Poland and Hungary are brazenly breaching every red line: a rock solid EU rule of law mechanism is now indispensable

Guy Verhofstadt
4 min readAug 1, 2020

So the Polish government is asking its constitutional court to examine the Istanbul Convention on violence against women, which has everyone speculating: is it a strategic maneuver, a countermove against the indignation they met with this week? Are they backtracking or just playing for time? Whatever it is­ — few illusions here! — it just underlines how important the rule of law is: we cannot allow governments to undermine their legal systems for political reasons, only for them to hide political choices behind legal arguments later.

The momentum on the EU’s approach to rule of law violations is gaining pace, and will need clarity before the budget and recovery plan is finalised over the next few months.

Here’s how they try to sell it: ‘Many people are making serious objections’ about the convention, the Polish prime minister said, and ‘as a government, we share those concerns’, hence the need for constitutional scrutiny. Truth is, it is his own Law and Justice Party (PiS) which is making these objections, not on the basis of public, let alone legal concerns but for power-political reasons. The convention was amply studied when the EU and all of its member states signed it years ago, and was found to be a logical complement to the legal arsenal we have to act against domestic violence.

The last time you heard about Poland’s constitutional tribunal was when the same PiS government attempted, with some success, to bring it under party-political control, which lead to a tremendous and continuing fight with the EU-insitutions.

People sometimes think the whole rule of law discussion is only a way for Brussels to lash out against politicians they don’t like. This example once again shows you it is much, much more than that: the rule of law is the foundation of democratic politics. If we allow it to be muddied, everything else is built on sand. Because what will a PiS-dominated and intimidated tribunal find, do you think, other than precisely what the PiS government wants it to conclude?

In George Orwell’s Animal Farm, the first thing they did after the farm’s liberation was write the rules on the wall — ‘an unalterable law by which all the animals must live for ever after’. Getting them in writing was the ultimate sign of freedom, the only guarantee not just that ‘all animals are equal’ but that they would remain so. That is what the EU is as well: A set of rules, democratically agreed, that bind governments to certain principles on how to run a country. A contract not just between countries, but above all between governments and their citizens. You remember how Animal Farm ended: once the pigs had their hold on power they changed the rules, ‘simplified’ them. So that eventually ‘some animals’ ended up ‘more equal than others’.

This is not about ideology: you can be right-wing or left-wing, religious or atheist, progressive or conservative in Europe. Besides, violence against women was never a traditional value as far as I’m aware. It is about democratic government and its opponents. PiS is playing the sex card because it hopes to strengthen its hold on power by doing so. It wants to cast off EU rules and oversight because it is a way to limit and delegitimise alternative views within Poland. Same in Hungary, where Orbán muzzles press and opposition only to maintain his own lucrative position in government.

It might well backfire this time. With their actions of the past two weeks — Hungary taking another step forward towards unfreedom, Poland shamelessly stepping back from its commitments — they have upped the ante on the rule of law, just when the Commission, Council and Parliament have a major decision to take. The European Council tried to discuss the EU budget and recovery fund as if it exists in a political vacuum. Now we know: independent courts, free media and democratic politics are the beginning and end of it. We can’t maintain EU funds are worth the investment unless the legal basis in the country where they are spent is rock solid, and unless the society that should profit is free to scrutinise, criticise and guard against corruption if need be. We will need a forceful rule of law mechanism to guard against abuses of EU funding, or the deal itself is in doubt.