Poland and Hungary are blocking the EU budget and coronavirus recovery plan to avoid tying it to rule of law. These are the very governments that are facing procedures under Article 7.1 of the Treaty on European Union as to whether they are violating the EU’s founding values.

Functioning justice systems, anti-corruption frameworks, media pluralism and freedom, and other institutional issues related to the checks and balances are essential to an effective system of democratic governance but are often overlooked or outright violated.

Here are five ways this is happening right now in Europe and why this is a problem.

LGBTQ+ and Women’s Rights

In October, Przemyslaw Czarnek, who is opposed to LGBTQI+ rights and women’s rights, got a ministerial post in government. While plans to ban abortion have been stalled after they sparked national mass demonstrations, the situation is still far from safe or stable for women in Poland.

Although the Hungarian Commissioner for Fundamental Rights stopped the application of a law that bans the legal gender recognition of transgender and intersex people, the Hungarian government has used the Covid-19 pandemic to pass a law to make it impossible for transgender or intersex people to change their gender legally.

EU member states should ensure that despite lockdown measures, vulnerable LGBTI+ groups receive social and institutional support. Instead, there have been increased reports of violence and abuse against members of the LGBTQI+ community, and right-wing governments’ hateful rhetoric has worsened the situation.

Freedom of the press

Media concentration in countries such as Hungary is very real: there are only a few free voices there against the government’s harmful narratives and fake news. Moreover, Hungary has increasingly restricted free media since 2018 when Lőrinc Mészáros, a figure with ties to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, took over the Central European Press and Media Foundation (KESMA), an association of almost 500 portals in Hungary.


In forcing the Central European University out of Budapest, Hungary violated the freedom of academic institutions, as the European Court of Justice ruled in October. Introducing tuition fees in higher education has also made it more inaccessible, deepening inequalities in the country.

The public education system has also been severely restricted. Curriculums were consolidated to align with government plans to ideologically influence citizens on issues such as. gender roles or refugees. Compulsory education has also been reduced to finish at the age of 16. 


With the seventh amendment to the Fundamental Law of Hungary (the country’s constitution), the government prohibited homelessness in 2018, years after harassing and criminalising homeless people in various cities and communities. 

Yet, more than 15,000 people are homeless in Hungary – with at least 70,000 are at direct risk of homelessness. 

The judiciary

Both Hungary and Poland have lowered the retirement age for judges in their respective constitutional courts, violating the EU principle of judicial independence and non-discrimination based on age.

Though rule of law is part of the EU Treaty, EU law does not regulate judicial systems. These violations, however, led the court of justice of the EU to overruling national legislation on the judiciary for the first time, leading to financial penalties for the countries. As a result, Orbán recently suspended plans to introduce a new parallel administrative courts system.

In March 2019, the Commission opened a new infringement procedure against Poland — this time because of the new disciplinary system for judges, which grants enormous powers to the minister of justice and institutions controlled by the government.

The recent “Rule of Law Report” by the European Commission finds that the judiciary systems in Hungary and Poland are under threat. Hungary responded very negatively to the report, claiming it was being discriminated against. 

Checks and Balances

While Hungary’s emergency law to fight COVID-19 has expired, a new law is about to be introduced to allow Orbán to rule by decree, with even fewer checks on his power. It excludes parliament from the decision-making process if the emergency act should be reintroduced. Just another example of how Orbán has been exploiting the pandemic to push through his political agenda beyond health or economic concerns, including attacks on data protection for example.


Text drafted by Esmeralda Altmeyer

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