The backsliding of democracy in Europe, especially Eastern Europe is troubling for integrative nature of the European Union (EU). The concept of a greater Europe is now being tested by countries pushing the boundaries of the established rule of law. Major difference lie between Western and Eastern European ideologies and is a major contributing factor to the reluctance or, in some cases, outright defiance of some countries to conform to EU standards. These differences, and how the centralised, powerful member states react to opposition, have given rise to political parties that challenge the democratic foundation of the proposed EU system.
One explanation for the ideological opposition results from the concept of forced conformity, be it politically, economically, or even socially. This idea of conforming to EU, i.e. “Western,” standards of operation is being pushed on all countries, and Hungary and Poland are cause for highest alarm in regards to it resulting in democratic backsliding as pushback. As Gábor Halmai notes, “The public of formerly agrarian societies including Hungary and Poland emphasize religion, national pride, obedience, and respect for authority, while the publics of industrial societies emphasize secularism, cosmopolitanism, autonomy, and rationality.” If the EU is to continually promote democratic values across its member states, as well as be a haven for different countries and viewpoints, social markers, like those Halmai mentions, need to be taken into stronger consideration when dealing with countries that hold different values than those held by Western EU member states. If the centralised, powerful member states of the EU wish to bring member state governments falling to democratic backsliding in line with EU standards of conformity, understanding differences social values is key. Trust networks, and thereby political parties, as described by Charles Tilly, in Eastern Europe are not as strongly developed as they are in other European nations. These trust networks, usually created through social networks, can be used as guardrails to protect democracy and strength the EU’s rule of law. But since many Eastern European nations underwent a post-communism transformation, democratic roots are not as strongly established. This is a factor when discussing the backsliding of democracy and growing indifference towards the rule of law under EU institutions.
The EU trying to force conformity of democratic ideals onto its Eastern European member states is causing problems and giving more power to non-conformist, borderline authoritarian governments, such as Hungary and Poland. The public disillusionment with social and economic measures from the EU, as put forth by David Ost, allowed Poland’s PiS, the Law and Justice Party, to progress further towards authoritarian-like power, following in the footsteps of Hungary’s Fidesz party, a consolidated authoritarian party. In both these examples, upon rise to power, the respective governments saw, and in Poland still see, the courts as a political adversary, leading two government institutions, the executive and judicial branches, to become at odds and non-mutually reenforceable. These democratic institutions consistently fight over decisions made by one another, which only hastens the breakdown of democracy and the rule of law.
The EU does have potential steps to action against these types of violations of the Treaty of the European Union. One of these would be to invoke Article 7, which would suspend voting rights of the violating country, but this requires a unanimous vote by all member states, which Hungary and Poland would undoubtedly vote against, supporting one another, thereby nullifying any and all potential sanctions against them. Another option would be to bring legal action against such countries, but these sanctions are non-consequential and unenforceable if the EU rule of law is the one being challenged to begin with. Most of the potential mechanisms afforded by the EU treaties to combat democratic backsliding are borderline laughable because they do not exert proper pressure on countries with nothing at stake, like inclusion into the Schengen Area, or the fact that the EU is hesitant to infringe on national sovereignty, which could only potentially consolidate negative sentiments between the violating country and the EU, pushing each other further away from one another.
Any choice of potential sanctions against member state by the EU can result in other issues when dealing with potential future conflicts. There is a fine line, and one that needs to be better understood before acting. Each action cannot be blanketed across all member states because each state holds different values and pressure points. What would work as a sanction against Hungary may not work as a sanction against Poland, or any other potential treaty violating member state in the future. What does need to be understood is that if the EU is to survive actions against its established rule of law by illiberal democracies, actions need to be taken quickly against these member states violating the treaties as well as building programs to prevent future blockades from occurring by others. If the EU can build such appropriate legislation, economic contracts, and social understandings, they can continue to build toward their initial purpose of a collective, integrated Europe.