The European Union is failing to maintain democracy in their member states. Not only are they failing to threaten these countries into cooperating, they may also be creating an environment that strengthens these leaders and their anti-democratic ways.
Let me paint a picture. The EU is playing a game of tug of war. Hungary and Poland are on one side, and on the other is the rest of the European Union member states. On the EU side some countries are really pulling, some countries are lightly pulling but still trying to make it look like they are also pulling hard, and some countries are there, but barely pulling. The game is in a sort of stalemate, and Poland and Hungary aren’t even trying that hard. This stalemate has arisen in the European Union due to the limited options they have to regulate each other’s democracies.
The EU has set itself up for failure both through the mechanisms it has at its disposal to handle countries with democratic erosion, and through their past experience dealing with Hungary. Failure to act harshly against the rise of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in Hungary has crippled the EU and signaled to other authoritarian leaders that they would likely not face strong consequences if they followed the path Hungary laid out. So far, Poland seems to be following in Hungary’s footsteps.
The EU has a few key tools to punish or threaten member states who are misbehaving into conforming to their values. These include sanctions, suspension of EU funding, and stripping countries of their voting rights. Article 7 of the Lisbon Treaty provides this last and strongest threat, the removal of the right to vote in EU proceedings, but it is seriously flawed. This requires unanimous agreement, and Poland and Hungary could shield each other from this extreme. Historic steps have been taken towards initiating Article 7 against Poland, but all parties know that Hungary would not support removal of Poland’s voting rights.
Another option is reduction or removal of funding. This may seem like a substantial threat to Poland and Hungary (the largest overall recipient of EU funding and one of the largest per capita recipients respectively) but in reality these threats also fail to show real teeth. In May of 2018, the European Commission announced a plan to tie the EU’s funds a country receives to the condition of the member state’s judicial independence and rule of law. However, in October of this year, Germany announced the watered-down text of this proposal. Again, a few states could vote against the actions and could stall the implementation of sanctions leaving it without a real chance of implementation. Even more alarming, however, is the text itself. The only violations that could trigger these sanctions would be those related to fraud or corruption. This no longer has any power over countries who seek to control their media, limit civil society’s actions, or take steps to interfere with an independent judiciary. The EU knew that it wouldn’t be accepted so they proposed these weak mechanisms, and Hungary still refused. Prime Minister Orbán threatened to veto the EU multi-annual budget which also requires unanimity to pass.
Sanctions have shown some promise in Romania. The EU threatened sanctions on Romania during its 2012 constitutional crisis and the Prime Minister, Victor Ponta, backed down in his efforts against the Courts. However, sanctions are hard to get approved and are initiated by warnings that barely hold any weight. They have not been taken seriously against Poland or Hungary.
Clearly, the EU’s options are limited, and the actions they are taking don’t seem to make a difference in the democratic erosion and authoritarian consolidation taking place in their bloc. This leads us to ask, are they causing more harm than good? Are their attempts to punish these countries and threaten them into cooperation backfiring?
The answer is yes. As Müller argued in his book What is Populism, often times the opponents of populist leaders face a difficult challenge in fighting against populist rhetoric and actions, and their tactics backfire. These leaders spin the oppositions strategies and still garner support from their base claiming that the opposition is acting against the good of their people. The same is true in the case of the EU vs. authoritarian and populist leaders such as Prime Minister Orbán of Hungary, and President Andrzej Duda and the leader of the Law and Justice Party, Jarosław Kaczyński, in Poland. The tactics used by the EU and the environment of little action and posturing have lended themselves nicely to legitimizing these leaders’ power in their own countries. The failures of the EU to take decisive and forceful action and the ability for Poland and Hungary to veto important actions due to unanimity requirements gives these leaders power they would not otherwise have. It elevates their importance in the EU and shows their citizens that they are the politicians who can stand up for their country’s interests in the EU.
Prime Minister Orbán, as previously mentioned, uses his veto power in the European Union to protect his interests. He rejects any actions by the EU that would threaten his or Fidesz’s growing control in Hungary. He is, as he would claim, the fairly elected representative of the Hungarian people and therefore represents their interests. In 2011, in front of the European Parliament after recent reelection, he said “You threatened me, that Hungary was moving towards a dictatorship…what is this if not an insult to the Hungarian people?” This move bolsters his support at home while securing his opposition to the authoritarian critiques from the EU.
An example of how Poland is eroding its citizen’s trust in the EU comes from the administrations investigationinto the previous President of the European Council (2014-2019), Donald Tusk. President Tusk was prime minister of Poland (2007-2014) prior to his position as president of the council where he lead the then-liberal government. Now, PiS (the Law and Justice Party) is investigating an event that occurred during his presidency with the accusation that he had the government cover it up. This called into question the authority of the European Council to take any actions against Poland. It framed any attempt at action against Poland as a result of political rivalry rather than true concern for the condition of Poland’s democracy.
While a failure to act at all by the EU would likely not lead us to a less democratically eroded situation in those countries today, there are other ways the EU should be fighting for democracy in these countries. A Brookings Institute report looked at some of the current failings of the EU to reign in its illiberal and democratically eroding member states. It proposed some alternative tactics which might be met with less resistance, protecting these states and the EU as a whole from further backsliding. The EU can try to tie funding to a successful democratic rating. They argue that this would incentivize actions by member countries to maintain their democratic systems rather than attempting to punish them by refusal to send funding (pg 30). Instead of a focus on all of the ways to punish countries that are experiencing democratic backsliding, which then positions those leaders in a combative role against the EU to protect funding for their citizens, they should incentivize democratic actions tied to this funding.
The EU is creating an environment where the authoritarian leaders don’t have to try too hard to prevent consequential punishment. Additionally, these leaders can reframe the EU’s actions in a negative light to their citizens, contributing to the leader’s legitimacy and support. This is making it easy for countries such as Poland and Hungary to exert very little effort against the EU and remain in favor within their countries. The European Union needs to rethink its approach to democratic erosion in its bloc because its not working, and it may be making things worse.
 Jan-Werner Müller, What is Populism? (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), 43-44.