February 26. 2024. 5:17

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Qatargate could hurt EU’s ‘moral standing’ on rule of law, report says


The Qatargate bribery scandal in the European Parliament could undermine the EU’s attempts to hold national governments to account for rule of law abuses, the Civil Liberties Union for Europe has warned.

The state of the rule of law across the European Union has stagnated because most EU countries “made little effort to resolve documented rule of law issue”, stated the annual report published on Tuesday (21 February).

The lack of political to rectify the issue could become a bigger problem in the coming months because of the fallout from the Qatargate corruption scandal, the report added.

The scandal, which has seen the arrest and indictment of a handful of sitting and former MEPs over claims that they received money from Qatar and Morocco in return for political support, was “likely to have damaged the credibility and moral standing of the EU” and could make it harder for the EU institutions to take further measures to censure countries which poor records on the rule of law.

The EU “will need to win public support for protecting the rule of law, especially when this involves measures that authoritarians can spin to their advantage, such as cuts in EU funds”, added the Civil Liberties Union for Europe (Liberties) report.

“Hungary and Poland remain the worst offenders on the rule of law,” the report stated, adding that the governments in Warsaw and Budapest “continue to implement a series of measures designed to centralize power, silence their opponents, control public opinion, and make it very difficult to lose future elections”.

Hungarian premier Viktor Orbán, whose government has been waging a political battle against the EU over rule of law concerns for several years, last week described Brussels as “full of corruption”.

The report also pointed to “deep corruption in Hungary, though the government did make some superficial improvements in order to secure COVID recovery and structural funds”.

Earlier this month, Polish lawmakers adopted new laws to reform rules on wind farms and, more contentiously, to give the country’s Supreme Administrative Court new powers to deal with disciplinary cases of judges.

Liberties played down the significance of the latter reform, commenting that “the reforms being negotiated with Poland in exchange for release of EU COVID Recovery funds would lead to only modest improvements that don’t free judges from political control”.

Last week, the European Commission confirmed that it will sue Poland at the European Court of Justice over challenges to the primacy of EU law made by the country’s Constitutional Tribunal in two rulings in 2021.

Elsewhere, the report, which was compiled by 45 human rights organisations in 18 countries across the EU, noted that in Sweden and Italy, where new right-wing governments took power in 2022, there has already been “a sharp increase in rhetorical attacks against NGOs and the media by both of these new governments”.

The report also pointed to new laws in the Czech Republic, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Spain which sought to give governments greater powers to dissolve NGOs and to “smear campaigns and legal harassment” of NGOs in Croatia, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Slovenia and Sweden, particularly those working to protect migrants and to combat climate change.

“European governments should realize that by failing to nurture their democracies, they pave the way for extremist politicians who will not hesitate to tear down the whole system,” said Balazs Denes, Executive Director of Liberties.

“When funds are suspended, it must be at a level that gives Orbán and Kaczynski no choice but to return democracy to their citizens, because Poland and Hungary need the EU to cope with the fallout of Russia’s war in Ukraine,” he added.

However, the paper welcomed steps taken by Slovenia’s new government, which took office in June 2022, to “restore independence to institutions like the public broadcaster and to revoke and reimburse fines that were illegally issued under the previous far-right government to citizens for attending protests”.

Italy’s new anti-corruption plan and plans by the Czech Republic to create a new register of lobbyists to keep track of influence over law-making were also singled out for praise.