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Defiance mounts as the EU sends increasingly mixed signals on accountability for rule of law foibles

Even as recent investigations have shown that member states of the European Union are ever-more prepared to flout the EU’s rule of law standards, the bloc’s decisionmakers appear increasingly unsure of how to tackle the problem. On August 2nd, Politico revealed that the European Parliament had quietly dropped a lawsuit that it had lodged against the European Commission in an effort to nudge the European executive into using its new power to curb funding for member states which do not live up to the bloc’s rule of law standards.

The Parliament dropped the case in part because its own lawyers indicated that it rested on shaky legal foundations, and in part because the Commission agreed in April to launch the mechanism for the first time against Hungary. It remains to be seen, however, how far the Commission is willing to go to reprimand Budapest for its democratic backsliding. As the EC waffles on condemning Hungarian premier Viktor Orban’s latest incendiary remarks on “mixed race” nations, fears are rising among MEPs that the Commission will not impose significant enough consequences to change Hungary’s behaviour. The EC should suspend 100% of EU funds going to Hungary in order to be credible, a cross-party coalition of MEPs recently declared. One MEP, Finnish centre-right politician Petri Sarvamaa, explicitly took the Commission to task for dragging out its rule of law probe against Hungary, declaring that the executive was “not up to the job”.

A lack of adequate action could have significant consequences—while Hungary’s growing democratic deficit is particularly visible, troubling tales are cropping up around Europe. One emerging trend is particularly preoccupying, given that—as the European Commission has underlined—the core of the rule of law is effective judicial protection. Nevertheless, in multiple EU member states, such as Cyprus and Slovakia, the veneer of an independent judiciary is wearing thin as prosecutions are tainted by witnesses seemingly coerced by either the carrot or the stick into providing flimsy evidence that serves the interests of those in power.

The EU’s 2022 Rule of Law assessment of the Cypriot judiciary focused more on questions of efficiency than on potentially politically motivated prosecutions, yet in recent weeks, a furore has broken out in Cyprus that has cast serious doubt on the fairness of the country’s judicial system. During the trial of Yiorgos Christodoulou Zavrandonas, who was eventually acquitted of drug trafficking charges, damning evidence emerged painting a bleak picture of unreliable witnesses plied with expensive champagne and other delicacies by the police and prodded into attempting to intimidate a defendant in another case, Alexis “Alexoui” Mavromichalis—a businessman known for his fierce criticism of corruption within Cypriot law enforcement circles.

Efforts to try Mavromichalis for attempted murder fell apart in November 2021 when a panel of judges unanimously dismissed all charges against him, but the fallout from the “fiasco” of the prosecution against the Cypriot businessman is still reverberating. The case against Mavromichalis was essentially rooted in the testimony of a single witness, Panicos Panayioutou, who repeatedly changed his story and contradicted his earlier statements. Another witness for the prosecution, meanwhile, retracted his initial claims, admitting that he had been forced to give false testimony following threats against his family. A third individual alleged that he was offered €150,000 in cash if he agreed to testify for the prosecution and Mavromichalis ended up being convicted.

While the apparent corruption and malicious prosecution in the Mavromichalis case is alarming, the situation is even more serious in Slovakia, where the deployment of similarly unreliable witnesses to shore up weak legal cases has become so routine that one judge has likened it to a “factory”. With the coalition government in Bratislava on the verge of collapse, authorities have doubled down on anti-corruption prosecutions—mostly against figures linked to the opposition parties which are enjoying a bump in the polls.

Cases have piled up against entrepreneurs, civil servants and high-ranking politicians connected to Slovakia’s political opposition. Many of these cases rely almost exclusively on evidence from a handful of “penitents”—individuals who’ve turned government witness in order to avoid being prosecuted themselves or in exchange for a more lenient sentence.

Slovak prosecutors have built a “chain” of these witnesses and have leaned heavily on their evidence in anti-corruption prosecutions, though experts have warned of the risk that individuals under psychological and legal pressure could be tempted to give false testimony and that their evidence should always be corroborated by additional pieces of proof. The question marks over these witnesses’ reliability are only exacerbated by how prolific they are—one witness, Ludovit Mako, is testifying in more than 80 different cases—as well as by the inconsistencies and contradictions which Slovakian journalists have identified in their statements. For example, two other prominent witnesses, former financial administration chief Frantisek Imrecze and entrepreneur Michal Suchoba, claimed that a bribe was handed over in an office which did not even exist yet at the time of the alleged corruption.

Despite this collection of red flags, the European Union has yet to put significant pressure on Bratislava, though its latest rule of law report did acknowledge the allegations that Slovakia was opening corruption prosecutions for political reasons. In the absence of greater scrutiny and if the European institutions continue to hesitate to mete out real consequences for rule of law violations, however, authorities in Slovakia and Cyprus are unlikely to quash the use of questionable witnesses to prop up questionable prosecutions. Instead, their democratic backsliding may accelerate, eroding the fairness of their judicial systems still further until they are in a similar state to Hungary’s formerly independent judiciary, now “packed with party loyalists”, or Poland’s, which has experienced the steepest decline in judicial independence of any country in the world over the past four years.

This article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or management of EconoTimes

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