Worldview: Lurch to the right in Poland and Hungary a threat to EU’s core values

The European Commission is set to hold an ‘orientation’ debate on new laws in Poland that rein in both its constitutional court and its state media

Jaroslaw Kaczynski the leader of Poland’s rulking party. He may well be right to suspect that Brussels is all bluster.  REUTERS/Agencja Gazeta/Slawomir

Jaroslaw Kaczynski the leader of Poland’s rulking party. He may well be right to suspect that Brussels is all bluster. REUTERS/Agencja Gazeta/Slawomir

 

The transition of the EU from an essentially economic alliance into a political union was not the work of one day or one treaty. But if any one moment can be said to have encapsulated the idea that the union was no longer just a free trade zone but was instead in the process of becoming a political community of shared values based on the rule of law and human rights, it was the enactment in 2009 of the Treaty of Lisbon, with a charter of rights tacked on to it.

And, giving clout to the new common citizenship, article 7 for the first time gave member states the ability to discipline – by suspending voting rights – a wayward member who seriously breached fundamental democratic norms. It is a power – the “nuclear option” – that has never yet been tested, and because it requires a qualified majority vote, it will, arguably rightly, be difficult to use. A halfway house was adopted by the European Commission two years ago, a “framework” allowing it to flag concerns about “systemic threats” to the rule of law.

The theory was that accession to the EU already required a strong and well-established commitment to shared democratic values, and that the new provision was merely a safeguard against straying from them. The political subtext, however, was the suspicion, denied by the older members and rankling with the newer accession states, that the latter were being singled out, seen as not entirely wedded to democratic values. The union could not let them in, it was argued, only to see them reverting to autocratic traditions with no possibility of doing anything about it.

Ultraconservative

HungaryPoland

Hungary’s Viktor Orban boasts of his commitment to what he calls, oxymoronically, “illiberal democracy” and praises Vladimir Putin, while his enthusiastic admirer Jaroslaw Kaczynski, whose Law and Justice Party (PiS) was re-elected to run Poland in October, has embraced much of his approach. Kaczynski has vowed to “bring Budapest to Warsaw”.

The commission is set to hold an “orientation” debate on Poland next week, though not a formal launch of the monitoring procedure, on new laws to rein in both the country’s constitutional court and its state media. Günther Öttinger, EU commissioner for media, argues that the EU should indeed open proceedings . “There are solid grounds for us to activate the rule-of-law mechanism and put Warsaw under monitoring,” he told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

The new media law, which was rushed through Poland’s parliament last week and closely echoes Orban’s seizure of control of the state media, involves the sacking of all executives at the country’s public television and radio companies and the mandating of parliament to appoint their replacements.

The constitutional court, which supervises parliamentary legislation, has been packed with five more PiS supporters and its decisionmaking has been restructured to give conservatives a decisive say in its rulings.

Political organ

Beata Szydlo

The challenge is not just to Poles, but to the EU itself. The union collectively can and must accommodate itself to governments in its midst from outside its mainstream, the social democratic/Christian democrat traditions. It has done so so far with, most notably, Orban in Hungary and Václav Klaus in the Czech Republic, leaning to the hard right, and with Greece’s hard-left Syriza government.

But the credibility of political union requires a line to be drawn when it comes to dismantling democratic norms. Öttinger is right to say that the union must be seen to be able to uphold its treaty values and obligations, though Kaczynski may well be correct in suspecting that Brussels is all bluster.

There is a perception that the past year has seen the emergence or widening of numerous potentially fatal faultlines in the European project. These run roughly north/south on economic austerity, the euro and the Greek bailout, and east/west or new/old on migrants and now the rule of law. The euro is flawed , it is argued, because it was a half-done compromise, and political union shares a similar deficiency.

The values that underpin it were expressed clearly in treaty form, but the means to bring it about, both in terms of extending democratic accountability and in copperfastening a democratic order, were aspirational at best, a promise for another day.

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