EU countries want better protection for journalists against harassment claims

Luxembourg (dpa) – EU countries want journalists and human rights activists to be better protected against unjustified lawsuits. At a meeting in Luxembourg on Friday, EU justice ministers agreed that judges should be able to dismiss manifestly unfounded lawsuits in court as quickly as possible, according to a statement by the Council of Ministers. This is a crucial step to improve the protection of freedom of speech in the EU and of the work of journalists and activists, it said.

German Justice Minister Marco Buschmann said intimidation and threats at the expense of freedom of reporting were unacceptable. Freedom of the press, media and opinion was a valuable asset. Specifically, the plans concern so-called SLAPP lawsuits. The abbreviation SLAPP stands for “strategic lawsuits against public participation.” According to the Council of Ministers, there are more and more of these cases aimed at intimidating or silencing people who speak out on issues of public interest.

Another alleged aim of such proceedings is to put journalists under financial pressure. EU countries want courts to be able to rule that SLAPP plaintiffs have to bear the trial and defence costs. It was also agreed on Friday that judges should be able to impose deterrent penalties on plaintiffs.

According to a report by a coalition of non-governmental organisations from across Europe (CASE), 570 such SLAPP cases were filed in more than 30 European jurisdictions between 2010 and 2021. The agreement of the EU states was based on a proposal by the European Commission. It now has to be approved by the European Parliament. (9 June)

Brussels approves Slovenian renewable energy incentive scheme

Brussels (STA) – The European Commission has approved a 150-million-euro Slovenian scheme to promote the use of renewable energy sources. Under the scheme, aid will be granted in the form of direct grants of up to 25 million euros per beneficiary, Brussels has announced.

The Commission found that the scheme is necessary and appropriate to accelerate the transition to renewables and facilitate the development of economic activities relevant for the implementation of the REPowerEU plan and the European Green Deal.

Last September, the Slovenian government adopted the first long-term roadmap for achieving the targets to promote the production and use of renewable energy.

As explained at the time by the Slovenian Ministry of Infrastructure, the Long-term Roadmap is a key document which is both a comprehensive overview of all available measures and incentives and a basis for ensuring the stability of financial support, including through the definition of a specific earmarked use of the funding for renewable energy sources. (9 June)

Council of Europe welcomes Bulgarian reforms to ensure effective investigations

Sofia/Strasbourg/Brussels (BTA) – The Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe has welcomed the adoption of key changes to Bulgarian legislation to enable the independent investigation of offences including those committed by a Prosecutor General. Changes also introduce a judicial review of refusals to initiate pre-trial proceedings for serious crimes and for certain other crimes related to violations of the European Convention on Human Rights and corruption.

In Sofia, the Supreme Judicial Council (SJC) had for several days been considering a procedure for the early dismissal of Prosecutor General Ivan Geshev for using the expression “political garbage” in reference to MPs during a press conference. On Monday, the SJC voted to dismiss Prosecutor General Ivan Geshev. To take effect, the SJC’s decision for his early dismissal needs to be decreed by the President.

The European Commission, meanwhile, presented data showing that Bulgaria spends more on its justice system as a proportion of gross domestic product (GDP) than any other EU member state. For 2019-2021, spending amounted to around 0.7 percent of GDP. The country also has some of the highest salaries for supreme court judges and senior prosecutors relative to the average pay in Bulgaria and ranks fourth in the EU for the number of judges and ninth for the number of lawyers relative to the population.

The data also showed that, according to a poll among Bulgarian citizens, only three percent rate the independence of the Bulgarian courts as “very good”, 28 percent consider it “good”, 31 percent as “poor” and 27 percent as “very poor”.

A poll among companies showed that five percent rate the independence of the Bulgarian courts as “very good”, 27 percent as “good enough”, 33 percent as “bad” and 14 percent as “very bad”.

Nine percent of investors have very high confidence in the courts and the rule of law in Bulgaria, 34 percent have “good” confidence, 34 percent expressed a lack of confidence and 19 percent a “complete lack of confidence.”

More than half of the representatives of the business community cited political and other external influence over the system as the main reasons for their distrust. (8-9 June)

WHO: Slovakia is underutilising the opportunities offered by health data

Bratislava (TASR) – Slovakia collects enough health data but its use of that information is insufficient and often chaotic, according to experts from the World Health Organization (WHO) who visited Slovakia last week and evaluated the country’s systems for processing health data.

“Based on the findings, the experts said that communication between individual organisations and institutions in the context of data sharing is not clearly set up, which sometimes unnecessarily duplicates not only processes, but also results,” the Slovak Health Ministry said. This delays government action by forcing it to create new procedures and rules in response to crises, experts said.

The preliminary conclusions were heard by Slovak Health Minister Michal Palkovič on Friday. “Personally, I perceive the number of information systems used by individual health care providers, which, moreover, are not compatible with each other, as one of the biggest problems in the management of health data. This problem has also been pointed out by colleagues from the WHO,” the minister said.

He pointed out that Slovakia also lacked centralised data collection and had shortcomings in the security and validation of data. Thus, although the data often reached the places where it was needed, the lack of coordination of mechanisms meant that it did not reach the people who would actually be able to use it adequately in the health system.

The experts’ summary will be developed into a detailed evaluation report which should be available within weeks. “I believe that the final report from the WHO will help Slovak institutions to move where they need to go in this area, faster than we could have done on our own,” the health minister said. (9 June)

EU member states agree on solidarity mechanism and external border procedure

Luxembourg (Belga) – On Thursday night, after negotiations that dragged on for years, European Union member states agreed on a new asylum and migration management system. There will be a compulsory but flexible solidarity mechanism to better spread asylum seekers across the EU, and a new procedure at the external borders to return rejected asylum seekers faster.

An agreement was close, but still threatened to slip through the Swedish presidency’s fingers, because Italy asked for more scope to return migrants to safe third countries. In the vote on the hotly debated final compromise proposal, the Italian minister finally gave his approval. The revamped asylum and migration system guarantees Rome sufficient funds to carry out its tasks and allows it to make bilateral agreements with third countries.

Hungary and Poland were the only countries to vote against the changes, with Malta, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Lithuania and the Czech Republic abstaining. Under the new system, asylum seekers will be screened at the EU’s external borders and the member states where they arrive must provide sufficient capacity for this – in closed centres or otherwise. A lower limit has been set on the number of applications to be processed annually and the minimum number of places to be provided for this purpose.

Those not entitled to asylum should be able to be sent back more quickly; those entitled to it would enter the revamped, streamlined European asylum procedure. The first country of entry would still be responsible for handling this in most cases, but a solidarity mechanism has been devised to relieve the ‘frontline states’ – currently Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Malta and Spain. The other EU countries will have to take in a certain number of asylum seekers, or provide a sum of money per refused relocation – hence the principle of compulsory but flexible solidarity.

On Thursday, figures, amounts and targets were negotiated. It was agreed that 120,000 asylum seekers should be screened annually at the external borders and that at least 30,000 places should be provided for that purpose. Also, 30,000 asylum seekers should be spread across Europe each year on the basis of the solidarity principle, but as with asylum capacity, this is a target that will be updated each year, in relation to actual migration flows. Countries that want to pay money instead of taking in migrants will have to pay 20,000 euros per person to do so.

Member states also agreed on a distribution key for the number of migrants they take over. For Belgium, in the case of 30,000 relocations (that figure is revised every year), this would mean taking in 957 people.

Swedish Migration Minister Maria Malmer Stenergard, who chaired the meeting, said the two regulations were the cornerstones of the new migration and asylum pact, and crucial for the “balance between responsibility and solidarity.” Belgian State Secretary Nicole de Moor said a “very big hurdle” had been taken. On the two legal texts, however, member states still need to reach agreements with the European Parliament. It is possible that those negotiations won’t take place until Belgium has the rotating EU presidency, in the first half of 2024. (8 June)

This is a compilation of the European coverage of enr news agencies. It is published Tuesdays and Fridays. The content is an editorial selection based on news by the respective agency.