Measures imposed by the Polish and Hungarian governments during the coronavirus crisis have increased concerns over the rule of law, European Commission Vice President Věra Jourová told POLITICO.
“Corona must be killed, but democracy must survive,” she said, adding that Brussels is closely monitoring developments.
Jourová’s comments come after Polish lawmakers on Monday voted to ensure the presidential election goes ahead in May as scheduled, despite the pandemic. The governing nationalist Law and Justice party (PiS) pushed through legal changes allowing the poll to be conducted entirely by postal vote.
The opposition is calling for the election to be postponed, saying postal voting could help spread the virus. It also argues that the current lockdown prevents opposition candidates from campaigning, giving incumbent President Andrzej Duda an unfair advantage.
Jourová, in charge of values and transparency, shares these worries. “I’m concerned about free and fair elections in the country, about … the chance to vote for all candidates, about the ability [of all candidates] to campaign equally,” she said.
Hungary’s parliament, meanwhile, has backed a plan by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to rule by decree without a set time limit — ostensibly to limit the spread of coronavirus. The law also foresees jail terms for those who spread disinformation about the virus, sparking concerns it could be used to silence government critics.
Jourová says the way the law is implemented will be a “testing moment” for Budapest.
“It’s the context. It’s the history,” she said. “Under Hungarian law, we’ve already seen attempts to diminish the power of the judiciary.”
“Mr Orbán will have to prove that [our] concerns are unfounded,” she said, adding that the European Commission will be closely monitoring how the emergency law is rolled out and whether it is proportionate to the situation.
New budget, new leverage
Before the start of the coronavirus outbreak, the EU placed both Poland and Hungary under its so-called Article 7 procedure for breaching the rule of law — a process that could eventually see the two EU members stripped of their voting rights in Brussels.
The countries also face numerous infringement procedures at the Court of Justice of the EU for breaking democratic principles enshrined in the EU treaties.
In its latest budget plan, the European Commission proposed a mechanism — subsequently watered down by EU capitals — that would make the allocation of EU funds conditional on countries respecting the rule of law.
But the coronavirus response means there will be another chance to add democratic spending conditions. The Commission needs to propose a revised budget plan by the end of April — when new negotiations will begin.
“Now we have a chance, in the new budget negotiations, to keep this conditionality alive, and maybe now, we see better than before why it’s important to have some financial instrument in hand,” Jourová said.
“To be blunt, I think that if somebody doesn’t understand our values, they should [at least] understand [the value of] money. Usually, it works like that,”
Mark Scott contributed reporting.