Kathy Sheridan: It’s worrying when Hungary and Poland claim victory

Rule-of-law conditions in EU deal target its authoritarian, hate-spouting nationalists

Every politician, however upstanding, lofty or frugal, must wink at the base early and often. Any harm done to the national interest lies in the degree of winking.

We’re not talking about Trump-level dog-whistling here, which was already raising multiple red flags in 2016 (let no one pretend they did not recognise it then for what it was) and has accelerated into an insanely incoherent, rambling campaign of desperation focused on appeasing white supremacists. Catastrophic institutional, cultural and reputational damage has already been inflicted on the US. We may assume that his Irish fan boys and girls are very proud.

Fear of a Trump re-election was compounded by the divisions exposed by the EU leaders’ tortuous, four-day negotiations towards a coronavirus recovery fund. What if the EU teeters in the direction of Hungary and Poland ?

The Dutch prime minister’s “no surrender” approach to negotiations grabbed a lot of the headlines. Then again, Mark Rutte has national elections next year – which entails a lot of winking.

In the Netherlands, the popular debate around the recovery fund was framed as the frugal, industrious Dutch personally handing wodges of cash to Italians so they could lie on a beach snuggled up to a smirking Matteo Salvini. Not so long ago, before (the decreasingly gleeful) Brexit, the brutal pummelling that awaited a British leader perceived to have “given in” to the EU was a familiar spectacle here.

The popular debate was framed as the frugal, industrious Dutch personally handing wodges of cash to Italians

Like it or not, Rutte had to do the required winking. The missing piece was the Netherlands’ intimate entanglement and mutual dependency with other member states. And missing pieces are where the winking becomes dangerous.

Brexit distortions

Uncorrected, they form a perfect circle back to one Boris Johnson, whose many, merry lying distortions dispatched from Brussels helped set the stage for Brexit.

The point about the €750 billion recovery fund is that no member state is required to “give” money to anyone. The money will a. be borrowed on the markets to b. help avoid further debt for members whose economies are over a cliff.

There may be sticky times in the future of course. The plan is for those borrowings to be repaid via EU-wide levies such as a plastic tax and digital levy. If the levies cannot be agreed, that could create a wobble. Further tricky discussions and compromises might then be required. It’s what happens in grown-up clubs. People brief themselves diligently, grit their teeth, bite their tongues and give complex, high-stakes issues the time and attention they deserve.

Despite the faux-bafflement and lame sarcasm from the sidelines about the length of time taken to thrash out this €750 billion package – negotiated alongside the EU’s €1.074 trillion, seven-year budget – what was happening over those long days and nights was a frustrating, infuriating, sleep-deprived debate not only about the economic survival of member states but about conflicting ideologies and democratic values.

Avoiding chaos

If domestic political parties struggle to hold it together (we have several like that), what should be expected of 27 prime ministers, each juggling their own power bases, popular, national, EU and global interests? Should they have flounced out at the scheduled finish time regardless of the resulting chaos? What could have been more important than those talks – a leader’s questions in the Dáil perhaps, distinguished by deputies winking furiously at the home base while reducing complex public health considerations to the difference between men in pubs who had or didn’t have a toasted cheese sandwich?

What could have been more important – reducing complex public health considerations to the difference between men in pubs who had or didn't have a toasted cheese sandwich?

Back in Brussels, EU leaders were grappling with authoritarian, hate-spouting nationalists from Hungary and Poland right there at the table. Apart from being a member of the frugal four, Mark Rutte was never less than clear about his views on Hungary and Poland going into negotiations. A few weeks ago, he said, “We have the principle of rule of law, and of democracy, and that Europe is not only a market and a currency, but also a community of values – and you can have conditions.” You can.

It’s hardly reassuring to think that member states will abide by basic EU democratic values and respect for the rule of law only if they get a ready flow of money in exchange but it’s what we have. Conditions have been attached to the deal though clearly not enough to stop Hungary and Poland claiming victory.

The final say over the budget – and the recovery fund at a stretch – goes to the European Parliament. MEPs’ true colours will be fully exposed. Winking time is over.