“We at Liberties were perplexed to read some of the key findings of the Commission's Rule of Law Report, which paints a much rosier picture than the Liberties shadow report compiled by more than 40 local NGOs. As our EU-wide network has found, most member states have made little effort to address documented rule of law problems, have left existing shortcomings unaddressed, or have made matters worse in all areas examined. Envisioning a parallel universe and neglecting the call to improve transparency could seriously undermine the relevance and credibility of the Commission's report,” said Balazs Denes executive director at the Civil Liberties Union For Europe.
Reading the Commission’s EU-wide overview, one would think that the overall trend is a steady progress towards addressing identified challenges, with new initiatives and reforms underway in many member states and in most of the areas covered. Yet, the picture drawn by rights defenders on the ground is different. Liberties’ shadow Rule of Law Report 2023 points to few efforts in most EU countries to resolve documented rule of law issues.
Among the most striking discrepancies is the way the situation in Hungary is pictured. The European Commission made remarkable efforts to highlight the initiatives the Hungarian government is taking to address systemic deficiencies in areas such as justice, corruption, and public participation in law making. Yet, it is clear from Liberties’ Hungarian member’s report that reforms being initiated are likely to lead to only very modest improvements, and that at the same time the government keeps on implementing measures overtly designed to centralize power, silence their opponents, control public opinion, and make it very difficult to lose future elections.
The Commission’s report also fails to draw attention to worrying developments in Italy and Sweden, where new governments are increasingly engaging in rhetorical attacks against NGOs and the media and have been championing reforms that fall short of international human rights standards.
Generally speaking, the Commission focuses on ongoing reforms as if its recommendations from last year succeeded in exerting a positive influence. However, Liberties’ report shows instead that the situation across most of the member states continues in the wrong direction, with reforms being delayed or falling short of achieving the expected results in most of the areas covered.
At the same time, the Commission’s overall failure to improve the transparency of the monitoring and reporting process, with independent actors including rights groups being left out of discussions to assess the implementation of the Commission’s recommendations, and to formulate new recommendations, continues to lead to very little accountability and casts doubts over the actual impact of this exercise on the ground.
> MEDIA FREEDOM
The EC report rightly raises the alarm over existing threats to media freedom in many countries. It’s positive to see that some governments took measures to address identified challenges, but it remains to be seen whether this will drive concrete progress on the ground. The situation in countries like Slovakia and Sweden deserves closer attention. At the same time, the EC report confirms the unwilligness of the governments of Poland and Hungary to step back and stop using their public broadcasters to disseminate propaganda. Steps taken in a few member states to shield journalists from bogus lawsuits (SLAPPs) seem far from capable of improving the situation, also considering the very retrogressive position taken by the bloc on the EU Commission’s proposal for an anti-SLAPP directive. It is also welcome that the EC report maintains attention on the worrying use of spyware, especially against the background of discussions on journalists’ surveillance under the EU Media Freedom Act. The EC report is however shockingly silent about verbal and physical attacks against journalists reported, for example, in Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, France, Hungary, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Sweden and Spain.
Political pressure on judges is a serious problem. Liberties’ report clearly illustrates that the situation has not improved in Hungary, despite the EC report commending justice reforms by the government. Liberties’ members also warned about politicians having a say over picking, promoting and disciplining judges in several other member states, including the Czech Republic, Germany, Slovakia and Spain, something the EC report could have devoted more attention to.
Again, the EC report downplays the situation in Hungary, focussing on superficial improvements which are far from genuinely capable of addressing the persisting deep corruption in the country. The EC report also fails to devote enough attention to the transparency of public procurement practices, on which Liberties’ members in a number of countries, including the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, France and Croatia, raised concerns. The failure by many governments to give whistleblowers the level of protection that the new EU directive requires is also not properly addressed.
> CIVIC SPACE
The EC report this year embraces a more critical analysis of trends as regards civic space and the enabling environment for civil society and rights defenders. This is welcome. At the same time, more attention should be paid to the impact smear campaigns and legal harassment have on civil society actors, as reported by Liberties’ members in Croatia, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Slovenia and Sweden. The EC report also overlooks restrictions on the right to protest, which Liberties’ members reported in Belgium, Estonia, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Sweden.
> SYSTEMIC HUMAN RIGHTS ISSUES
Implementation of ECtHR judgments remain the only indicator included in the EC report as regards the way governments address systemic human rights issues and serious human rights violations. The report however still fails to give account of governments’ failure to respect and protect human rights, against the background of worrying impunity for continued blatant violations of the rights of people who migrate (as reported by Liberties’ members in Croatia, Estonia, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Ireland, Lithuania, Slovenia and Spain), of people from ethnic minorities (Bulgaria, France, Sweden) and LGBTIQ persons (Czech Republic, Hungary, Ireland and Slovakia).
> CHECKS AND BALANCES
The EC report seems to overlook the reported abuse of fast-track procedures in countries like Croatia, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Ireland, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia. In 2022 we found that a lot of countries haven’t given their institutions the independence, resources or powers they need to do their jobs, for example, to make sure that governments follow the correct rules when legislating. The challenges facing oversight bodies and in particular national human rights institutions should better be assessed, against the background of deficiencies reported by Liberties’ members in many countries including Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy and Ireland.
Liberties’ previous annual rule of law reports are available here: