After years of build-up, the European values crisis is close to its climax. Defiance of core EU principles by the Polish and Hungarian governments is steadily turning into a political crisis. The European Commission that has taken legal action against both Warsaw and Budapest for violating specific EU laws is now pondering suspending some of the member states’ rights in case of Poland. The European Parliament is generally supportive of this course and would like to see further action in case of Hungary as well. However, Polish and Hungarian governments will truly feel the heat only if the leaders of other EU member states get actively involved.
The EU’s role in protecting core democratic values in its member states’ domestic affairs has evolved significantly over last 20 years. Initially, European integration was primarily about economic integration but the creation of a common set of values such as the rule of law, democracy and human rights was a prerequisite to ensuring a degree of certainty and stability conducive to foreign investment and economic growth. The EU’s legal framework proved to be remarkably resilient during recent crises but now its very foundations are under attack from the inside.
The EU institutions are currently running against the global trend skewing towards illiberal values and nationalism. Yet, the EU’s legal and normative framework is under threat and if the EU allows these two member states to get away with reneging on core values, this might prove to be contagious both within the bloc and in the EU’s neighborhood. More governments will feel tempted to “rewrite” constitutional checks and balances, intimidate journalists and close down critical voices in universities and non-governmental organizations.
Brussels’ role is not to get involved in the domestic political fights of the EU’s member states as the EU capitals should remain free to decide on their own constitutional arrangements through national democratic processes. However, the EU’s institutions have to defend common standards on the core obligations that enable the members to rely on the fact that everyone will stick to their commitments. Moreover, they also must ensure that citizens and firms can operate throughout the bloc without discrimination and the rule of law is key to the trust.
The number one priority for now is to sustain, target and coordinate the campaign by national leaders at two levels. The first is for EU heads of state and government to persuade Polish and Hungarian leaders to backtrack by hearing tough words from their fellow EU counterparts. Both governments in question need to know that if they do not change the course, they will have to pay a high price. At the same time, national capitals have to communicate publicly why the EU values are so essential to the functioning of policies that benefit European citizens.
The ultimate hope, however, lies with those Poles and Hungarians who have been tirelessly protesting against the attempts to capture their countries by the respective unscrupulous and shortsighted elites. They need to hear clearly the support of other Europeans namely to recognize that safeguarding democracy and the rule of law in their countries matters for everyone.
‘Defending EU Values in Poland and Hungary’ – Analysis by Heather Grabbe and Stefan Lehne – Carnegie Europe.