The call to defend democracy by French President Emmanuel Macron in a speech to Congress last week resonated in Washington, but it is even more relevant to the European Union. What is supposed to be a community of 28 free nations is increasingly challenged by nationalist and avowedly “illiberal” governments that are concentrating power, dismantling checks and balances, and undermining the rule of law.
The trend began with the rise in 2010 of Hungary’s Viktor Orban, who won a new mandate in a free but unfair election in April, and accelerated when Poland’s right-wingLaw and Justice (PiS) party won a parliamentary majority in 2015. Directed by party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski, PiS proceeded to pack the Constitutional Tribunal, purge the military and security forces, and turn once relatively balanced state-owned media into propaganda organs. Last year it rammed through another judicial “reform” that will allow it to repopulate courts with its partisans.
For years, EU leaders have condemned these violations of democratic norms but found it difficult to do much about them. Last year, the commission formally found a “clear risk of a serious breach” of the rule of law in Poland under an article of an EU treaty that provides for tough sanctions, including the loss of voting rights. The problem is that any such action would require a unanimous vote by EU members - and Poland and Hungary have promised to defend each other.
Now Brussels may have found a way to bring more pressure to bear.
According to the Financial Times, the commission will propose a new regulation that would allow it to curb funding to governments when it judges that threats to the rule of law could affect financial management. The rule, which would be applied to the new EU budget being developed for 2021 to 2027, could have a potentially devastating impact on Poland, the largest recipient of EU funds, as well as Hungary, whose EU subsidies have equaled 4 percent of its gross domestic product in some years.
The sanction could put an end to a particularly perverse practice of the two governments, which regularly denounce the European Union while depending on its money to shore up their political bases. Orban has routed EU aid to businesses close to his government, including his son-in-law, while the PiS party depends on agricultural subsidies for its rural base. Moreover, the two governments would not be able to shield each other: An EU decision to block funding could be stopped only by a majority vote of member states, weighted by their size.
At best, the prospect of the new regulation will prompt both governments to make some significant concessions.
Hungary should back away from the crackdown on nongovernment groups that Orban repeatedly promised in his recent campaign. Poland should reverse its tampering with the constitutional tribunal and refrain from a purge of judges. If Macron’s call for liberal democracies to defend themselves is to be heeded, the European Union must start by policing itself.