When Romania and Bulgaria joined the EU in December 2007, all the member states knew that neither country was ready.
The European Commission’s regular progress reports had repeatedly criticized the countries’ endemic corruption, the weak judiciary, the incompetent administrations, the widespread criminal networks, and the trafficking.
Nevertheless, they got in. And to compound the initial error, the EU made no workable provisions to deal with countries which disregard the rule of law once they have been admitted.
For these mistakes, Europe is now paying a high price, seeing its values being undermined from the inside in a way that debases the EU’s enlargement strategy.
The latest example is Romania, a country with a particularly weak political culture. Prime Minister Victor Ponta, a 39-year-old populist, has shocked and outraged democratic politicians with his cynical attempts to monopolize power.
Over the past several months Ponta, leader of the former communist Social Democratic Party, has been waging a relentless and unconstitutional campaign to dismiss President Traian Basescu from office.
Ponta has sacked two ombudsmen from the opposition who were tasked with following up on citizens’ complaints against government agencies.
He also dismissed the board of the National Archive Institute that was set up a few years ago to allow access to communist and the Securitate secret police files.
The same happened to the boards of the state-run television and the Institute for Investigation of Political Crimes before 1989.
The independent-spirited Monitorul Oficial, the Romanian Official Gazette is now under the control of the government; the Romanian Cultural Institute has been brought under the control of the Senate. Ponta now has a free hand to replace the management of both institutions and control what they publish.
To add insult to injury, Ponta and other ministers have been accused of plagiarism over writing their doctoral theses. So what, said the interior minister. That’s been going on since Aristotle and Plato.
Andrei Plesu, a leading Romanian philosopher and art historian wrote recently: “For some time now, I have been waking up every morning to witness the disconcerting signs of social decay.”
Depending on your view, things may be a bit better in neighboring Bulgaria. But there, too, corruption and bribery and gangsters are pervasive. Politics is an unpleasant playground for rivalries and ruthlessly pursued personal ambition.
In Hungary, Viktor Orban’s Fidesz government is making a supreme effort at establishing what I would call a ‘Fidesz State’ consisting of loyal oligarchs and journalists, judges and the security services. Transparency there, as in Romania or Bulgaria, is extremely weak.
What is taking place in these countries is shameful, both for their own citizens and for the EU as a whole. After all, the whole point of enlargement was to export and foster democracy and economic development in these countries.
On reflection, the EU can be proud of what has been achieved in two former fascist countries, Spain and Portugal that joined in 1986.
Greece, which joined in 1980 after spending years under a military junta has been more problematical, and not just because of the euro crisis. For decades now, it has been saddled with a corrupt and a thoroughly incompetent civil service. Of course the EU knew about these weaknesses, but did it ever publicly criticize the Greek government? No.
The EU also bulldozed ahead when it came to admitting eight former communist countries, including Hungary and Slovakia in 2004 and later, Romania and Bulgaria in 2007.
The EU believed it was necessary to end the Cold War division and anchor these countries to the Euro-Atlantic institution as quickly as possible.
There was also a real sense that the prospect of joining the EU would give the reforms in Eastern and Central Europe great momentum. Take that perspective away and the reforms would stop.
In some cases, this strategy worked well, such as in Poland and Estonia.
Much depends on the country’s political class and its willingness to break away from the communist legacy and modernize the political system, putting emphasis on the rule of law, the divisibility of power and the competition of ideas.
But it is true, too, that once a country has joined, Brussels loses most of the leverage it had to keep the reform momentum going.
In the case of Hungary, the EU last year withheld funds to the Orban government to force it to stop its campaign to bring Hungary’s Central Bank and other institutions under its control Orban has made some gestures to appease the EU. His critics say they are cosmetic.
The EU is now also threatening Ponta with financial reprisals.
But money alone will not fix the problem. Withholding EU grants will not make countries any less corrupt or change their political culture.
If the EU wants to uphold itself as a bastion of democracy, the rule of law and human rights, it should take a much tougher stance on member states countries that flout its rules.
It should suspend their voting rights.
That’s what EU Council President, Herman Van Rompuy, should have told Ponta during his visit last week to Brussels: abide by EU principles or you will not be allowed to vote in the council of ministers until you do.
That is possible under article 7 of the EU treaty as amended in Nice in December 2000. It states that the rights of a state can be suspended due to a “serious and persistent breach by a member state of the values of the EU, such as respect for freedom, democracy and respect for human rights.”
The reason EU heads of state and government agreed to this new provision was a huge éclat over Austria, where the leading conservatives in early 2000 chose to enter a coalition with Jorg Haider’s far-right wing Freedom Party. Lacking any other instrument, the other EU members at the time resorted to isolating the new Austrian government diplomatically.
This was very controversial at the time, leading to big splits inside the EU. But the policy had one big positive impact. It emboldened Austria’s civil society and I believe changed Austria’s political culture for the better.
Now that Europe has a proper instrument to use against member states in breach of its values, it should make us of it, and soon against Romania, Hungary and possibly even Bulgaria.
This might even ensure that the next country to join the EU in 2013, Croatia, would know that it cannot relax its efforts the day that it becomes a member.
Making proper and judicious use of article 7 may not be easy—most governments will hesitate before ganging up on each other. But it is necessary if the EU’s enlargement strategy is to be a success in the long term.