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In the context of the fight against corruption in the European Union, the first important leaders of Europe are falling – the Prime Minister of the Czech Republic, Andrej Babiš, and the Chancellor of Austria, Sebastian Kurz. With Poland, the match is expected to be harder and longer.
For those concerned about the health of European democracy, their resignations are as welcome as they are surprising. After a decade in which populist governments in Central and Eastern Europe undermined the rule of law and forced institutions to function in their own interests, two leaders accused of manipulating the political system lost power on the same day (October 9, no.) British magazine The Economist.
The Czech election seems to have ended the term of office of Andrej Babiš, the billionaire prime minister under investigation by the European Union for embezzlement of European funds, an accusation he rejects. Meanwhile, in Austria, an investigation into the use of government funds to buy the goodwill of some publications has led to the resignation of Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who also denies any allegations.
But the bigger problem follows. The Polish government, led by the populists of the Law and Justice Party (PiS, Conservative), has been pushing for years to impose control over the judiciary and has thus come into direct conflict with the EU. On October 7, the Polish Constitutional Court went even further, declaring that parts of the founding treaty of the EU violate the Polish Constitution and, as a result, Polish judges, not the EU High Court, have the final say in resolving disputes with the EU.
Such a breach of the European treaties could force the European Commission to deny Poland access to 36 billion euros in funding for the post-COVID-19 economic recovery. It would be a culmination of intra-EU clashes over minimum compliance with democratic standards by all Member States. If the EU goes further, it will signal that it is determined to bring the rebels back in line, which will inevitably lead to a further escalation of tensions.
Sebastian Kurz (35) is the prodigy of Austrian politics, who has managed to impose himself on anti-immigration policies and become the leader of the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), then foreign minister and later chancellor. The recent scandal, however, calls into question its entire rise. Following a police raid on October 6 at the offices of the chancellery, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the ÖVP, the Economic Crimes Directorate of the Ministry of Justice accused the party of using money from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to bribe a tabloid to write favorably. about Kurz between 2016 and 2018. The articles were based on some polls – produced by a nearby public opinion polling institute – that would put him in a favorable light and make him look more popular.
The recipe is well known – illiberal regimes often resort to paid advertising with public money for positive articles. Some, like the Hungarian government led by Viktor Orbán, do it outright. In Austria, things are not so visible, but lately they have taken a worrying direction. Government-allocated advertising budgets have gained a worryingly high share of publication revenue, and many have expressed concern that this will have a subtle influence that is reflected in the journalistic approach. Messages on a phone confiscated from a colleague of Kurz’s reveal an unusually explicit understanding.
Kurz denies any abuse or knowing what was going on. He remains the chairman of the ÖVP parliamentary group, and the chancellor becomes an ally, Alexander Schallenberg. The Austrians polarized strongly against the former chancellor. However, what happened in Austria proves that the phenomenon of systemic corruption is not limited to the former communist bloc countries.
In the Czech Republic, Andrej Babiš’s defeat is all the more spicy as he focused his election campaign on anti-corruption, claiming that he is too rich to be bribed by anyone. He built his fortune in the 1990s, laying the groundwork for the Agrofert agricultural conglomerate. Since entering politics in 2013, it has become the target of investigations seeking to determine whether Agrofert has not been abused by European funds. Babiš transferred its shares in Agrofert to an offshore trust, but the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) ruled earlier this year that Babiš was in a conflict of interest over Agrofert’s case.
Just before the election, the Pandora Papers revelations were made public. According to Investigace.eu, the Czech partner of the Washington International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), leaks show that in 2009 Babiš moved 22 million euros to a front company in the British Virgin Islands, money with which he then bought a property in the south of France.
Babiš’s electoral defeat does not seem to be the end of the road, after President Miloš Zeman, a populist Eurosceptic himself, promised to appoint him prime minister regardless of the election result. Things are now complicated by his October 10 hospitalization, and the alliance of opposition forces needs tactics adopted in all states with illiberal leaders – and in Hungary, opposition parties have joined forces to force Orbán to land in next year’s elections. future.
Returning to Poland, the decision of the Polish Constitutional Court of 8 October is the most serious challenge to the rule of law in the European Union. Since 2015, when PiS has been in power, it has done its best to enslave its legal system, following the model of Orbán’s Hungary. Those who did not line up were suspended or even convicted. For its part, the European Commission has been reluctant to apply sanctions with real effect. The fact that European law takes precedence over national law, with the Court of Justice of the European Union playing the role of arbitrator in disputes that arise in the EU, is one of the foundations of the European project. Whether a Member State can afford to ignore or interpret European law at will, the European project becomes uncertain.
At this point, the European Commission could reject Poland’s request to access funds from the € 800 billion allocated to support the recovery of post-COVID-19 economies. There is a clause whereby the European Commission must certify that countries benefiting from European money respect the rule of law. Poland has demanded 36 billion euros, money it claims it will direct to social programs under the “Polish New Deal” umbrella.
It may be a nuclear move, but it could be a fight for the rule of law that the EU can no longer avoid.
The European Commission has called for sanctions against Poland and Hungary for violating European values and the rule of law.
Rebel to the end. On 11 October, Hungary and Poland challenged the new mechanism in the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), which makes payments to Member States conditional on compliance with the rule of law. Polexit. The unprecedented decision of the Polish Constitutional Court, which ruled that certain articles of the European Union’s treaties are incompatible with the Polish Constitution, strongly fuels the scenario of a possible Polexit.
This article appeared in issue 126 of . magazine