¿o te la hacen?
Report underscored vast differences in standards and practices among the EU’s members.
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We're all sinners.
That was the message from the European Commission as it presented its first-ever rule-of-law report on Wednesday.
The report is part of an effort to show that all 27 EU member countries — and not just a few Eastern troublemakers — are on the Commission's radar when it comes to monitoring democratic standards.
But in hundreds of pages of assessments covering judicial independence, media freedoms, anti-corruption measures and basic governmental checks-and-balances, the Commission's report inevitably underscored vast differences in standards and practices among the bloc's members.
And while the Commission avoided rating or ranking the member countries' performance, the assessments show that states can broadly be split into five categories:
Budapest and Warsaw are both locked in years-long disputes with Brussels over what critics describe as democratic backsliding, and their reports were the least surprising: The Commission raised concerns about media pluralism and the systemic lack of action to prosecute high-level corruption in Hungary, and raised "serious concerns" about the rule of law — and in particular judicial independence — in Poland.
Hungarian Justice Minister Judit Varga rejected the report, tweeting that its concept and methodology are "flawed" while "its sources are unbalanced and its content is unfounded."
Bulgaria has performed poorly in the Commission's assessment, with the report referring to incomplete reforms, low public trust in anti-corruption institutions, attacks on journalists and concerns about judicial accountability. But the report also ignored the bigger political picture of how an oligarchic mafia captured state institutions in the country and is silent on increasing testimony about abuse of EU funds driving the country’s rampant corruption.
The reports on these four countries show an effort to tackle long-standing problems, but that significant challenges remain. "The Croatian justice system has made progress on reducing backlogs and improving electronic communication in courts, but is still experiencing serious efficiency and quality challenges," the Commission wrote, adding that the country's "level of perceived judicial independence remains among the lowest in the EU."
Similarly, the Commission noted Malta's recent progress on "significant reforms" — while pointing out that "a track record of securing convictions in high-level corruption cases is lacking" and that concerns remain about the country's media landscape. Slovakia's reform efforts are also acknowledged, along with concerns about the capacity of Slovak institutions to prosecute corruption.
Romania also still has a way to go, according to the report. “Controversial measures with negative impact on judicial independence continue to apply,” the Commission wrote, pointing to “challenges to maintaining the strong track record of prosecuted cases and court judgments convicting high-level corruption."
While the Commission broadly gave the bloc's Southern democracies a clean bill of health, it did raise several key issues — including ongoing political gridlock over the state of Spain’s General Council of the Judiciary, the body that oversees the country's judiciary and ensures the independence of its courts and judges.
The Commission also said that "concerns were raised about new legislation on public security, allegedly restricting the freedom of information and the freedom of expression."
Rome's challenges came on a different front: "The political independence of the Italian media remains an issue due to the lack of effective provisions on preventing conflicts of interest," the Commission wrote. While praising Italy for strengthening anti-corruption rules and for undertaking reforms to accelerate judicial proceedings, the Commission noted that "effectiveness of repressive measures is hampered by excessive length of criminal proceedings."
When it comes to Greece's judicial system, the Commission pointed to reforms but also continued "challenges as regards its quality and efficiency." It also noted that civil society groups in the migration field "have expressed concerns that the civic space to operate on the ground has narrowed."
Even in countries where big, systemic rule of law challenges were not identified, the Commission raised a hodgepodge of issues from questions about party political financing in Denmark to a lack of sufficient resources for prosecuting corruption in Luxembourg.
At the same time, the Commission appeared unconcerned with the general state of the rule of law in much of Western Europe, referring to Finland's "strong tradition of transparency in government" and France's "well-established" framework to support media pluralism.
Maïa de La Baume, Hans von der Burchard, Hanne Cokelaere, Sofia Diogo Mateus, Charlie Duxbury, Laurenz Gehrke, Aitor Hernández-Morales, Giorgio Leali, Barbara Moens, Christian Oliver, Matei Rosca, Eline Schaart and Sarah Wheaton contributed reporting.
European Commissioner for Values and Transparency Vera Jourova (left) and European Commissioner for Justice Didier Reynders give a press conference on the Annual Rule of Law Report in Brussels on September 30, 2020 | Pool photo by Olivier Hoslet/AFP via Getty Images