EU told Slovakia that its reforms risked ‘irreparable damage’ to rule of law

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Brussels told Slovakia it risked doing “irreparable damage” to the rule of law, it has emerged, before the country’s MPs approved legal reforms that critics say are aimed at protecting the prime minister’s political and business allies.

The Slovakian news outlet SME reported on Wednesday that the European commissioner for justice, Didier Reynders, had written last week to Robert Fico’s government urging it not to fast-track the legislative package through parliament.

The request was ignored and the changes – including scrapping a special prosecutor’s office dealing with high-level corruption, lowering penalties for financial crimes and cutting the statute of limitations for rape – passed by a narrow majority last Thursday.

Fico, who returned to power for a fourth time last October after a spell in opposition, said the package was necessary to end what he has called “excesses” at the special prosecutor’s office and bias against his ruling populist Smer-SSD party.

Opposition parties, and tens of thousands of Slovakian citizens who have protested against the reforms at rallies across the country in recent weeks, have argued that the changes amount to an amnesty for Fico’s inner circle and will prevent investigations.

SME said Reynders had told Slovakia’s justice minister, Boris Susko, that the commission would be forced to respond to the judicial changes, because they would have an impact on aspects of European law and potentially the EU’s financial interests.

Slovakia faced, at best, a lawsuit at the European court of justice and a fine, the broadsheet said, and at worst a suspension of EU funds under the so-called rule of law conditionality, a mechanism already invoked against Poland and Hungary.

Slovakia’s president, Zuzana Čaputová, who has a veto over new legislation, has called the reforms “bad news for Slovakia and all its citizens” and said she was considering “all possible courses of action” to ensure they did not come into force.

The changes lower sentences for financial crimes including misuse of EU money, corruption, tax fraud, theft and manipulation of public tenders, and shorten the statute of limitations, with rape becoming unpunishable after 10 years rather than 20.

The special prosecutor’s office, which faces closure by mid-March, has opened more than 100 cases against business leaders, members of the judiciary and police after the previous government was elected in 2020 on a pledge to fight official corruption.

Fico was among those who faced police charges, although they were later dropped. Despite his pre-election promise “not to send another bullet” to Ukraine, Slovakian MPs last month backed a bill allowing the defence ministry to approve arms exports to Kyiv.

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