Most European leaders were unambiguous about what happened on January 6, 2021, in Washington, DC, when angry supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol.

For them, the citadel of democracy was attacked.

Judy Dempsey
Dempsey is a nonresident senior fellow at Carnegie Europe and editor in chief of Strategic Europe.
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“It must be a wake-up call” for defenders of democracy, the EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, wrote on his regular blog. “We must stand up immediately to every violation of the independence of democratic institutions, . . . to every inflammatory and hateful speech by demagogues, to every disinformation campaign and fake news,” he added.

If only Europe’s leaders did just that. The longer they do not openly and robustly criticize those governments inside the EU that are eroding the bloc’s values and principles, the greater the possibility that European democracy will be irreversibly weakened. At stake is the erosion of the Europe that emerged after the devastation of World War II.

The post-1945 era ended centuries of enmity and war between France and Germany. With immense support from the United States, Europe edged toward peace, integration, unity, and democracy.

One of the crowning achievements of the post-1945 period was how the European Union managed to integrate countries scarred by military juntas, fascist rule, and communist dictatorships. It was a monumental triumph based on optimism and anchored on democratic principles.

But so much attention in recent years has been on the United States and especially China—and not on what is happening to Europe’s own democracy. Yet if the EU was fully committed to democratic principles and institutions, such a moral compass should be enough to deal with authoritarian regimes such as China, Russia, and Turkey.

When the EU does business with these regimes, its very values should endow it with enough leverage to strike deals that are based on the rule of law, human rights, and values. The contrary happened at the end of December 2020 when the EU, pushed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, struck a major investment deal with China. Interests prevailed over values in a way that is increasingly characteristic of the EU.

The deal shows that the single biggest issue facing Europe is its own inability to defend what it has built since 1945: thriving democracies based on the rule of law, accountability, an independent judiciary, and—above all—the competition of ideas.

It is not inevitable that these precious qualities will be replaced by pseudo-authoritarian governments whose leaders use the very instruments of democracy to achieve power and exercise it on their own terms.

But the way in which leaders of the EU’s institutions and member states have tolerated what is taking place in Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, and Romania shows a collective weakness and reluctance to halt the erosion of democracy.

EU leaders in Brussels have watched how Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party—an incongruous name for this party—has been systematically chiseling away at the independence of the Polish judiciary since coming to power in 2015.

In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s governing Fidesz party has gotten away with consolidating power since 2010 by misusing EU funds, suffocating independent academic institutions, curtailing NGOs, and controlling the media through Orbán’s cronies.

Those European leaders who have captured power—aiming to curtail political competition and, ultimately, democracy—have gotten a free ride by the EU. Yes, EU leaders finally agreed at a summit in December to link the distribution of EU funds to a member state’s adherence to the rule of law. But this is a process. It is far from certain such measures will ever be applied.

For example, the European People’s Party (EPP), the caucus in the European Parliament that represents conservative parties, still continues to refuse to expel Fidesz, a member party.

In a recent interview about this issue, Manfred Weber, chairman of the EPP, passed the buck to whoever replaces Merkel as leader of Germany’s Christian Democratic Union, the EPP’s biggest member party. Merkel’s successor “has a great responsibility” about whether Fidesz should remain in the EPP, he said. “It is certainly going to be one of their first decisions to take.”

Really? Couldn’t Weber or Merkel have spoken out loudly and clearly a long time ago about how Orbán and other leaders are tearing away at the fabric of democracy?

Speaking out matters. It is what citizens are doing day in, day out, in Belarus ever since August 9 when Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko claimed victory for a sixth term in what was widely regarded as a rigged presidential election.

Since then, according to human rights organizations, over 30,000 Belarusians have been detained for protesting peacefully.

As if the president of the International Ice Hockey Federation, Rene Fasel, didn’t know about that. He received a bear hug in Minsk from Lukashenko on January 11, 2021. It’s as if both men are confident Belarus can host the world hockey championship anyway.

Just as Orbán and Kaczyński are confident that the EU will remain silent over the ebbing of its own democratic values.