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Slovakia Provokes Fight With EU With Latest Judicial Overhaul

(Bloomberg) -- Slovakia approved a package that softens punishment for a raft of crimes and abolishes the special prosecutor’s office, setting up a potential battle with the European Union over accusations of weakening the fight against corruption.

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Prime Minister Robert Fico, who returned to office last year on a campaign in which he slammed the opposition for launching probes against his party, wielded his parliamentary majority to push through the changes to the criminal code. The changes shorten statutes of limitations, reduce mandatory sentences and scrap a body that had pursued the most serious corruption cases.

Slovakia’s opposition has slammed the measures as a “mafia package” that will grind high-profile investigations to a halt, many of which were directed against Fico’s allies. The prime minister’s agenda has drawn widespread protest in the country, with tens of thousands of demonstrators taking to the streets in recent months to denounce the legislation.

Slovakia’s president, Zuzana Caputova, said she’s considering a veto of the law and opposition parties vow to challenge the criminal-code overhaul in the Constitutional Court.

Fico’s path could bring Slovakia under scrutiny of the EU, which for years has challenged Hungary and Poland — including withholding billions of euros in aid — over the erosion of independent institutions and the rule of law.

While Hungary’s Viktor Orban has reinforced his challenge to the bloc’s liberal order, voters in Poland ousted a nationalist government last year in favor of one under Donald Tusk vowing to return the country to EU standards.

The criminal code changes — including shortening the statute of limitations for serious offenses to five years from 20 — would immediately end high-profile cases, including those against members of Fico’s Smer party and wealthy benefactors. Peter Kazimir, Slovakia’s central bank chief who is facing bribery charges, would also get a reprieve.

The EU’s Public Prosecutor’s Office said in December that the new criminal law could seriously affect the level of protection of EU financial interests of the EU in Slovakia.

Fico’s government approved a series of last-minute concessions to address EU objections, though the European Commission — the bloc’s executive arm — had yet to assess the final draft of the legislation. Opposition parties dismissed the concessions as cosmetic.

Should the commission’s concerns persist, it can open infringement proceedings against Slovakia.

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