by Wessie du Toit
Tuesday, 17
November 2020

Poland and Hungary are exposing the EU’s flaws

The bloc's rosy view of liberalism was always naïve
by Wessie du Toit
Viktor Orbán (L) and Mateusz Morawiecki (R) believe they can extract more concessions from the EU

The European Union veered into another crisis on Monday, as the governments of Hungary and Poland announced they would veto the bloc’s next seven-year budget. This comes after the European Parliament and Council tried to introduce “rule of law” measures for punishing member states that breach democratic standards — measures that Budapest and Warsaw, the obvious target of such sanctions, have declared unacceptable.

As I wrote last week, it is unlikely that the disciplinary mechanism would actually have posed a major threat to either the Fidesz regime in Hungary or the Law and Justice one in Poland. These stubborn antagonists of European liberalism have long threatened to block the entire budget if it came with meaningful conditions attached. That they have used their veto anyway suggests the Hungarian and Polish governments — or at least the hardline factions within them — feel they can extract further concessions.

There’s likely to be a tense video conference on Thursday as EU leaders attempt to salvage the budget. It’s tempting to assume a compromise will be found that allows everyone to save face (that is the European way), but the ongoing impasse has angered both sides. At least one commentator has stated that further concessions to Hungary and Poland would amount to “appeasement of dictators.”

In fact compromises with illiberal forces are far from unprecedented in the history of modern democracy. The EU constitution that limits the power of federal institutions is what allows actors like Orban to misbehave — something the Hungarian Prime Minister has exploited to great effect.

And yet, it doesn’t help that the constitutional procedures in question — the treaties of the European Union — were so poorly designed in the first place. Allowing single states an effective veto over key policy areas is a recipe for dysfunction, as the EU already found out in September when Cyprus blocked sanctions against Belarus.

More to the point, the current deadlock with Hungary and Poland has come about because the existing Article 7 mechanism for disciplining member states is virtually unenforceable (both nations have been subject to Article 7 probes for several years, to no effect).

But this practical shortcoming also points to an ideological one. As European politicians have admitted, the failure to design a workable disciplinary mechanism shows the project’s architects did not take seriously the possibility that, once countries had made the democratic reforms necessary to gain access to the EU, they might, at a later date, move back in the opposite direction. Theirs was a naïve faith in the onwards march of liberal democracy.

In this sense, the crisis now surrounding the EU budget is another product of that ill-fated optimism which gripped western elites around the turn of the 21st century. Like the governing class in the United States who felt sure China would reform itself once invited into the comity of nations, the founders of the European Union had too rosy a view of liberalism’s future — and their successors are paying the price.

Join the discussion

  • The persecution of Poland and Hungary by western European media speaks not to any change in Poland or Hungary but rather to change in the western European media classes of what is or is not acceptable and a desire to force their position on other EU member states.

    In my home country of Ireland all of the judges – no matter how junior – are appointed by the 15 member government. The most recent appointment to the Irish Supreme Court (Ireland’s highest court) was made on the basis of the relevant minister bringing only a single nomination to the cabinet to consider – and the person nominated was a member of the then governing political party and had never previously held judicial office. At least three judges serving on lower courts (High Court, Court of Appeal) applied for the role but their names were not even considered.

    Again, in my home country of Ireland, under Section 52 of the Irish Universities Act 1997 “a person shall not, without the approval of the Minister [for Education], use the word “university” to describe an educational establishment or facility”.

    What’s shocking to me is that there are numerous examples in other EU member states of politicisation of the judiciary and state control of higher education of exactly the same nature or worse than those which have been the basis for complaints against Hungary and Poland. Yet the inconsistency of criticising Hungary and Poland and never even commenting on the same issues in other EU member states is hardly noted.

    The real issue here is that the usual suspects – The Netherlands and Sweden – are dragging issues into the EU budgetary process that have never previously been part of it, in what amounts to a form of neo-colonialism. Hungary and Poland rightly will take no lessons from a state like The Netherlands which for decades now had flouted international conventions on control of drugs to which it is a party and is the main centre of production for synthetic illegal drugs in Europe.

  • “Theirs was a naïve faith in the onwards march of liberal democracy.”

    * Theirs was a naïve faith in the onwards march of woke undemocracy.

  • The Hungarian government does not control the judiciary(see many unfavorable decisions ,against the government positions), did not muzzle the press(see the many critical postings and opinions published in the media-printed ,online , radio and TV) and did not lock up any opponent(please name one of these, sir, if you know one), any anybody may demonstrate peacefully against the government., constitutional changes were made according to the rule of law.
    So the case against the Hungarian government weak to nonexistent.

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