Piotr BurasHead of the Warsaw Office of the European Council on Foreign Relations

According to the famous Böckenförde dilemma, “the liberal, secularized state lives by prerequisites which it cannot guarantee itself.” The same is true for the relationship between the EU and democracy in its member states.

The collapse of the democratic order is a lethal threat to the EU, but Europe cannot prevent it on its own. However, actions undertaken by the EU institutions—the European Commission and the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU)—do matter greatly as they strengthen pro-democratic forces and set limits to autocratic tendencies in member states, even if they are unable to stop them.

But the supranational institutions face limits themselves if not sufficiently backed by the member states. Hungary and Poland have shown that outsourcing the defense of EU fundamental principles to Brussels and Luxembourg—where the commission and CJEU are based—does not work. National governments and political forces committed to the liberal democratic order would have to make more decisive steps to confront the autocrats.

They should, for example, push for a transparent and fair mechanism of withholding financial assistance for countries ignoring CJEU judgments related to Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union, which outlines the union’s core values. Such a Damocles’ sword would be the means of last resort and a strong warning that solidarity and democracy are indispensable pillars of the European order.

Heather GrabbeDirector of the Open Society European Policy Institute

The EU has always been squeamish about getting involved in democratic deficits in national politics. There is still no acquis démocratique to spell out what the values in Article 2 should mean in practice, and the EU institutions have little sanctioning power.

The ruling parties in Budapest and Warsaw are using the coronavirus crisis as an excuse to grab even more executive power, knowing that the EU is powerless to save democracy in any country. Only its citizens can ultimately do that. But the EU can defend the rule of law, which is vital to its own survival as a community of law.

The slow evisceration of democracy in these member states also hollows out the community of law on which the whole EU rests. The rule of law is fundamental to trust between governments and to ensure that citizens and businesses can operate across borders without discrimination. From the single market to justice and home affairs cooperation, European integration depends on well-functioning, independent court systems at national level and checks on executive power.

What really counts now is peer pressure. More heads of state and government must speak up, privately and publicly, to stop the corruption of institutions in two countries from undermining the EU’s foundations as a community of law and its soul as a community of values.

John LoughAssociate Fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House

EU countries must act to prevent further erosion of democracy in Poland and Hungary.

The situation calls for urgent coordination among leading European countries to deliver messages bilaterally to Budapest and Warsaw about the damage they are doing not just to themselves but also to the EU and its wider interests. Not only are they playing into Russia’s hands by undermining the credibility of European values, they are damaging the credibility of the EU as a modernizing force in Ukraine.

If Europe does not stand up for its principles, how can it show democratically minded Russians that it stands with them and opposes President Vladimir Putin’s attempts to stay in power indefinitely? How can it promote judicial reform in Ukraine if it fails to argue a stronger case in Warsaw?

There is a wider security dimension to Poland and Hungary’s actions that both seem happy to ignore. Warsaw screams blue murder about Nord Stream 2 and Europe’s energy security but seemingly has no problem handing Moscow a propaganda victory by challenging fundamental democratic principles. Similarly, Hungary wishes to continue to benefit from NATO membership but is happy to ignore its democratic commitments.

It is time for some very hard conversations.

Jovana MarovićExecutive Director of Politikon Network

Yes, but the EU has to take radical measures! The disciplinary actions taken so far have not been effective and the mechanisms available at the EU level are limited.

Now is the chance for the EU to introduce a credible response and to put member states in a position where they must choose between autocratic practices and unlimited power, on the one hand, and benefits deriving from EU membership, on the other. The EU is strongly shaken by the coronavirus crisis but must not tolerate a suspension of democracy in its own backyard—regardless of the circumstances.

In February 2020, the commission announced a new EU enlargement methodology with a system of punishment and reward for the Western Balkans depending on the state of the rule of law in each country. This system includes conditional access to EU funds, which now takes on a whole new dimension. These instruments should also be applied to member states.

Such an approach should be further developed, and the EU’s strategy should go toward strengthening democracy at all levels, inside and out, which is the only possible way to consolidate it. The democratic setbacks in Hungary and Poland are a threat to all. This is not a moment to turn a blind eye.

Milan NičHead of the Robert Bosch Center for Central and Eastern Europe, Russia, and Central Asia at the German Council on Foreign Relations

No, it can do much less than local actors. But Europe should speak out and draw political consequences. Sadly, as EU leaders deal with the pandemic and the coming great recession, it will be much more difficult than before.

Although democracy is listed among membership principles in the Treaty on European Union, its track record in defending it has been weak. Look at Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party has been dismantling democratic governance since 2010. His rule by decree adopted on March 30 in the pretext of fighting the pandemic was not a turning point, just another move in a long-term trajectory.

Through small steps engineered in a way that makes them hard to understand from a legal perspective, he’s been gradually choking opposition parties (taking half of their budgets), cutting tax income for opposition-led cities, and buying remaining independent online media. This quiet surge has been taking place under the radar while Orbán and his ambassadors throughout Europe aggressively promote the official narrative.

In contrast, the Polish government’s plan to hold a presidential election via postal voting in May—now postponed—has drawn more attention. Also, domestic pushback has been stronger than in Hungary. The original date for the poll would have been deeply undemocratic, and the compromise deal in Warsaw at the very last minute was driven by domestic actors but also by concerns for the damage done to Poland’s position in Europe.

In both cases, it is now more important than ever for European institutions and experts to follow facts on the ground and speak out.

Mariann ŐryHead of the Foreign Desk and Senior Editor at Magyar Hírlap

It’s not the state of democracy in Hungary and Poland but the new coronavirus that should be the top priority of European leaders today.

We see striking double standards—as pointed out by the Hudson Institute’s John Fonte on April 20. The Hungarian and Polish governments are being targeted mainly because they are right-wing and sovereignist. Interestingly, the French, Italian, or Spanish governments are not facing the same treatment; being left-liberal makes their concentration of power way less suspicious, it seems.

Hungary’s emergency legislation is connected to the existence of an actual danger. When the pandemic—this objective factor—is gone, the emergency legislation will be over as well. The powers of the parliament are not limited, on the contrary. Even European Commission Vice President Věra Jourová has concluded that the Hungarian coronavirus law is not against EU rules.

Nevertheless, the hysteria is still not over. We should return to this issue once the pandemic is over and examine where it led to lasting legal changes. There might be surprises!

Oana Popescu-ZamfirDirector of GlobalFocus Center and former Romanian State Secretary for European Affairs

Europe, maybe. The EU, probably not.

The Hungarian and Polish governments know they can act with impunity. Firstly, for political reasons: Brussels lacks the mechanisms or the will to sanction democratic backsliding, and European political families will stick to partisan interests. And, secondly, for economic reasons: Western European investment (including German!) will continue to fuel their political survival.

Cohesive political-economic EU action could easily pressure them, but such alignment, already unlikely, has been rendered virtually impossible by the crisis. Mutual reinforcement between Budapest and Warsaw also ensures that EU action against either is seen as “old” versus “new” Europe, and the EU will seek to avoid such fractures.

Overall, Fidesz and Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party have no incentive to abandon a brand strategy that secures domestic political capital and a strong negotiating position with other EU members, including to get structural funds. The only thing that could turn Budapest and Warsaw is the popular vote—and this will ultimately, despite everything, be driven by their respective societies’ growing convergence with Europe and European values.

Daniel SmilovAssociate Professor at the University of Sofia and Programme Director at the Centre for Liberal Strategies

Europe has to take a stance on Hungary and Poland.

First, there must be a strong political declaration by the leaders of the EU countries and the major political groups of the European Parliament, such as the center-right European People’s Party (EPP) of which Fidesz is a member, that an indefinite emergency suspension of parliamentarianism is unacceptable. That means pointing out Hungary in particular.

Second, EU courts should present specific judgments regarding concrete faults in the rule of law systems of Hungary and Poland. Such decisions already exist and should, in case of noncompliance, be followed by financial penalties until the problems are resolved.

Third, EU funds need to be suspended for specific and concrete violations of EU rules, such as indefinite emergency laws, unconstitutional appointments and dismissals of judges, and expulsions of universities and NGOs. Both countries have a list of such violations of basic democratic principles for which they have not been properly confronted.

It is very important that the EU does not aim to produce a general condemnation of the political regimes of Orbán and PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński. After all, they do have democratic mandates to govern. Rather, the focus should be specific: making sure that the most serious deviations from democratic standards are removed.

Zsuzsanna SzelényiRichard von Weizsäcker Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy

The coronavirus pandemic is bolstering social anxiety and will have a lasting impact on Europe’s economy and society. When the crisis hit Europe, Orbán did not hesitate to use his power and announce an unlimited state of emergency with a carte-blanche rule for his government.

The various institutions of the EU have long hesitated over how to treat Orbán and his troublesome politics. The weak legal tools, various particular interests, and lack of satisfactory political will has stopped the European political elite from developing an unequivocal strategy with the provocative “family member.”

Is now the right time to change course? In crisis management, essential, action-oriented politics seems to be the norm. It’s difficult to see when the time will be “appropriate” to discuss issues like the rule of law. However, during a crisis people must adapt quickly to new situations, and there is a special opportunity to shape or reshape people’s mindsets.

I am convinced that this is the perfect time to demonstrate how we want to live together in the future in a pluralist society. Unless Europe, including the EPP’s Christian Democrats, act firmly and clearly now, Orbán and his friends will successfully pack their crude power-politics into a crisis-management wrapping, offering room for the far right to gain yet more momentum in Europe. Political leadership is tested far beyond the daily crisis management.

Richard YoungsSenior Fellow in the Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program at Carnegie Europe

On this now much-ruminated issue, European measures have moved modest steps forward in the last year, with a wider use of legal infringement proceedings, a new rule of law framework, more debate about conditionality being attached to EU funds, and talks over a European Values Instrument. Orbán’s coronavirus power grab is so blatant that it has (mildly) increased pressure on him from within the EPP.

While the case for more significant advances in all these approaches is strong, it is far from certain that even dramatic policy upgrades would “save democracy” in Hungary and Poland. A staple finding of analytical work on democratization is that external factors are only effective to the extent that they latch onto the primary agency of domestic forces. This is a concern because debates about EU responses tend to be very instrument-based: they revolve around what articles and legal processes the EU has at its disposal, rather than working upward from a mapping of where and how locally driven reform momentum is likely to accumulate.

While at one level the pandemic has been a boon for illiberal regimes, a classic point in studies of democratization is that autocratic regimes are especially vulnerable in moments of crisis as they lack the intrinsic legitimacy of democratic systems. Poor performance in dealing with the crisis may yet put the Hungarian and Polish regimes on the back foot. Crucially, this is what may open up local access points to help foster reform from below.