office, which will investigate fraud, corruption and money laundering involving the EU budget.

The Luxembourg-based European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO) – which is headed by Romanian anti-corruption chief Laura Codruta Kovesi and, unlike existing legal institutions like Eurojust or the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF), will have the mandate to prosecute people – began its work on Tuesday, just in time to begin scrutinising the hundreds of billions of euros of EU money that will be doled out to member states to help them recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hungary and Poland were among five countries not to join EPPO, which will be partly staffed by prosecutors sourced from participating member states. Ireland and Denmark enjoy opt-out benefits in justice and home affairs cooperation, while the European Commission says Sweden plans to join EPPO next year. Hungary and Poland will be harder to convince.

Hungarian Justice Minister Judit Varga’s announcement on Facebook that Hungary would not participate in the setting up of EPPO did not come as much of a shock; Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government has indicated several times that it doesn’t support the idea of having an independent body investigating corruption cases in the EU.

“It is a question of sovereignty,” explained Varga, who added the government does not see any need for EPPO, since it already takes the fight against corruption seriously at a national level.

That will have raised some eyebrows in Brussels. OLAF concluded 43 investigations into Hungary’s misuse of funds where it found irregularities between 2015-2019, the highest in the bloc, and recommended the European Commission recover almost 4 per cent of EU payments made to Hungary, 10 times more than the EU average.

However, Varga left the door open to closer cooperation by saying that although Hungary abstained from joining, a working agreement has already been signed between EPPO and the Hungarian Public Prosecutor’s Office, which she claimed shows that Hungary is a partner in rooting out EU corruption.

There could be a swift reversal in Hungary’s position next year, though. “Joining EPPO is going to be one of first things we will do in 2022,” Katalin Cseh, an MEP from the opposition Renew party, wrote on Facebook, referring to an opposition victory in the general election next year.

The role of EPPO is set to take on increasing significance over the coming years, as every cent of the EU’s 750-billion-euro coronavirus recovery fund must be properly accounted for, Cseh noted.

Anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International Hungary warned at a conference earlier this year that Hungary could risk a lot by abstaining from EPPO. Every country not joining the independent agency will become a magnet to white-collar criminals, who rightly assume laxer regulation and biased law enforcement, TI Hungary’s managing director, Jozsef Peter Martin, said.

Like Hungary, the Polish government has long indicated it is against EPPO, the primary reason being it could further erode Polish national sovereignty – anathema to the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS).

“A European Public Prosecutor’s Office would have little added value,” Deputy Justice Minister Marcin Warchol told Dziennik Gazeta Prawna earlier this year. “We already have a sufficiently developed system of international cooperation when it comes to criminal law: the European evidence warrant, the European arrest warrant, mutual recognition of rulings.”

A more detailed explanation was provided back in 2018 by Lukasz Piebiak, then a deputy justice minister, in response to a parliamentary question. He said Poland was opposed to any solution that would take the prosecution of VAT crimes out of the hands of member states.

Piebiak said EPPO had such a broad scope of jurisdiction that it would risk “deep interference by an external entity like EPPO in the powers of member states, which is objectionable because of the already established exclusive competence of member states on shaping penal policy.”

Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro, who is also Prosecutor General, summed it up: “EPPO would slowly take over the area of activity of the National Public Prosecutor… [which] would become a servant of EPPO.”

One of the first cases EPPO will look at is Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis’s established conflict of interest regarding EU subsidies. European Commission audits have concluded the billionaire breached conflict-of-interest rules because he retains control of the trust funds into which he transferred his Agrofert Group in 2017 in order to meet Czech regulations. Brussels has now halted all payments related to subsidies paid to the agrochemicals conglomerate over recent years and demanded it return funds received after February 2017, which involve around 11 million euros.

Czech police have also been investigating suspected subsidies fraud and it is that file EPPO will take over, with the Public Prosecutor’s Office in Prague set to send it to Luxembourg in the coming days. Officials say that under EU regulations, all cases that meet the condition of damaging the bloc’s financial interests must be handed over to the new prosecutor. EPPO’s local representative said the new body expects Czech authorities to hand over around 60 cases in the coming days, with EPPO then deciding which fall within its jurisdiction.

Babis, under increasingly political pressure as support for his ANO party slips in the run-up to the October election, and Agrofert deny any wrongdoing. Both the Czech government and the company are now suing the Commission in the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU).

Meanwhile, the Commission has ordered an audit to decide whether conflicts of interest regarding EU funds has become systemic in Czechia. And Czech police have recommended fraud charges be filed against the prime minister over the illegal use of EU subsidies for the Stork’s Nest resort.

Hungary opposition targets Fudan Uni; foiling Islamist terror
Budapest Mayor Gergely Karacsony and opposition parties continue their efforts to impede the government’s plans to allow Shanghai-based Fudan University to establish its first European campus in the southern part of Budapest using a 1.8-billion-euro Chinese loan.

In the area where the campus is due to be built by the end of 2024, activists this week put up fake street signs deliberately designed to annoy the Chinese Communist Party, like Free Hong Kong Road, Dalai Lama Street and Uyghur Martyrs Street.

Parliament is expected to pass the bill facilitating the new campus on its last session before the summer recess on June 15. Ahead of this, the opposition plans to launch a petition and stage a demonstration to put pressure on the government to reverse its plans. According to a recent poll, 90 per cent of Budapestians do not support the Chinese loan or the campus. which would be built at least partially in an area designated for a new student city with dormitories and leisure facilities.

Meanwhile, on the eve of the UEFA EURO 2021 football championships, to be hosted in 11 cities across Europe, Hungary’s Counter Terrorism Centre (TEK) arrested a 21-year-old Hungarian citizen who allegedly intended to plant a bomb in the Puskas Stadion in Budapest, and to drive into a crowd in the Lake Balaton area, Hungary’s favourite tourist spot. “He was prepared to commit terrorist acts aimed at intimidating the population of Europe,” the chief prosecutor of Budapest, Tibor Ibolya, wrote in a statement.

The young man, who had a typical family background and was attending a Budapest university, had converted to Islam and participated in discussions in Islamic State internet chatrooms, volunteering to prepare a pipe bomb and offering to stage a ramming attack, similar to that in Nice, France in 2016, which killed 86 people, including 14 children, and injured more than 400.

Hungary’s counterterrorism centre posted a graphic video about the arrest in a sleepy suburban district of Kecskemet, some 90 kilometres from Budapest, deploying highly armed soldiers, a robot and a dog. Janos Hajdu, the director general of TEK, explained at a press conference that the young man believed he would end up in paradise for his acts. Hajdu also underlined the dangers of illegal migration and praised the fence built on Hungary’s southern border to keep out migrants.

War between Supreme Audit office and PiS escalates
Marian Banas, head of Poland’s Supreme Audit Office (NIK), announced this week he was filing a complaint against PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski at the Public Prosecutor’s Office. Banas is arguing that he felt insulted by Kaczynski, who said in an interview that Banas was a “system error” and that NIK should be run by a “clean” man, not one “in a circle of suspicions”.

Banas recently filed complaints with prosecutors against the prime minister and other members of the cabinet for trying to organise a postal vote in 2019 in defiance of the law.

Banas, a former government ally, has been embroiled in a conflict with the PiS leadership for about two years. The NIK chief is himself now being investigated for not accurately reporting his sources of wealth. In 2019, a media investigation revealed one of his properties in Krakow was managed as a brothel by a local underworld leader. Ever since, the PiS leadership has gone after him and his family. Banas has hit back against PiS leaders, especially via critical reports issued by the institution he runs.

Slovaks get to read top secret document; abortion back on table; Sputnik launch
A confidential report by the Slovak Information Service (SIS) intelligence agency detailing the alleged manipulation of corruption cases was leaked online after first being presented to parliament by speaker Boris Kollar in a closed session last week.

Photographs of the document appeared on the internet shortly after Kollar’s address. The National Security Authority uncharacteristically published a warning on social media in which it indirectly confirmed the report’s authenticity by cautioning people against distributing it under the threat of penalties.

The SIS write-up reportedly confirms the existence of so-called “universal witnesses” who are paid to lie during police interrogations. These witnesses are often partners in crime of the accused and their confessions shine a light on the inner workings of corrupt criminal rings in exchange for a lesser sentence.

The SIS report claims that police officers have been instructing and manipulating witness statements in cases concerning graft in the top echelons of the security service and financial administration. But the document failed to stipulate the alleged motives behind the police’s tinkering and it did not provide concrete evidence of such acts, the Dennik N daily noted. However, proof could have been forwarded to the Interior Ministry, other reports suggested.

Interior Minister Roman Mikulec rejected claims of falsified investigations, as did inspectors from the National Criminal Agency and the Special Prosecutor’s Office. Peter Kysel, the Special Prosecutor’s deputy, said of the allegations: “This results in an effort to scandalise experienced, honest and brave investigators who have prosecuted the most dangerous criminal groups in Slovakia. Their quest cannot succeed.”

Parliament got to read the SIS report after a secret meeting between the country’s highest state officials, top prosecutors and senior police in late May stirred controversy and drew accusations of a conspiracy from opposition parties and a chunk of the public. Speaker Kollar sought to clear the air by sharing the contents of the classified report that was discussed at the secret meeting with legislators. It remains unclear how photos of the document later turned up online.

Parliament is also set to discuss yet another proposal to tighten the country’s abortion law in its June session. The amendment was put forward by a group of MPs from the far-right LSNS party and conservative lawmaker Martin Cepcek, whose OLaNO party membership is currently suspended for pushing motions not supported by his peers and voting in unison “with fascists”, party officials said.

Cepcek’s amendment seeks to ban all abortions outside four exceptions, namely when the mother’s health or life is in danger, when the child is at risk of grave harm, or when the pregnancy is a result of rape. This would outlaw the procedure for women wishing to undergo abortion without a diagnosed medical precondition or with psychological problems. The motion also seeks to curb access to abortion by requiring medical reports, instituting a mandatory four-day waiting period and banning all “propagation of abortion” except for information posted by the Health Ministry.

This proposal is even stricter than the one presented by Christian-conservative OLaNO MP Anna Zaborska in October last year. Zaborska’s amendment received considerable support across the four-party coalition and only failed to pass by a single vote.

The latest push to change the abortion law comes amid a steady decline of abortions in the country. While in 1990 close to 48,000 Slovak women underwent the procedure, only a fraction of that was registered last year, with less than 5,500 abortions, Dennik N reported. Only one in six Slovaks support further limits to abortion, according to polls from last year.

Meanwhile, Slovakia became only the second EU country to authorise the use of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine. The first person to receive the Russian-made jab is expected on June 7. Doses will be administered in one town in each of the country’s eight regions.

Slovakia’s stock of the vaccine is enough for 100,000 people. Health Minister Vladimir Lengvarsky estimated that 80,000 Slovaks will be interested in the jab, yet so far only about 4,000 have registered for it. Former prime minister and the current finance minister, Igor Matovic, who spearheaded a campaign to bring the jab to Slovakia, said the preliminary numbers were a success. Matovic later confirmed he would not be inoculated with the jab, despite promises to the contrary. OLaNO MP Gyorgy Gyimesi, another proponent of Sputnik, said registrations were “horribly low” and blamed what he described as the months-long anti-Sputnik campaign for the failure.

Three strikes – and 123 are out!
The Czech minority coalition government survived its third no-confidence vote on Thursday, disappointing not only the “democratic bloc” opposition that called the vote, but also the power-hungry president. Ironically, Prime Minister Babis was joined in welcoming the failure to oust the government by many supporters of that same democratic bloc. Benjamin Roll, an organiser of mass protests that called for Babis’s resignation in 2019, grumbled: “It feels very strange. I’ve spent the past three years trying to get rid of the prime minister. Now I have to be happy he’s still in power.”

That’s because the no-confidence motion was a trap, set in April when the Communist Party (KSCM) pulled out of the ‘tolerance agreement’ under which it supported the minority coalition in parliament. KSCM followed it up by saying that, unlike in 2018 and 2019, it was now ready to support such a no-confidence motion should the centrist parties of the democratic bloc decide to put forward one.

The Pirates/Stan election coalition held off for a while, but in the end just couldn’t resist the temptation and joined the centre-right Spolu coalition in signing up for such a vote, despite President Milos Zeman announcing that, should the government fall, he would keep Babis in place ahead of the elections in October.

In the meantime, the wily head of state would have enjoyed using the new leverage to try to reverse recent policy moves unfavourable to his Russian friends. But, as it happens, you can always trust an old Stalinist to stab you in the back it seems. At the last minute, the KSCM decided it couldn’t abandon its favourite billionaire oligarch, and withdrew its support for the vote, scuppering the effort in one stroke.

Still, the vote did offer Babis the chance to illustrate to the country his intent to plug into the culture wars and play the migrant card as he seeks to revive his fortunes in the run-up to the election.

“We in the Czech Republic do not want any multicultural, eco-fanatic Pirates and Mayors. We do not want to share our cars, our apartments, our country. We do not want our country to be governed by the European Parliament, the green fanatics with whom the Pirates have allied. I am the sovereign prime minister of this country,” he shouted at MPs. He later replicated the speech on Twitter, adding for good measure that the Pirates want to hand people’s flats to migrants.

One thing the democratic bloc did get right was to time the no-confidence vote so it did not disrupt the government’s expulsion of dozens of Russian ‘diplomats’ from the embassy in Prague. Czechia sent home 123 Russian staff and family members on flights over the weekend, on top of the 18 staff that were expelled in April after Prague accused Russian agents of blowing up the Vrbetice arms depot in 2014, killing two workers.

The Czechs had been trying to convince Russia to reduce the staffing levels at its giant embassy for some years. At its peak, the Russian contingent in Prague dwarfed that of any other in Europe with around 130 staff, and was believed to host intelligence operatives that worked across the continent. The embassy will now have just seven diplomats and 25 support staff. Analysts believe the expulsions will have a significant impact on Russian intelligence operations.

Reflecting the inconvenience, the Russian government has officially declared the Czech Republic and the US to be “unfriendly” states. Moscow expelled 79 employees of the Czech embassy in retaliation. A number of other countries have offered help to the Czech Republic with the operation of its embassy in Moscow. However, Prague has struggled to secure a stronger response to the state terror on its soil from NATO and EU allies. While 18 European states ejected Russians to support the UK in the wake of the Skripal poisoning in 2018, just five did so over Vrbetice. Prague has been criticised by some partners for failing to alert them to the findings over the attack in advance.

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