Dániel BarthaExecutive director of the Centre for Euro-Atlantic Integration and Democracy
Recent Polish actions to increase government control over the media and the judiciary were inspired by Hungarian examples. But Warsaw’s legal attack against the supreme court came with terrible political timing and is extremely harmful for Budapest. Cracks are visible in the cooperation among the Visegrád Group, which also includes the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Further tensions with the EU fuel existing differences at the beginning of the current Hungarian presidency of the regional grouping.
Under a 2016 proposal, the EU could launch parallel procedures against Budapest and Warsaw to suspend their voting rights under Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union, so Hungary and Poland could not veto sanctions to protect each other. From a legal and political perspective, this proposal could be easily challenged.
However, in the Polish case, it can be almost guaranteed that the EU Council of Ministers will use this article to issue Warsaw a formal warning. After that, there will be two crucial players: the center-right European People’s Party and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Both may have an important role in forcing Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to turn against the Poles. As September’s German federal election campaign intensifies, Merkel’s ability to effectively chastise the Hungarian prime minister may become a question of her legitimacy.
Vladimír BartovicDirector of the EUROPEUM Institute for European Policy
No. Unfortunately, the EU is not properly equipped to deal with violations of democratic standards by member states. For candidate countries, there are many ways to push them to stick to EU values, but once they become members, the union’s leverage is much weaker. If Hungary and Poland applied for membership today, they would not be able to join the EU.
It is politically risky to take action against member states, and the European Commission will do so only if it believes such action will be successful. It is more probable that the commission will choose to start infringement procedures in certain justified cases but will not propose the suspension of states’ voting rights under Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union. But calls for such a nuclear option can be expected from the European Parliament, which has the ambition to show political bravery and does not have to worry about a possible counterattack from the member states concerned.
The most powerful instruments to influence Hungary and Poland are in the hands of other European leaders. Their intensive and concentrated pressure can reverse the deterioration of democracy—or at least stop its further decline—in these two countries. The EU should also provide much more support to civil society, which has proved to be the strongest voice against the crackdown on democracy.
Federiga BindiSenior fellow at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, director of the Foreign Policy Initiative at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, and D. German distinguished visiting chair at Appalachian State University
No, it does not. However, it could have the right policy if it used the provisions in the Treaty on European Union for countries that do not respect democracy and fundamental rights. That means invoking Article 7, which allows the EU to suspend voting rights for a member state that does not adhere to the union’s fundamental values. The procedure to suspend Hungary’s and Poland’s voting rights must be initiated promptly if the EU wants to retain its moral capital and its ability to project soft power.
Joerg ForbrigSenior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States
Obviously not. More generally, EU conditionality—the union’s ability to punish digressions from its value system—effectively ends once a country joins the bloc. That may be an oversight in the EU treaties, or it may simply have seemed unimaginable to the idealistic founders of the European project that member states would roll back on EU staples such as the independence of the judiciary or the media.
Yet as Hungary and Poland have moved to abolish these basic principles, no direct consequences seem to flow from the EU treaties. Instead, EU institutions have struggled to respond, and roundabout sanctions are now being mulled over, such as cuts to structural funds that benefit both countries.
As much as such secondary punishments are needed as a quick fix, if only to limit the damage done to their countries by Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and Poland’s Jarosław Kaczyński, the EU will have to formulate primary responses. The union needs to amend its Copenhagen criteria for membership to include a clear set of punitive measures that kick in when an EU member violates these norms. Such an adjustment of EU legislation will be hard, given the required unanimity among members, but it will be a necessary infusion of realism to make the European project work in the long run.
István HegedűsChairman of the Hungarian Europe Society
The EU institutions and liberal-minded member governments have lost the momentum to stop Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s antiliberal turn that began in 2010. The 2013 Tavares Report, approved by most of the political groups in the European Parliament, described the risks and dangers of the Hungarian trend toward majoritarianism. But the European center-right political family, the European People’s Party (EPP), needed more time to realize that its mitigating influence on Hungary’s governing Fidesz party, a member of the EPP, was inefficient.
Today, the Hungarian emperor is naked. He has been joined by the leaders of the Polish ruling party. It has become more complicated to block, isolate, and sanction the representatives of transnational populism. The EPP, including the German ruling Christian Democratic Union, still lacks the political will to demonstrate its strength to deter Orbánism, in spite of the ongoing radicalization of the Hungarian and Polish regimes. The European Commission is hesitating to use its full toolbox of legal competencies against the two member states by introducing parallel and systemic infringement procedures.
Still, action against the populist threat will be unavoidable. Sooner or later, liberal democracies at the national and European levels will overcome their inertia. Better sooner than later.
Balázs JarábikNonresident scholar in Carnegie’s Russia and Eurasia Program
The EU may seem not to have the right policy toward Hungary and Poland, but the EU as an organization cannot have any policy toward its member states. It has rules and regulations, and Brussels’s role is to hold countries accountable to those norms. To be fair to smaller members, the EU has had mixed results in doing so.
The way the illiberal—or rather, traditionalist—turn in the two Central European member states is playing out is worrisome. Yet polarized partisan fights have characterized local politics for a long time. Brussels would be ill advised to take part in these battles, or it risks inadvertently supporting the incumbents. On the contrary, legal procedures and consistency with the EU’s mandate would strengthen the union’s credentials.
The hope that Brussels can use its weight to advance the agendas of pro-EU political parties may backfire. Even though Hungary and Poland are among the most pro-EU populations in the bloc, their Euroskeptic parties are the most popular at home. This is not a paradox but a clear trend: after two decades of integration, and in light of how the EU managed the eurozone and migration crises, citizens expect solutions and responsibility from their national governments. If it is serious about achieving a win-win situation, Brussels will need to find a way to match liberal policies with traditionalist political patterns.
Mariann ŐryHead of the foreign desk at the Hungarian conservative daily Magyar Hírlap
The European Commission’s attitude toward the Visegrád Group of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia—in particular Hungary and Poland—is highly problematic, because it seems to lack consistency and respect.
The commission’s decision to start infringement procedures against Budapest, Prague, and Warsaw for opposing the EU’s migrant-relocation mechanism, which other member states have not fully implemented either, shows double standards. This attitude, combined with harsh criticism of the Hungarian and Polish governments by European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans, might give some tiny, false momentum to the unsuccessful liberal oppositions in Hungary and Poland, but it adds far more to Euroskepticism in the two countries.
Euroskeptic feeling is fueled by disappointment from, among other things, the still-striking wage gap between Eastern and Western Europe. Constantly criticizing Central and Eastern European countries and threatening to cut the cohesion funds they receive is humiliating and reckless. In Hungary, the EU’s approval ratings are higher than in other states, so it isn’t worth wasting the EU’s good name.
As the Hungarian government has been saying, when the EU is facing its biggest set of challenges since World War II, it’s high time to take care of real problems instead of picking on economically successful member states.
Marc PieriniVisiting scholar at Carnegie Europe
Hungary and Poland are off track when it comes to EU governance norms. The European Commission has launched procedures against both countries, concerning laws on universities and civil-society organizations in Hungary and reform of the constitutional court in Poland. These legal proceedings may or may not come to a decent conclusion, but fighting populism is ultimately a task for the people.
In different ways, several EU countries are witnessing a populist wave: in Central Europe, not only Hungary and Poland but also the Czech Republic and Slovakia; in Western Europe, the Netherlands, France, the UK, Italy, and, to a lesser extent, Germany. These political trends have a few common characteristics: a taste for tradition, a rejection of diversity, a fear of differences, and, in some cases, xenophobia. Such defining elements are parts of Europe’s extreme-right tradition and were at the root of the rise of fascism in the 1930s.
The EU has investigations and infraction procedures on its books. But politics are always local, and what matters—where the vote is free and fair—is what the ballot boxes say. In the Dutch and French elections earlier this year, citizens rejected populist and fascist tendencies. This should encourage politicians across Europe to stand up to negative trends.
András RáczAssociate professor in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Pázmány Péter Catholic University
Although at first glance the two might appear similar, there are several differences between the cases of Hungary and Poland. Besides several domestic political particularities, the foreign policies of Budapest and Warsaw also differ considerably. Hungary’s close ties with Russia are in sharp contrast to Warsaw’s staunch anti-Kremlin stance. As for transatlantic relations, while U.S. President Donald Trump has just visited Poland, Budapest has long been trying in vain to receive an invitation for the Hungarian prime minister to visit the White House.
When it comes to the EU, Budapest and Warsaw have pledged several times to support each other against Brussels. However, their mutual loyalty has its limits, particularly when it comes to confronting Germany. In the social context, it is important to understand that membership of the EU has been much more of a success story for Warsaw than for Budapest, so anti-EU policies find much less fertile ground in Poland than in Hungary.
These differences might serve as the basis of a cleverly designed strategy of divide and rule by concerned EU powers. Timely action by the EU might become particularly relevant in the context of the Hungarian parliamentary election in spring 2018.
Gianni RiottaMember of the Council on Foreign Relations
No. The main tenet of the European zeitgeist is “Europe is a nice, decent community, devoid of hatred and rage”—Winnie the Pooh, not Game of Thrones. Europe’s founding fathers—Jean Monnet, Robert Schuman, Alcide De Gasperi, Konrad Adenauer, and the reluctant Winston Churchill—knew that Europe had been devastated by fateful passions more than by rational interests.
For the continent’s contemporary leaders, there is no place left for irrational behavior. Budapest and Warsaw will eventually return to being logical and will, more or less, tackle their unsavory militants. But for the time being, racism, intolerance, anti-Semitism, nationalism, and rabid populism seem deeply ingrained in the European soul. To overcome ghosts, you cannot produce a paper, convene a committee, draft a blueprint, issue a regulation, or form an advisory board. You need a soul, a spine, a set of values, and the guts to fight for them. Who has them? The year 2018 will tell.
Stephen SzaboResident senior fellow at the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies
The EU seems to be slowly trying to shape a policy toward Hungary and Poland. Earlier this year, the European Commission threatened to take the two member states to court over their refusal to accept refugees under a scheme to which all EU members had agreed. But the EU needs to address the larger threats to open societies in both countries, which are moving to create illiberal democracies by undermining the independence of the courts, the media, and civil society.
The EU has always been more than an economic association, and this is especially the case in the era of U.S. President Donald Trump. Now that the White House has not only lost interest in promoting democracy but also seems to actively promote illiberal and authoritarian regimes, the EU is the last best hope for open societies. But the union can only discipline its members if its major states are willing to support the commission in cutting off funding to those members that openly flout EU values and to suspend their voting rights in the Council of Ministers.
As an American, I can only urge Europeans to look at what is happening in my country to see the cost of not seriously combating antidemocratic forces.
Pierre VimontSenior fellow at Carnegie Europe
What has been missing in the EU’s policy toward the illiberal democracies currently on the rise in Hungary and Poland is proper timing. European institutions took far too long to react when the two countries’ governments started to bring judicial power under their control and apply gradual restrictions on the media or local associations.
An EU reaction did finally come. But it took the form of very timid debates in the Council of Ministers before member states asked the European Commission to investigate the matter. The response therefore missed the point by not emphasizing early enough what were clear violations of core principles of the EU social contract. Today, recourse to the European Court of Justice comes late and seems counterproductive, as large parts of the Hungarian and Polish populations take this move as an offense to their national pride.
As with Austria in 2000, when the EU faced a coalition government in Vienna with a far-right component, Hungary’s and Poland’s transgressions should have been tackled immediately through open and genuine political discussion among the 28 EU leaders. Whatever comes out of the current process will probably be unsatisfactory because the EU lacked a proper political reaction when the illiberal strands in Budapest and Warsaw started to gain momentum.