The issue of the rule of law has become a central issue in the European Union over the last decade. Up until recently, the spotlight was mainly on concerns over Hungary and Poland. But now the European Commission has decided to widen its horizons and evaluate the democracy and corruption situation in all 27 member states, one by one.
Věra Jourová, Vice President of the European Commission for Values and Transparency, has just presented the Commission’s first-ever Rule of Law report. She spoke to Euronews about their findings.
Sándor Zsíros, Euronews: How healthy is European democracy?
Věra Jourová: This is an important moment. In presenting this, it »s not just presenting any report, it’s not business as usual. Because we needed to make a good assessment of the situation in all the member states. We are looking at the situation in the judicial sphere, especially on the independence of the judiciary, balancing the powers between the different branches. We are also looking afresh at what the member states do against corruption. And also we are looking afresh at the situation of the media, because the media are not only economic actors, they also have a very crucial role in protecting freedom of speech and democracy.
Euronews: What are the main findings of the report? Where do you see the most problems related to media freedom, to the judicial system and to corruption?
Věra Jourová: The main problems, if I make a general assessment, are in the world of the judiciary: the tendency to impose more political pressure on the judicial system, on the judges, especially from executive branches’ side, especially from governments. We need to have absolute certainty that in each country we have independent judges who will decide on the basis of the law, not on the basis of who is who and who should be tackled how. And that is a very clear principle that we have: equality before the law, safeguarded by the judges. So concerning the politicization of the judiciary, as well as the political and economic pressures on the media which we see in many countries, the trend is worsening. We have very precise data collected in the last year and this year. Media play a very important role also in defending democracy or giving the true picture. The professional journalists who feel a high level of responsibility of course are the ones who should deliver objective information to the citizens, because we want citizens to be well informed to make their judgements and choices, especially in elections. Anti-corruption: well we need to do more in some member states. We see that there are sufficient and well-functioning mechanisms to fight against corruption. But in some states, we don’t see such a picture. Also, it is reflected in the perception we hear from citizens and businesses that in some countries people simply do not trust their institutions to be able to fight against corruption sufficiently. And I think this is also the factor we have to focus on more.
Euronews: Two countries are under Article 7 proceedings: Hungary and Poland. Do you think they are still good working democracies?
Věra Jourová: Well, we have covered very well the problems we see and we expressed our concerns in the different papers and analyse regarding Poland and Hungary. We have the Article 7 process triggered already for both countries. I never believed this article would ever be used and we have it here. So it’s important that this process is ongoing. Where we see concrete cases of the breach of EU law, we address it by infringement procedures. And today’s report is complementary to the measures and instruments that I’ve just mentioned. Because what we heard from Poland and Hungary was that we should focus also on others. That’s why we are also focusing on others. And I think that this is a very important moment, when we see the situation in the member states described on the basis of objective criteria. We honestly tried to be objective in the assessment. The method we used was very transparent and inclusive. There was cooperation from the member states’ side.
Euronews: Do you see willingness from these countries to cooperate and to change concerning these points that you write about in the report?
Věra Jourová: Well, we saw willingness to cooperate from all the member states. This was a very demanding exercise. Our colleagues were assessing the reports and the findings from discussions with, I think, 300 different bodies and from all the member states. So the willingness was there. I think by doing this work, introducing this preventive tool, which is the report we are presenting today, we are giving more emphasis or more impetus on why it is important to actively protect and defend the rule of law in the member states and that it should be a common interest. It can’t be only for the European Commission. We can’t be alone on this. So I have to say that I was nicely surprised by the level and quality of cooperation. This is the first edition we are presenting today. It will be annual reports, so next year we will see the trends. What shall we do with the new findings? In many cases, it will be opening the door for dialogue with the respective member states.
And it’s not all about Poland and Hungary: the report also highlights challenges in the justice systems of Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia and Slovakia. In Bulgaria and Malta media outlets are tied to political forces, while in Spain, Slovenia, Bulgaria and Croatia journalists are often threatened or attacked.
Euronews: We have seen some non-usual suspects also. What are the main worries for you besides Hungary and Poland?
Věra Jourová: Well, in some states we see especially the negative trend in the world of media. It’s good to read the reports where we are very open and precise in the assessment. Also, the lack of action, especially investigations and prosecutions of criminal offences in the world of finance. That’s why at the same time, we tried to push forward the proposal to connect the rule of law principle and effective investigation and prosecution of financial fraud. So we are now enlarging the toolbox and the number of instruments we have in hand. Because speaking about money, we are now in a situation where we are going to distribute more money. The money should serve very good purposes.I should also mention the recovery money, which should help all member states to get out of the crisis caused by COVID. And that’s why we cannot keep the system where we are, increasing the amount of distributed money and coping with the fact that there is this decreasing level of trust. We have to introduce some more safeguards.
Euronews: We are in the middle of budget negotiations, as you said. But is money really the only way to convince these countries to safeguard values?
Věra Jourová: Of course not. We have to deploy all the measures and instruments we have in hand. And the money… Well, I think it is a very serious warning for all states that might continue breaching the rule of law: by conditioning the money, the taxpayers in member states, especially in member states which are net contributors, want to see more safeguards. And we must not give up on dialogue with member states, especially with those where we have concerns. And we simply have to admit to ourselves that we were naive in the past: believing, that the rule of law principle is there forever; that it will work without any problems; that it is automatic, some kind of Perpetuum mobile; that fundamental rights will be always respected everywhere; that the protection of minorities will be in place everywhere. Well, it’s quite clear that we have to increase the pressure on member states to be aware that these are the holy principles of the club. Because it is again, about trust, it is about trust between member states. For instance, that independent courts are working everywhere with the same quality and certainty. And also this is about the trust of the people in their institutions. And also here we see a gap. The trust of the people in institutions is decreasing.
Euronews: Isn’t it naivety to think that these countries will finally just approve this budget conditionality, because they can even veto it?
Věra Jourová: The negotiations are ongoing. And I would not like to give up at this stage or even say something that would put into question the importance of this proposal.
Euronews: Now, this week, the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán demanded your resignation because in an interview, you said his regime was a sick democracy. Do you regret this wording?
Věra Jourová: No, I don’t regret it. What I said, I said. I said maybe hundreds of times that we have serious concerns regarding the state of play in Hungary. I used different words, but I spoke about the same thing and about serious concerns. There was some misunderstanding also in what I said, because I remember very well the main message in the interview I gave was that the first and last word must be there for the citizens, for the Hungarian people. And I respect very much the Hungarian people and their free choice. I recognize that Prime Minister Orbán won the elections, and I just said that we need to see in all the member states, including Hungary, that there are all the conditions in place to guarantee the people free and fair choice.
Euronews: And do you think that this free and fair choice at an election is still there in Hungary?
Věra Jourová: There must be several conditions fulfilled. First of all, a level playing field in political campaigns, and transparency on, for instance, the financing of campaigns, how they are financed. Then freedom of speech and well-functioning media and judicial oversight: because there might be a situation when the results of elections in any country might be put into question. And then it’s the moment for the courts to decide. So in the circumstances in which these conditions are in place, we speak about free and fair elections.
Euronews: How will you deal in the future with the Hungarian government? Because they are also cutting ties with you.
Věra Jourová: I am ready for dialogue with all member states and all partners.
Euronews: How can the European Commission promote media pluralism in Europe?
Věra Jourová: It’s a tough topic, I have to say. Because we don’t have very strong legal competences. We have some. So, for instance, on the 20th of September, the audiovisual directive came into force. And we will look into how the member states are implementing it in their national legislation and especially in practice. Up to now, only some member states have notified their implementation. So we will look into that and use our legal competence. But for the rest, we don’t have strong enough legal competences. And we have, I think several times, recommended to member states that they protect or help the media now in COVID time to survive economically. And there are several member states which are now applying their state aid to the media as well, to help them to keep their jobs and so on. So there are different ways, and I believe that we will be well understood in trying to support independent media, because they are heavily needed.
Euronews: With the pandemic, European countries rushed to apply emergency laws which limited the civil liberties and the free movement of the citizens. Parallel to that a new wave of fake news and disinformation flooded the internet. In many cases, Russia and China were behind them.
Do you think after the COVID pandemic we will be able to go back to a kind of old normality in terms of a democracy?
Věra Jourová: In many ways old normal was not good normal. We already had problems before COVID, as we know. COVID time required the launching of emergency regimes in the majority of member states. So we tried hard to convince member states to respect the principle of necessity and proportionality for measures. Because an emergency regime must not mean you switch off the constitutional balance and you switch off the judicial oversight or you silence the media or you silence active citizens. So concerning this COVID time and the emergency regimes, we were very clear on how we would like to see this happening. Also, by the way, the protection of privacy was at stake and we delivered guidelines for member states on how to use tracing apps without overdoing that and without depriving people of their privacy. And I think that this is the lesson for the future. You asked about new and old normal. Well, this is a never-ending process. As I told you, we used to be naive. We thought that it was an automatism. It’s not. So we will continue the active defence of rule of law and democracy in Europe. I would like to say we should go beyond just declaring it. We have to go and do it. More defence, more protection.
Euronews: The pandemic also brought with it a huge wave of fake news. Do you have tools to fight it or do you think that this will stay with us?
Věra Jourová: It’s one element where I can describe quite well how the old situation before COVID was amplified in COVID time. Already before COVID we had a big issue with foreign influence, with disinformation campaigns. We had several sectors under permanent attack of disinformation: minorities, migration; now it’s the green policies, and a new thing is the big and intensive disinformation wave against vaccination. So disinformation in general is not new and it has to be tackled. But in a very careful and wise way. And I can only tell you that we are planning some new rules for the online world, but on disinformation we are not introducing any kind of censorship or some kind of limitation on the freedom of speech.
Euronews: How do you deal with foreign disinformation attempts, especially from China and Russia?
Věra Jourová: Our External Action Service is actively working in detecting these coordinated attacks and attempts to influence the public opinion in the EU. We are working with internet platforms because we want them to inform the public about these cases, so that people know that this is pressure from outside. And also, we want the people to understand better what is the purpose of this pressure, what’s the purpose of different disinformation campaigns. Probably me as a citizen, I am under the influence of somebody who really wants to distract our society and who wants to sow hatred and distrust towards institutions. I think that we are very behind in making it clear what the purpose of the disinformation is and that it can be very dangerous.
Euronews: Now, Europe’s relations with Russia suffered a new blow with the Navalny case. Do you think Europe should put sanctions on Russia because of this issue?
Věra Jourová: Well, I think that the debate is ongoing in the External Action Service and also in the Foreign Affairs Council. This is indeed a big blow and we can’t leave it without reaction. I am absolutely sure that this is also one of the game-changers in our relations.
Euronews: Do you think there could be unity on this issue in Europe?
Věra Jourová: We need unity for sanctions.