The European Parliament’s vote to trigger Article 7 proceedings against Hungary is a hugely significant step. But an important question is whether this will prompt the EU to develop a more comprehensive democracy strategy within its own borders. With the prospect of far-reaching action against the Hungarian government still uncertain—it is not clear that the European Council will move expeditiously to address the issue, let alone vote to suspend Hungary’s voting rights—the union is only in the foothills of designing a full-spectrum response to the surge in illiberal politics across Europe.
The EP’s Article 7 move may be justified and overdue; yet evidence from academic studies is that punitive measures are not usually effective in prompting governments to redemocratize in any deep-rooted fashion. They work insofar as they dovetail with strategies to boost internal constituencies in favor of reform. To date, pro-reform mobilizations have been relatively modest inside Hungary—certainly in comparison to the protests and resistance against illiberal and corrupt governments seen in many other European countries. While most press attention has been on the Article 7 question, the EU will need to develop a far wider democracy-support program in Hungary if it is to have any effect in reversing Viktor Orbán’s authoritarian slide. If experiences elsewhere in the world are anything to go by, this will need to involve strong and positive practical engagement with democratic actors on the ground across the full range of reforms needed to resurrect democratic quality.
Moreover, a more critical and serious debate might finally ensue about Hungary’s authoritarian turn—and this will open the question of other member states’ illiberal trends too. Hungary may have slipped furthest away from democracy, but other EU countries appear to be on the same path. If this week’s vote does unblock policy debates on Europe’s anti-democratic trends, the EU will need to carefully draw up criteria to justify where and when it engages in other member states besides Hungary. As democratic challenges become more pervasive across Europe—and certainly cannot be reduced to one or two errant leaders—the EU will need to map out a much more consistent policy. Efforts to defend democratic values cannot depend on expedient or chance shifts in EP voting arithmetic or the high profile of one or two particular policy issues. Rather, the EU will need well-reasoned grounds for explaining why certain actions are to be taken in one state but not another, or at one moment in time but not another.
And as the wider picture comes into focus, the EU will need to be ready to address the deeper root causes of democracy’s increasing precariousness across Europe. One lesson from democracy support across the globe is that a narrow focus on self-contained, formal institutional changes is rarely enough to achieve meaningful democratic advances. Indeed, experience shows that this is generally where such policies fail—and can even be counterproductive. EU leaders have repeated the mantra that populists often express legitimate grievances, even if their illiberal politics are unacceptable. And yet so far there is no sign of a sustained response to rejig Europe’s understanding of liberal values in a way that gets to the core of the illiberal surge.
Curiously the EU deploys a wide toolbox in support of democracy outside its borders, but does not do the same within member states. The EU needs an internal democracy strategy that looks more like its external policies. This week’s vote in the EP does not in itself ensure this will be given serious consideration; in fact, the obstacles to moving in this direction remain considerable. Even if the EU’s external democracy support itself is not in particularly good health, there are still many lessons from the EU’s global policies that could be usefully applied within Europe. A more balanced focus between internal and external democracy challenges is needed.
In Hungary the long process of (re)empowering a more democratic civil society will need serious resources and long term, and patient work on the ground. Similar engagement with civil society is needed in Poland, Romania, and elsewhere too. Efforts to protect democratic standards cannot rely primarily on legal, punitive EU processes—even if these are on occasion appropriate. The EU must think seriously about what it can and should be doing to preempt such serious measures being necessary at all. The European Commission has proposed a new “Rights and Values” fund under the EU’s new budget, but only in very modest form. This will need to be beefed up with more resources than is currently envisaged and allow the program to support a wide range of civil society voices—including genuinely autonomous democratic voices—in a way that at present is not the case.
In short, this week’s momentous vote against Hungary will only have real meaning in shoring up European democracy if it triggers a sustained and far wider series of policy commitments.
For more analysis on how to improve democracy in the European Union, explore the Reshaping European Democracy Project, a joint initiative of Carnegie’s Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program and Carnegie Europe.