Hungary, Poland Hit With Fresh Rebukes in EU Court Cases

Poland and Hungary were hit with fresh rebukes over their failure to comply with European Union law, highlighting the risk of billions in euros of losses when a new mechanism tying disbursements from the bloc’s budget to democratic standards kicks in next year.

Three separate cases at the bloc’s top court on Thursday took issue with possible violations, from the way Hungary treats asylum seekers to how judicial independence in Poland is at risk from political interference following sweeping changes to its court system. They come less than a week after EU leaders salvaged a historic $2.2 trillion budget and stimulus package in a breakthrough deal with Poland and Hungary.

It’s the second time this year that the EU Court of Justice decided Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s asylum policy broke the law by illegally detaining those seeking help and moving them to a border area. Thursday’s Hungary ruling was a victory for the European Commission, which had sued the nation, and further cut at the heart of Orban’s anti-immigrant policy.

Hungary and Poland had been at odds with the rest of the EU for weeks after they threatened to veto the bloc’s landmark stimulus package, angrily protesting a mechanism tying EU funds to upholding democratic norms. The dispute was the culmination of years of clashes between Brussels and the two countries over everything from political meddling in the judiciary to LGBTQ rights.

In the end, faced with the prospect of missing out on much-needed EU money altogether, Warsaw and Budapest struck a deal with their peers that unlocked not just the bloc’s seven-year budget but a 750 billion-euro ($919 billion) pandemic relief package that will be financed by joint debt.

The German-brokered compromise offered reassurances over how the new conditions will be applied, but the rule-of-law provision will remain in place. While the conditionality will apply to all funds disbursed from Jan. 1, any penalties, will only be enacted after the Luxembourg-based EU court has had its say, which could take months.

Controversial judicial reforms in Poland over the last couple of years have cast doubt on the rule of law in the nation and led to repeated lawsuits by the EU’s executive.

An adviser to the EU court in one such case on Thursday chided Poland over the way applications by judges seeking a post with the nation’s Supreme Court are overseen. The non-binding opinion said new rules by Poland that “exclude the possibility for legal review” of how such applications are assessed violate EU law.

A third case on Thursday underscored the concerns that other nations have over people’s right to a fair trial in Poland. A Dutch court wanted to know if Polish extradition requests could be halted over “the existence of evidence of systemic or generalized deficiencies concerning judicial independence in Poland.”

EU judges ruled that such requests can’t automatically be refused -- but said they could be if there’s a clear finding of “a serious and persistent breach,” including rule of law violations by Poland.

‘Spectacular Failure’

Michal Wojcik, a minister without portfolio in the Polish government, said that the ruling on the extradition question was a “spectacular failure of the Dutch” as well as Poland’s opposition, which he said has been unfairly casting Poland as a country where the rule of law is endangered.

Hungary and Poland are the only two EU nations facing a so-called Article 7 procedure for allegedly undermining the rule of law, which technically could lead to the suspension of its EU voting rights.

Hungarian Justice Minister Judit Varga said in a Facebook post that the EU court’s ruling on its asylum policy “has become devoid of purpose, as the circumstances at issue in the present proceedings no longer exist.”

Following an EU court ruling in May, Hungary closed the contested transit zones and ended a practice where people were held in metal containers, in some cases without food. Still, the government further tightened its rules for people seeking asylum in the future.

The commission will write to Hungary to see what its next steps will be to comply with Thursday’s ruling, EU spokesman Adalbert Jahnz told journalists.

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