The EU risks falling “hostage” to authoritarian member states if it fails to agree a tough system to protect the rule of law within its own borders, Slovakia’s president has warned.
Zuzana Caputova urged national governments to grab the “unique opportunity” offered by a much argued-over plan to suspend EU budget payments to countries that breach the bloc’s democratic standards and fundamental values.
Ms Caputova’s call in an interview with the Financial Times highlights fierce debate between member states and the European parliament over EU rule of law safeguard proposals drafted by Germany’s rotating presidency of the bloc. Her remarks also underscore the significant opposition in some central and eastern European countries to the slide towards autocracy in states such as Hungary and Poland. A former anti-corruption lawyer with no previous political experience, Ms Caputova’s election victory last year was a rare shot in the arm for central continental liberal, pro-European forces.
“Of course we need a sort of enforcement mechanism for rule of law to be observed across the EU, so we don’t become hostage to those who don’t want to follow these rules,” said Ms Caputova.
“This is also a unique opportunity to set the standards for the rule of law.”
Ms Caputova echoed calls by the European parliament and northern member states including Finland, the Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark for a tough rule of law protection mechanism, which is opposed by Hungary and Poland.
She said that the bloc needed to avoid relying on unanimity — a reference to the EU’s so-called Article 7 rule of law disciplinary proceedings against Poland in 2017 and Hungary in 2018, which have been stuck because each country has vowed to defend the other.
“We need to move from unanimity to qualified majority at the very minimum,” she said.
Ms Caputova said the EU pushback against authoritarian moves also needed to be more timely, given that the results of infringement court cases brought by the European Commission often do not arrive in time to stop the behaviour under scrutiny.
The European Court of Justice last week ruled against a 2017 Hungarian law that in effect forced the Central European University, founded by the billionaire philanthropist George Soros, out of Budapest — but the institution has already relocated to Vienna.
“Justice delivered too late is no justice,” Ms Caputova said. “That’s why this time factor is so critical — and that’s why this efficient [new] mechanism is so needed.”
Asked if leaders from the conservative European People’s Party grouping, including Angela Merkel, Germany’s Chancellor, should have taken a firmer political stand against Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party, which is still a member, Ms Caputova replied: “What I’m still surprised about quite often is relativism of values. So on the one hand you have values that are being declared, and on the other hand you have activities that do not reflect those values.”
“Every mechanism is dependent on people. I want to go back to this personal responsibility of leaders because if we are not consistent in our values and we are not following what we are saying, then no mechanism is going to change that,” she said.
Ms Caputova has made justice and the rule of law one of her main priorities since sweeping to victory in Slovakia’s presidential election last year, powered by a wave of popular anger at the murder of Jan Kuciak, a young journalist who had been investigating corruption, and his fiancée Martina Kusnirova.
The killings sent shockwaves through the central European nation, spurring calls for reform of the country’s judicial system, and ultimately triggering the resignation of the then prime minister Robert Fico.
However, Slovakia’s efforts to draw a line under the case suffered a blow last month when a high-profile businessman accused of ordering the killing was acquitted by a special court. Prosecutors have appealed against the decision.
Ms Caputova, who initially expressed shock at the verdict, said that there was no cause to think that the judicial process had been “corrupted” and that the decision and reasoning of the Supreme Court, which will hear the appeal, would be “crucial”.
As well as speaking out on the rule of law, Ms Caputova has been one of the few central European leaders prepared to openly challenge China, whose investment has been trumpeted by some capitals but is still dwarfed by European investment.
Last year, she used a meeting with Beijing’s top diplomat to criticise China’s human rights record, and last week she refused to give a speech at the high-profile annual security conference in Bratislava run by the Globsec think-tank because Huawei was a partner in the event.
She went ahead with the speech after Globsec cancelled the partnership with Huawei.
Asked if she feared any consequences from her action, she said: “I’m a directly elected head of state of a sovereign country. I’m elected in a popular vote and I can freely choose what conferences I participate in or not.”
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