“If you don’t have a free and pluralistic press that is conveying messages on different sides of issues and which is actively critical of the government and its policies, then democracy starts to be meaningless. If people are just fed a steady diet of pro-government propaganda by media sources either controlled by the government or substantially biased in favor of the government, or if they are owned by businessmen linked to the government then you don’t have the kind of informed citizenry that a democracy requires.” – R. Daniel Kelemen, professor of politics and law, Rutgers University
The rise of “soft authoritarian” governments in Hungary and Poland poses an existential threat to the European Union, according to Rutgers University’s R. Daniel Kelemen.
“Hungary by now is no longer a democracy” and “Poland is rapidly moving in the same direction,” warns the professor of politics and law.
“The whole backbone of the (European Union) is the legal system and the legal order. These regimes, by challenging the rule of law, and also by challenging the primacy of EU law, pose a real threat to the functioning of that whole system,” says the author of Eurolegalism: The Transformation of Law and Regulation in the European Union.
Kelemen attributes the EU’s failure to contain the spread of illiberal democracy to a lack of will on the part of the European People’s Party and the European Council.
“By failing to stand up to Hungary as the Orbán regime rolled back the rule of law and liberal democracy, the EU did two things. First, it sent a signal to other aspiring autocrats like (PiS Chairman Jarosław) Kaczyński in Poland that they could try the same thing and likely go unsanctioned. And second, by allowing Orbán to consolidate his hold on power in Hungary and construct the regime he did, they put in place a state that could act to defend regimes like Poland when they try to mimic his techniques,” says the Jean Monnet Chair in European Union Politics.
“By treaty, member states must uphold democracy and the rule of law,” says the Rutgers professor. “Already one does not meet this criteria, and another one is on its way to not meeting them,” he adds.
Elections do not a democracy make
On the subject of elections, Kelemen points out that
“These days almost all authoritarian or semi-authoritarian regimes hold elections. North Korea doesn’t, but nobody every accused Hungary of being a dictatorship. It’s not. It’s a kind of soft, authoritarian regime. Like most such regimes, they hold elections that are mostly free but decidedly unfair through control of the media — it doesn’t have to be 100 percent of the media but the vast majority of the media. Through stifling measures over NGOs and civil society and through manipulation of the electoral system, governments can create an environment in which the chance that they will lose the election is next to nil.”
On the impact of the governing party takeover of the media, Kelemen says
“If you don’t have a free and pluralistic press that is conveying messages on different sides of issues and which is actively critical of the government and its policies, then democracy starts to be meaningless. If people are just fed a steady diet of pro-government propaganda by media sources either controlled by the government or substantially biased in favor of the government, or if they are owned by businessmen linked to the government then you don’t have the kind of informed citizenry that a democracy requires.”
The Rutgers professor of EU politics and law warns that democratic backsliding in Hungary and Poland goes beyond attacks on the media.
“The takeover of the judiciary is also crucial, because then if you manipulate the media or the electoral system in a healthy, functioning liberal democracy, the judiciary might respond by stepping in and putting checks in place. But if you control the judiciary as well, then there is nothing to stop the government from manipulating the media or the electoral system in its favor.”
On the failure of the EU to contain the spread of illiberal democracy, Kelemen says
“At its root, it is really a question of political will to stand up for the principles of rule of law and democracy, even if it is politically inconvenient.”
Putting politics above principle
The number one culprit, says Kelemen, is the European People’s Party (EPP), which he says has been a “consistent defender” of Fidesz whose votes are needed by the center-right bloc in the European Parliament. Furthermore, EPP member heads of government tend to coordinate policy in the European Council.
“Putting politics above principle enables the Orbán regime to consolidate its power. Then the Orbán regime works to defend other autocratic powers, even if they belong to other European parties, like the PiS in Poland, which is not an EPP member, but the Orbán government still comes to its defense.”
Kelemen is quick to point out that, while certain EPP politicians such as Luxembourg’s Frank Engel have been very critical of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Fidesz, EPP leader Manfred Weber and others in leadership positions such as Joseph Daul from France have been stalwart defenders of the Orbán regime.
“The real weak link has been the European Council where other heads of government in general have been unwilling to speak out against developments in Poland and Hungary,” says Kelemen. Whereas most leaders profess values of rule of law and democracy, “when it comes to defending them, they don’t take action that would correspond with their professed values.”
What is to be done?
Kelemen says we might see “the EPP kick Fidesz out of its party group and denounce them for having taken the country in an authoritarian direction that has no place in Europe,” and that European Council members “stand up and say these two members are not adhering to European values and need to return to the fold of democracy and rule of law.”
Furthermore, he says there are already strong justifications for cutting off the flow of EU funds on which these governments are “incredibly dependent.”
“They could suspend that because with these attacks on the judiciary, you don’t really have a reliable rule of law framework in place. Without that, what real safeguards do you have over the correct use of EU funds?”
On the risk of such action causing an adverse public reaction, Kelemen believes that were the public to see that the government’s actions were imperiling the funds from which they’ve been benefitting, it would be worse for the government than the EU.
Confusing the issue
Kelemen says that imaginary threats conjured up by the governments of Hungary and Poland primarily serve to divert attention from real threats, namely governmental attacks on judicial independence, civil society and the media.
“What those policies try to do is distract us and conflate and mix up in our minds two separate issues. They get us to conflate those things with the broader attack on the rule of law and on liberal democracy going on in these countries. When we critique them, these governments want to be able to say ‘you’re just against us because you don’t like our policy on refugees.’ But really that’s a separate thing. Whether or not we like their policy on refugees is separate from whether or not we want to denounce their consolidation of power, elimination of an independent, pluralistic press, the crackdown on civil society, and attacks on the independent judiciary.
“There’s a flash bang over there where our attention goes. Meanwhile, they consolidate their hybrid regime of semi-authoritarian practices, taking over the judiciary, which is a tougher story to cover, but is ultimately the more important one for these regimes to subvert democracy.”
The normalization of political anti-semitism
The Rutgers University professor warns about the normalization of political anti-semitism in Hungary and Poland.
Although different from traditional far-right anti-semitism, Kelemen says that “these governments have learned the technique of not explicitly saying anything anti-semitic. While pursuing policies, and rhetoric, and campaigns that send a very clear dog whistle to anti-semites that ‘we’re on your side,’ all the while maintaining a plausible deniability of ‘oh, I just met with Netanjahu. I love Israel.’ They mix these things and try to get for themselves the best of both worlds, signaling anti-semitism while maintaining this kind of deniability. All the while, they distract attention from their main goal which is to consolidate power, subvert the independent judiciary and free press, and put in place these durable semi-authoritarian regimes. That’s the real game. And this dog whistle anti-semitism is just a useful technique for them to get there,” warns Kelemen.