A summit of EU transport ministers finished this week in Brussels without any significant progress that could help the thousands of truckers stuck on the Polish-Ukrainian and Slovak-Ukrainian borders in freezing temperatures. Some reconciliatory moves were made before the summit by the Ukrainian side, which opened one extra border crossing to allow Polish hauliers with empty trucks to leave Ukraine faster. However, a deal on the major bone of contention seems no nearer: Polish truckers want the reintroduction of a system of quotas for Ukrainian hauliers entering the EU, which was lifted when the war started. The EU Commission said that’s not possible, “as it would be incompatible with the Road Transport Agreement between the EU and Ukraine, which is in force until June 2024,” a spokesperson for the EU’s department for mobility and transport told BIRN on Monday. The outgoing Polish government is still insisting the quotas should be reintroduced. Speaking on a visit to the border area at Hrebenne on Monday, Infrastructure Minister Alvin Gajadhur said: “Poland will demand that the status quo be brought back to what it was before, so that Ukrainian hauliers do not take away the market unfairly from Polish freight companies.”
This week President Andrzej Duda took two key steps to make it harder for any new government of opposition parties to reverse PiS’s justice ‘reforms’. The president appointed 76 judges nominated by the National Council of the Judiciary, which European courts have ruled is politicised, making any judges it nominates not independent as per EU law. Nevertheless, Duda continues to appoint them. He also used the last days of PM Mateusz Morawiecki’s mandate to introduces changes to the rules of the Supreme Court so that a smaller majority is now needed to make certain decisions, which would allow these aforementioned “neo-judges” (i.e., those nominated by the politicised National Council) to overrule the “older judges” (i.e., the independent ones). The new rules will most likely allow these newly appointed judges to overrule a resolution passed by the Supreme Court in January 2020 in which it disputed the legality of the politicised National Council and its judicial nominees. What Duda’s decisions mean is that PiS, despite soon to lose power, is still going to fight for control of the judiciary and that the president remains firmly in its camp, at least on this issue.
With Donald Tusk expected to be appointed PM next week (bar any unexpected developments), the daily Gazeta Wyborcza spoke to several of the journalists predicted to be appointed in key positions in state television and radio, including publishers, to see how the public media might change under a new government. Based on those sources – all speaking anonymously – Wyborcza reported that it expects one of the key positions, in charge of information programming, to be held by Tomasz Sygut, who held key positions at TVP before PiS turned the public broadcaster into a propaganda arm of the government. Sygut is also known for standing up for a colleague who was fired from TVP for conducting a too-thorough interview with the PiS culture minister, Piotr Glinski. The future publishers also spoke about the need for radical changes at the evening news programme of TVP, which has been the main propaganda tool of PiS over the past eight years.
Orban creates perfect storm ahead of EU summit; Budapest to get ‘mini-Dubai’
Hungarian PM Viktor Orban is causing frantic diplomatic manoeuvring ahead of next week’s summit of EU leaders. By staunchly opposing starting negotiations on Ukraine’s accession to the EU – Orban argued in a letter sent to European Council President Charles Michel that the issue should be taken off the agenda – the Hungarian premier drew sharp criticism from German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, who said: “We have no time for games at the moment” and warned that “peace in Europe is under attack and everything must be done to protect our people, including the people of Ukraine”. Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto shot back that Hungary was not playing games, that any Hungarian veto had nothing to do with frozen EU funds, and that opening accession talks with Ukraine at this time is not in Europe’s best interests. To save the December 13-15 summit from becoming a fiasco, French President Macron stepped in and invited Orban to Paris for a working dinner on Thursday evening. Sensing the urgency, the Ukrainian government offered a face-to-face meeting between Orban and President Volodymyr Zelensky, but Foreign Minister Szijjarto said this could only happen “if there is a chance of a positive outcome”.
Hungary’s infrastructure minister confirmed this week a “mini-Dubai” property development program for Budapest is in the works. “I would rather call it a new millennium city centre, which is rather maxi, not mini,” Janos Lazar said at his presser dubbed “Dubaiinfo”. The new district is to be created in a rundown area of the capital, possibly with skyscrapers housing offices, luxury apartments and shopping malls, as well as parks and leisure facilities. The project is reportedly to be developed by prominent Emirati businessman Mohamed Alabbar, father of Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, and the developer behind Serbia’s controversial Belgrade Waterfront project. The idea of building a “new millennium city” originated with Orban, who – recalling Budapest’s huge infrastructure and real estate development between 1870 and 1900 – wants to leave his mark on the capital. The new district won’t be completed until around 2032, but it could feature in the upcoming campaign for the local and European elections in June 2024. The government, which is trailing the opposition in Budapest, could offer voters a “grand vision of the future”, in contrast to the current opposition-led city leadership, which is struggling to keep the capital afloat (after the government cut funding), hvg.hu wrote. Orban is reported to have said he is not prepared to settle for mediocrity, with the project estimated to cost 5 billion euros, at least 1 billion of which will be funded by Hungarian taxpayers.
Finger-pointing in Czech supermarkets; no love for the EU
A finger-pointing tug-of-war is underway in Czechia after the announcement, earlier this week, that food prices will rise by between 5-10 per cent from January despite the VAT being lowered from 15 per cent to a new unified rate of 12 per cent. Angry government officials have blamed producers and retailers for the rise, with Finance Minister Zbynek Stanjura claiming there was “no reasonable reason” for the hike while accusing food chains of trying to maintain their lucrative profits to the detriment of Czech shoppers. Head of the Tourism and Trade Association Tomas Prouza instead argued that higher energy, transport and labour costs were to blame, as well as increased property taxes approved in the austerity package. Describing the government’s hopes that a new VAT would automatically result in lower prices as “naïve” and “wishful thinking”, analysts were keen to remind that the state only has a marginal influence on foodstuff prices on a small, low-competition and oligopolistic Czech retail market. With the cost of their grocery shopping ranking among Czechs’ main headaches after two years of high inflation, the bickering between producers, retailers and authorities is bound to intensify, but will do little to address the population’s concerns and restore confidence.
With six months to go before the European elections, Czechs boldly and successfully defended their title as the most Eurosceptic country in the bloc, according to the latest Eurobarometer report released on Wednesday. Less than a third of the population has a positive image of the EU, the single lowest score among the 27 member states, and up to 56 per cent argue things are going in the wrong direction in the bloc, the second highest result after the notoriously cranky French. This is tough love that doesn’t necessarily translate as a call to quit, as only one in ten Czechs believe EU membership has been a fundamentally bad thing for their country, while a significant majority agree they have benefited from joining 20 years ago. But as Czech political parties prepare for battle in the election of their next 21 MEPs in June, over 72 per cent of the population declared having no interest whatsoever in the European ballot. And with all eyes on the Hungarian government’s threats to slow Ukraine’s accession efforts, it’s Czechs themselves who are the least willing – just over a third of respondents – to speed up the EU’s enlargement process, according to the EU-wide survey.
Slovakia’s new government to scrap anti-graft office, remove whistleblower protections
The Special Prosecutor’s Office (USP), a body that has been investigating the most serious crimes in Slovakia for almost 20 years, including corruption scandals dating from the past Smer-led governments, will soon cease to exist after the new Smer-led government approved several amendments to the Criminal Code, including the cancellation of the office, on Wednesday. Parliament, which is controlled by the Smer-led coalition, is expected to pass the amendments via a fast-track legislative procedure before Christmas, and the USP should hand over its case files, closed and open, to the General Prosecutor’s Office and regional prosecutor’s offices by mid-January. Elected by the previous parliament, Special Prosecutor Daniel Lipsic was willing to tender his resignation in a bid to stop the government’s plan to abolish the office. Although Smer sees Lipsic, a former politician and lawyer known from several prominent cases, as the biggest problem of the USP, Fico is now claiming the whole office is beyond repair, as all the prosecutors are biased, political and breach human rights and freedoms. More than 40 people from the previous Smer eras have been convicted in a variety of cases over recent years. The opposition, NGOs and Council of Prosecutors have all criticised the announced changes. Prosecutor General Maros Zilinka, who has used Section 363 to scrap charges in several high-profile cases and is at odds with Lipsic, has not commented on the planned move. The EU Commission and US embassy have called on the government to put these changes on hold, as there has been no prior discussion on these changes, while President Zuzana Caputova claimed the government isn’t trying to protect the rule of law but to take revenge on the USP. A group of MPs will turn to the Constitutional Court in the hope of having the amendment regarding the USP suspended for a time.
The government also adopted a change to the law on the protection of whistleblowers. In recent months, several top investigators dealing with organised crime and corruption cases linked to Smer have been granted the status of whistleblowers and are now under its protection. The ruling coalition has been attacking these investigators and accusing them of manipulating the cases for a long time. Interior Minister Matus Sutaj Estok even suspended some of them without receiving prior consent from the Office for the Protection of Whistleblowers. Several court decisions have scrapped the minister’s orders and allowed some investigators to return to work. The recently approved change suggests police officers be exempted from being granted whistleblower status. The change should also concern the investigators who are already protected by the status. This amendment will be handled in a fast-track procedure in parliament, too. “It is not possible for people who have done wrong to hide behind purposefully changed laws,” said Fico. The lawyer for these investigators, Peter Kubina, considers the amendment to be unconstitutional.
Source : Balkan Insight