Suzanne Lynch: East-West divide in the EU is growing deeper

Turning a blind eye to deteriorating rule of law standards in member states calls credibility into question

Polish prime minister Beata Szydlo: Solidarity founder Lech Walesa says her government “acts against our freedom, achievements, democracy”.Photo: REUTERS/Slawomir Kaminski/Agencja Gazeta

Polish prime minister Beata Szydlo: Solidarity founder Lech Walesa says her government “acts against our freedom, achievements, democracy”.Photo: REUTERS/Slawomir Kaminski/Agencja Gazeta

 

Twenty-five years ago next month, the leaders of Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia gathered in the small Hungarian town of Visegrad on the banks of the river Danube.

The aim of the meeting, which took place in the shadows of communism, was to find some shared sense of direction and purpose as these countries took their first tentative steps towards democracy after years of Soviet rule.

Among the priorities of what became known as the Visegrad group was how best to achieve a shared goal, as they strove to find their place in a post-communist world – membership of the European Union and Nato.

A quarter of a century later, the Visegrad group is still in existence. Though its format has changed – the three-member union increased to four following the division of Czechoslovakia into two separate states in 1993 – it continues to exert a strong influence on how the four countries interact with the EU.

Leaders of the “V4” group regularly meet before EU summits in Brussels, it has a rotating presidency, and the alliance regularly issues joint statements outlining common policy positions on everything from Britain’s bid to renegotiate its EU membership to energy policy.

But over the last few months there have been growing concerns in Brussels that the Visegrad group could become a forum for a more vocal and assertive common policy.

Last year saw the most serious division between the eastern states and the German-led consensus since the countries of the former Soviet bloc joined the EU 12 years ago. If the euro zone debt crisis revealed a division between northern and southern Europe, 2015 was the year that opened up a new fissure between east and west.

In September, the European Council of EU leaders pushed through a controversial refugee quota plan, overriding fierce resistance from a core group of central and east European countries.

In a rare move, the EU abandoned the usual consensual form of decision-making and invoked the rarely used “qualified majority” voting system instead. Hungary and Slovakia have since launched legal action against the plan in the European Court of Justice, while Poland’s new government has indicated it will not implement the relocation plan.

Shift to right

Concerns about the rule of law in Hungary have been circulating for some time. The gradual shift to the right under the premiership of Viktor Orban has raised alarm bells in Brussels and prompted protests in Budapest, as the government has clamped down on media and judicial freedom. A damning report by the Council of Europe last year criticised the prevalence of xenophobic and anti-Semitic speech in political discourse. A proposed internet tax was abandoned after tens of thousands of people protested in the capital.

Orban’s inflammatory language during the migration crisis was matched by his Slovak counterpart Robert Fico, who this week reiterated his intention to ban Muslim immigrants from the country, following the Cologne sexual assaults.

But developments in Poland’s political landscape are causing most concern in Brussels. The election last October of the first single-party government since the fall of communism, led by the Law and Justice Party, has resulted in two laws that look set to significantly curtail media and judicial independence.

One gives the government the power to appoint the head of state broadcasters and the other is the introduction of a two-thirds majority rule in the constitutional court that will make it more difficult for judges to reject new laws.

Poland is a hugely important player in the EU. With a population approaching 40 million people, it is the EU’s sixth largest economy and an important torchbearer for its fellow former communist countries in the east. Having seen living standards more than double over the past 20 years, it has traditionally been valued in Brussels as a pro-EU country with close links to neighbouring Germany.

The election of Donald Tusk as president of the European Council in 2014 encapsulated this transition of Poland from former communist country to leading EU player. (The accusation that Tusk was behind the plane crash that left Polish president Lech Kaczynski and 95 others dead is a conspiracy theory held by many in the ruling Law and Justice Party.)

Despite the European Commission discussing the ramifications of the new Polish laws at their weekly meeting this week, the possibility of any substantive action is unlikely.

Already supporters of prime minister Beata Szydlo’s government have accused the EU of disrespecting the democratic will of the Polish people – arguments that are often heard from far-right politicians such as Marine Le Pen and Nigel Farage.

Dangerous strategy

Though article seven of the Lisbon Treaty allows the European Commission to suspend a country from the EU Council of Ministers, it is unlikely to go down this road despite announcing a preliminary assessment of Poland’s new laws on Wednesday.

This is a dangerous strategy. Turning a blind eye to deteriorating rule of law standards in its own member states opens up credibility questions for the European Union.

Already, countries who are on the path to EU membership, such as Serbia, are voicing frustration at having to meet high standards of rule of law, while countries such as Hungary and Poland blatantly breach those standards.

Twenty-five years ago, Lech Walesa, the first post-communist president of Poland and leader of the pro-democracy Solidarity movement, was one of the three leaders who formed the Visegrad group in that town by the Danube. This week, he strongly criticised the latest political developments in Poland.

“This government acts against Poland, against our achievements, freedom, democracy,” he said.

As the former Soviet-bloc countries move into a new phase after their transition to democracy, and a new generation with little memory of communism reaches adulthood, his words may prove prescient.

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