Why is Ireland silent on the threat to democracy at the heart of Europe?
World View: Europe’s leaders remain silent on the authoritarian drift in their ranks
Trumpian agenda: Budapest has erected a fence along its eastern border to keep migrants out of the country. Photograph: Srdjan Stevanovic/Getty
Western European alarm about Donald Trump’s presidency, at least until now, has been rooted in what he says more than in what he does. Eight months into his administration the self-styled doer, although extravagantly inarticulate and derisive of his predecessor’s supposed penchant for words over action, has talked, tweeted, moaned and bellowed far more than he has actually done.
When he vows to block asylum seekers from the US, hints at hobbling the judiciary, vents breezy contempt for the rule of law or calls for walls to keep out foreigners, the liberal regimes of western Europe are quick to recoil with disapproval at the United States’ populist turn.
You would imagine, then, that if a demagogic government closer to home actually managed to do all of these things there would be uproar. Far from it, it turns out. In the past few years Hungary and Poland have, under shouty leaders with authoritarian instincts, been drifting away from the democratic consensus. In fact, they have already implemented key planks of the Trumpian agenda.
Since its election victory in 2010, Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party, under Viktor Orbán, has systematically set about weakening checks on its authority. Changes to the country’s laws have empowered Orbán to curtail media freedom, chip away at human-rights protections and put the squeeze on internal dissent.
The government has been cracking down on foreign-funded NGOs, and earlier this year it passed a law that could force the closure of the Central European University, a small but prestigious liberal institution that irks Orbán. Budapest refuses to take in any asylum seekers under a European Union resettlement scheme and has erected a fence along its eastern border to keep migrants – “a Trojan horse for terrorism,” as Orbán calls them – out of the country.
Poland, where a nationalist, eurosceptic government took office in 2015, is also busy chipping away at pillars of the European project. The ruling Law and Justice party has steadily dismantled judicial oversight, made it easier for the state to spy on its citizens and turned the public broadcaster into a propaganda outlet.
Warsaw very much enjoys receiving EU structural funds, but it bitterly resents the flip side of the union’s grand bargain: subscription to a set of common values. It too has refused to take in a single person under the asylum-seeker resettlement scheme.
National political leaders should be doing far more themselves to defend the union’s core values
European leaders, distracted by the euro and migration crises, were slow to see that the autocratic slide in Hungary and Poland was more than mere domestic unpleasantness on the periphery.
Now there is a greater recognition that it amounts to a more systemic threat to the union itself. The union’s legal edifice may have proved remarkably resilient during the eurozone and migration crises, but “now its foundations are under attack from the inside”, as a recent paper from Carnegie Europe argues.
In recent months, the European Commission has taken strong positions on the situation in both countries. But while Brussels has powerful legal tools to enforce its economic rules, states have always been reluctant to give the union a role in supervising their adherence to values.
As a result, the threshold for censure is set high. For the EU to trigger a collective warning to Hungary and Poland, which could allow for the eventual suspension of those countries’ voting rights for “serious and persistent breaches” of EU values, it would take a unanimous vote of all EU members states.
And because Poland and Hungary can each veto that trigger for the other, that’s unlikely to happen any time soon.
As the Carnegie report points out, however, national political leaders should be doing far more themselves to defend the union’s core values.
The French president, Emmanuel Macron, took a lead last month when he made a scathing attack on the government in Warsaw, saying it was isolating itself within the EU and that its citizens deserved better. Such criticism was striking for its novelty.
The Irish Government, for example, has conspicuously avoided direct public criticism of either country.
The Department of Foreign Affairs has issued statements this year, in the name of Minister Simon Coveney and his predecessor Charlie Flanagan, on missile tests in North Korea, a fire in Portugal and tensions in the Gulf, among other things. But there hasn’t been one on the clear threat to democracy at the heart of the European Union.
In response to parliamentary questions, the Government has said it supports the European Commission in its approach to Hungary and Poland and would like more “dialogue” between Brussels and the two capitals.
Dublin would not be alone among European capitals in seeking to avoid harm to useful bilateral relationships in the middle of the Brexit talks. And it’s right to stand with the commission.
But there will come a point, and it’s not far off, when outsourcing the defence of core democratic values to Brussels won’t cut it any more.