The Rule of Law in Eastern Europe - Hungary and Poland in Comparison

By Stefanie Kaiser Feb. 9, 2021 Weekly Graphs

On November 15, Poland and Hungary vetoed the EU budget and the coronavirus recovery plan. The reason was that funding was supposed to be conditional on respect for democratic standards and the rule of law. Both countries have a mixed track record in this regard. Hungary and Poland are the only EU member states against which the article 7 procedure of the Treaty of the European Union was initiated to prevent a systemic threat to the Union’s founding values. In September, the EU published the 2020 Rule of law report, which highlighted the declining levels of the rule of law in Hungary and Poland and reflected concerns that the European Union has failed to combat democratic backsliding among its members. Moreover, the V-Dem Democracy Report 2020 shows that Hungary is among the top 10% of autocratizing countries between 2009 and 2019.

The graph below shows a comparison of changes in V-Dem’s rule of law index for East-Central Europe between 2000 and 2019. The index measures the extent to which laws are transparently, independently, predictably, impartially, and equally enforced, and government officials comply with the law. It ranges from 0 to 1, with higher scores indicating better enforcement of the rule of law. Countries above the diagonal line saw an improvement in the rule of law; in countries below the line, the rule of law is worse in 2019 compared to 2000. The two countries that stand out are Hungary and Poland. Their scores on the rule of law index decreased from 0.89 to 0.71 and from 0.96 to 0.83, respectively. 

There are several concrete examples of how political leaders in these countries have undermined the independence of the judiciary. In 2018, the Hungarian parliament passed a law that created a separate administrative court system that handles cases directly affecting basic human rights, such as elections, the right to asylum, and the right to assembly. Furthermore, the minister of justice has wide-ranging powers under the law: he can appoint judges and court presidents and decide on court budgets without judicial oversight. 

Poland’s ruling party, the right-wing Law and Justice Party (PiS), has been limiting the independence of the judiciary since it came to power in 2015. As in Hungary, PiS introduced laws that gave the legislature the power to hire and dismiss judges at all court levels. The legislature removed some sitting judges from their positions. Moreover, the Constitutional Tribunal, responsible for reviewing the compliance of laws with the constitution, has been weakened by the government’s refusal to implement several of its judgments. 

At the European Summit in Brussels on December 10, the EU struck a compromise with Hungary and Poland, unblocking the EU budget plan. However, experts are afraid that this compromise could delay the enforcement of the democratic standards linked to the budget plan.


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