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EU grapples with signs of eroding democracy in Poland, Hungary

LUXEMBOURG (Reuters) - European Union ministers discussed for the sixth time on Tuesday concerns that Poland’s ruling nationalists are undercutting democratic institutions in their country, although ultimately there may be little the bloc can do about the problem.

FILE PHOTO: Poland's Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki during cabinet meeting in Warsaw, June 12, 2018. Agencja Gazeta/Slawomir Kaminski via REUTERS

Concerns have grown in the EU since Warsaw accelerated its judicial overhaul despite a related legal case pending in the bloc’s top court.

The gathering of 28 EU ministers in Luxembourg on Tuesday aired similar concerns over the rule of law in Hungary, another eastern ex-communist country, where euroskeptic ruler Viktor Orban has tightened controls on the media, courts and NGOs.

“Things have not improved, they have deteriorated,” the Commission’s deputy head, Frans Timmermans, told a news conference after the meeting.

“Especially disappointing I find the fact that, although now there is a procedure before the European Court of Justice, the Polish authorities have not used the fact that there is this procedure to stop the implementation of the reform of the Supreme Court and have actually sped it up by nominating more judges at that court.”

Diplomats said the ministers would return to the matter in November or December.

The EU has opened punitive procedures against both Poland and Hungary under Article 7 of its treaties on how to deal with states that flout the bloc’s founding values including democracy and the rule of law.

This could in theory lead to these countries losing their voting rights in the EU, although in practice that is highly unlikely and the procedure is more of a blow to their reputation. Any actual punishment would require all other member states to agree to it in unanimity.

The painstaking process highlights how ill-equipped the EU is to stand up to its own members taking an illiberal course.

Warsaw pressed ahead this month with changes to its Supreme Court despite the country’s Administrative Court saying the process of appointing new judges should be halted.

Many Polish judges have been forced into early retirement by new laws pushed through parliament by the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party.

The EU, international judicial organizations and rights groups have all denounced this as political meddling that undermines the fundamental democratic principle of the independence of courts.

“Poland did not wait for the decision of the ECJ and has taken actions which will be difficult to change afterwards,” France’s EU minister Nathalie Loiseau told the meeting in a joint statement with Germany.

Belgium’s Didier Reynders said the problem with EU states flouting the bloc’s basic democratic tenets was broader, listing Hungary and Romania as other examples.

Concerns about how healthy some democracies are among the 28 member states have also focused on anti-graft reforms in Romania and the murdering of journalists investigating state corruption in Malta and Slovakia.

Tuesday marks the first anniversary of the killing of Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, a case that has yet to be explained in full.

Reporting by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Hugh Lawson