When the European Union’s top court this week cleared the way to cut billions of euros in funding for Poland and Hungary over violating democratic rights, it was a big win for women’s rights groups, who have been sounding the alarm against the conservative Polish leadership for chipping away at the rights of the country’s women and girls.
In a landmark decision, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) on Wednesday ruled in favour of making members’ access to EU cash handouts conditional on them complying with the EU’s core values and laws.
The ruling on the “conditionality mechanism” infuriated Poland and Hungary, who have both been treading on thin ice in recent years with regard to the EU’s wider rights principles. Warsaw responded by slamming the decision as “worrying and dangerous” for its sovereignty, while Hungary, whose populist government faces an election on April 3, denounced it as “politically motivated”.
Most of their fellow EU members, however, hailed the decision. France described it as “good news” while the Netherlands said it was an “important milestone”. The message from human rights groups was crisp and clear: ”Hungary and Poland have been rapidly backsliding on media freedom, independence of judges, the right to protest. Instead of trying to oppose EU funds being conditional on respect for the rule of law, they should respect people’s rights and clean up their act,” Amnesty International said in a statement. Women’s rights groups in particular, including the Centre for Reproductive Rights and the Federation for Women and Family Planning, welcomed the decision, noting Poland’s current laws “endangers women’s lives”.
“It is incredibly important that the European Union takes these kind of actions to put as much pressure as they can on the Polish government to stop this very grave crisis," Leah Hoctor, the regional director for Europe at the Centre for Reproductive Rights told FRANCE 24, adding that withdrawing funds under the conditionality mechanism would be “perfectly legal".
In its decision, the ECJ underscored just that. When Poland and Hungary joined the EU in 2004, they said, they both agreed to adhere to the bloc’s “common values … such as the rule of law and solidarity”, and the EU “must be able to defend those values”.
Strictest abortion laws in Europe
Hungary’s conservative government has long been at a loggerheads with Brussels over public procurement, conflict of interests, corruption and most recently a controversial anti-LGBT law banning schools from using any material that “promote” homosexuality or gender change.
Poland, on the other hand, has angered the EU by reforming its judicial system in a manner which critics say is undermining judges’ independence, while in October of last year, the country’s constitutional court ruled that Polish laws have a bearing over EU laws. The Polish government, which is led by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party and has strong links to the country’s conservative Catholics, has also taken a swing at women’s rights, including the right to abortion.
On January 27 of last year, Poland tightened its already strict abortion laws, making it illegal to terminate pretty much any pregnancy, even if the fetus is suffering from severe defects. The only exceptions to the law is if the conception has taken place through rape or incest, or if the pregnancy poses a threat to the mother’s life.
“In practice, however, it is almost impossible for those eligible for a legal abortion to obtain one,” Amnesty said in a January 26, 2022, statement.
Poland, along with Malta, now has the strictest abortion laws in Europe.
‘Women have died’
In September last year, a 30-year-old Polish woman by the name of Izabela died of septic shock after her doctors refused to perform a life-saving abortion as long as the fetus was still alive. The event drove tens of thousands of people out into Polish streets to protest, and prompted the EU parliament in November to adopt a resolution stating that “no more women should die because of [Poland’s] restrictive law on abortion”.
In December, EU lawmakers again criticised Poland’s “backsliding on the rule of law and fundamental rights”, after a new government proposal that would oblige Polish doctors to report all pregnancies and miscarriages in a centralised register.
Hoctor likened the proposal to a witch-hunt. "It means that there will be a method of surveillance of all people during their pregnancy," she said, noting that women travelling abroad to terminate their pregnancies may now risk sanctions upon their returns.
On January 25 of this year, almost to the day of the one-year anniversary of the controversial abortion law, another Polish woman lost her life after doctors refused to terminate her pregnancy.
“Women have now died as a result of the crisis,” Hoctor said. “They are paying a high price.”
Hoctor said her organisation is also deeply concerned with Poland’s new anti-sex education bill, which was adopted on January 13. Under the new legislation, supervisors and teachers should block any programming that are deemed to be “a threat to the morality of children”.
With the ECJ’s decision, Poland and Hungary now risk being sanctioned in two parts: through Article 7, which means they can temporarily be stripped of their EU voting rights, or through the conditionality mechanism, which can block them from receiving EU funds.
EU’s foreign ministers are set to meet on Article 7 on February 22. “We ask all EU ministers who will attend this hearing and who will speak to the government about the rule-of-law crisis to be a voice for the women and girls in Poland who have no voice,” Hoctor said. Up until now, however, Article 7 has proved almost impossible to trigger.
Activating the conditionality mechanism is whole other process, and will need to go through the European Commission. Since it has never been applied before, it may take weeks or months to trigger.
In the meantime, Poland and Hungary have threatened to retaliate against the bloc by stalling other EU decisions that require unanimity, including on climate and energy, as well as foreign policy.
This article has been translated from the original in French.