What is to be done about Hungary and Poland?

January 28, 2016

“Once the EU allows a country like Poland to drift in the same direction as Hungary, and allows Hungary to continue down this path, it makes a mockery of its claim to be a union of democracies that stands for the rule of law.  So the EU’s effort to portray itself as a sort of beacon of freedom and democracy within the wider region becomes a bit of a joke if right there in the union you have these semi-authoritarian regimes.”

– Daniel Kelemen, Rutgers University professor of political science and law

“You have two enfants terribles now within the European Union who are just going to make everything as difficult as possible, don’t have any positive program for Europe whatsoever, and want to express the greatness of their leaders and their party by wresting back more control.  The European Union has been effective because it has sublimated a lot of the national desires into a common union, predominantly around economics, but also around politics and other features that have enabled peace to exist in Europe for a very long time. So it creates the conditions for peace among nations. The Europe of nations creates the conditions for further conflict among nations.  From a US perspective, the problem with Europe is that whenever Europe has descended into turmoil, the United States has had to come in and bail them out one way or another, usually militarily. And that’s really the key concern from a US point of view.”

– Mitchell Orenstein, professor of central and eastern European politics, University of Pennsylvania

The Budapest Beacon’s Ben Novak recently spoke with Daniel Kelemen and Mitchell Orenstein about the threat to the European Union posed by the drift of Hungary and Poland towards authoritarianism.  Their article Europe’s Autocracy Problem appeared in the January 7, 2016 edition of Foreign Affairs magazine.

Budapest Beacon:  Does Europe have an autocracy problem?

Orenstein: The European Union did not respond very vigorously when Viktor Orbán began to dismantle democratic aspects of the order in Hungary a few years ago.  And now, to the surprise of many, larger countries are starting to imitate Orbán.  From a Western perspective it’s hard to understand why politicians would imitate Orbán.  We see the new government in Poland has done exactly that, raising awareness in Europe that governments in central Europe and elsewhere in the continent might try to dismantle certain constraints on government in order to put forward a more nationalistic platform.  Orbán has really shined a light and shown the way on that.

Budapest Beacon: What does “dismantling democratic institutions” mean in practice?

Orenstein:  The central and eastern European countries that have joined the EU have very similar democratic protections to what we have here in the United States or Western Europe.  They have three branches of government: an executive, a legislative and a judicial.  What Poland has done is first rein in the Constitutional Court to make it very pliable to the government by packing the court or by hamstringing it with a bunch of laws so that it is not functioning presently.  Secondly, to take over the media so that nobody can say anything bad about the government.  I know that has been a really big problem in Hungary.  We’re seeing only the first steps of that in Poland right now.  It involves taking over the state broadcasters so they can push out government propaganda.  But in Hungary it went much further and involved transferring ownership of media organizations into private hands who are friendly to the government.  We may also see that coming in Poland as well.  These are just the first two steps to a further campaign to cracking down on opponents of the regime, to investigating people with impunity, firing people from the state apparatus, from different bureaucracies who don’t agree with the government.  So really a quasi-authoritarian political program.

Budapest Beacon: At one point does national sovereignty clash with core European values?

Kelemen:  The EU is much more than an economic union or a free trade zone. It’s also a political union.  And to join the EU countries had to demonstrate that they were committed to certain core values—democracy, the rule of law, human rights and other fundamental rights.  Part of the problem that we are seeing in the EU is that, while there were conditions of membership that countries like Hungary and Poland had to meet before they could join the EU, the EU didn’t really think through what’s going to happen down the line if countries drifted away from democracy towards authoritarianism.  There was always a presumption that the EU is going to be a club of consolidated democracies, and that there wouldn’t be a problem like this.  And yet, here we are today with Poland and Hungary moving in this direction.  So the EU is struggling with the fact that it doesn’t have the mechanisms it needs to defend democracy in its member states.

Claims on the part of Poland and Hungary that the EU has no right to interfere because they were elected reflect a very narrow view of democracy–that it’s just elections, and that elections give you the power to do anything.  By that standard, Russia is a democracy because Putin is elected.  But the kind of pluralist democracy that is expected of EU members is about more than just elections.  It’s about having the rule of law, an independent judiciary, pluralism in the media and other aspects of civil society where you can have the kind of contestation that makes democracy real.

Budapest Beacon: Are western or northern Europe experiencing similar problems or tendencies?

Orenstein: There have been problems in several West European countries, particularly Italy under Silvio Berlusconi. Some of the same issues were raised, particularly about media control because he was a captain of media in Italy before becoming prime minister.  But the political system was never seriously changed the way it was in Hungary.  And, of course, in Austria you had the issue of Jörg Haider, a right-wing crypto fascist leader who was shunned by the European Union and forced out of the coalition government.

These things have happened and have been responded to.  Italy, for example, was never able to achieve a lot of heft in the EU, and in a certain way was kept out of the upper councils of state, under Berlusconi, and rewarded greatly with positions of power under the Renzi government.  There have been issues but there have also been sanctions when those issues did emerge.

Budapest Beacon: What do you make of claims that Hungary and Poland are no different from other countries?

Orenstein: The claim that “oh we’re just like everybody else” is designed to obfuscate the issue.  They know people aren’t looking all that carefully, and so if they say “Oh yeah, we have the same sort of thing as you”, it would take a long time and a lot of specific knowledge about Hungary to get to explain that point, and so it puts the burden on the accuser to come up with the detailed knowledge about Hungary, which of course a lot of people don’t have.  It’s useful as a rhetorical strategy.  But they know that what they are doing absolutely violates norms.

Kelemen:  What’s really distinctive about Hungary is the degree of concentration of power the Orbán government achieved.  And with that concentration of power, the radical changes they were able to push through.  Of course, it is true that in any democracy political parties try to manipulate different aspects of the political system to perpetuate their own power.  Think of partisan redistricting, for example.  In a way, that is normal and to be expected.  But what happened in Hungary that was so different is that, since they got a two-thirds parliamentary majority, they were able to rewrite the constitution and push the idea of a partisan refiguring of the whole democratic order farther than anything else we’ve seen.  That’s what happened in Hungary and that is precisely what people are worried about in Poland.  After promising to be moderate in their approach during their campaign, as soon as elected the PIS (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość/Law and order) party took radical and very rapid steps to consolidate power with these new laws about control of the media and with their attack on the constitutional court.  The idea that they might try to manipulate things, that in itself is not surprising.  But what has people worried is that they could go just as far as (Hungary’s ruling) Fidesz party has gone in terms of consolidating that power.

Budapest Beacon: What are the risks to the European Union of having two recalcitrant countries being a part of this political and economic union?

Orenstein:  You have to look at the substance of their politics.  These parties are in a way anti-EU parties. Part of their objective is to destroy the EU, or at least make it impossible for the EU to govern in different areas and to basically limit the areas within which the EU is able to operate, and therefore to expand–and this is their positive program–the area of what they call national sovereignty.  That’s a very legitimate issue if you’re outside the EU.  But for the European Union, which has been an ever-expanding union with ever-tightening bonds  between the member states, this is a radical departure to have two very significant member states saying “look, we need to have less Europe.”  Really, that is what the struggle is about.  And then the question for the EU is, what would be that level of less Europe that would be satisfactory for Poland or for Hungary.  And I think the answer would be practically none.

You have two enfants terribles now within the European Union who are just going to make everything as difficult as possible, don’t have any positive program for Europe whatsoever, want to express the greatness of their leaders and their party by wresting back more control.  To what end?

Our philosophy is that this idea of a Europe of nation states, which is a common perspective on the right, is essentially a recipe for disaster.  We’ve had a Europe of nations before.  Nations fight with each other.  They disagree with each other.  Cause a lot of wars together.  The European Union has been effective because it has sublimated a lot of the national desires into a common union, predominantly around economics, but also around politics and other features that have enabled peace to exist in Europe for a very long time.  So it creates the conditions for peace among nations.  The Europe of nations creates the conditions for further conflict among nations.  And that is where the end path of that will go in our opinion.

Kelemen:  The mechanism that the EU did put in place to try and put the brakes on the erosion of democracy and the rule of law, the Article 7 procedure, is premised on the idea that if one member state goes in this direction, then the other member governments acting in unanimity could take a vote to impose some sort of sanctions on that country such as suspending its voting rights in the council.  If you have more than one country that is drifting in this authoritarian direction, you’ve got a big problem, because you won’t get unanimity to act against one, because each of those countries will come to the other’s defense.  And that is exactly what Orbán promised to do right away when there was talk about action against Poland.  He said “I will veto any efforts to impose any sanctions on the Polish government.”

The other real threat this poses to the EU is that it calls into question what the EU really stands for.  Once the EU allows a country like Poland to drift in the same direction as Hungary, and allows Hungary to continue down this path, it makes a mockery of its claim to be a union of democracies that stands for the rule of law.  So the EU’s effort to portray itself as a sort of beacon of freedom and democracy within the wider region becomes a bit of a joke if right there in the union you have these semi-authoritarian regimes.

Budapest Beacon: How should the European Union deal with the risk of contagion?

Kelemen: Kaczyński made no mystery of the fact that he emulated the Orbán model.   In previous speeches he talked about wanting to bring Budapest to Warsaw.  So he had this model in mind, saw that Orbán could get away with it, and has set about doing the same thing.  I think there is risk of further contagion.  More importantly, it’s not just parties of the right.  It looks as though Slovakia in upcoming elections if things go badly we might see something similar in a party of the left.  And we’ve seen it in the past in Romania where there was a constitutional crisis back in 2012 where a party of the left tried to do similar moves.

The Romanian example gives us some indication what the EU can do.  The EU intervened quite quickly and really said this has to stop.  There they had more levers at their disposal because Romania wasn’t a member yet of Schengen and the Commission could kind of threaten that you won’t get into Schengen if you go in this direction, etc.  I think the key lesson is that the EU is doing just the right thing by launching this rule of law mechanism against Poland and by acting quickly before the party can consolidate power.  Europeans broadly should try to give support to the opposition within Poland in their efforts to defend democracy and the rule of law at home.

Budapest Beacon: What do you think the outcome is going to be?

Orenstein: The situation in Europe appears to be unraveling rather quickly.  In Poland there are a lot of street protests.  It looks like public opinion is very split over the new government.  The latest public opinion surveys show maybe 35 percent support for the government.  And probably equal if not greater numbers opposed to the government.  There is a chance the government won’t be able to sustain its policies, depending on how much pressure is exerted upon it from various points.  My bet is that in a year we’ll still have the PIS government in Poland. We’ll still have the Orbán government.  We may have some additional governments moving in this direction.

We’re seeing a real rise of populism across Europe that’s affecting Germany and some of the core states.  We’re not sure about the possibility of a British exit from the European Union.  The vote is very ill-timed, coming during a period of deep crisis within the European Union.  It’s very possible that Britain will decide to leave.

So we are seeing a lot of turmoil in Europe.  From our perspective, sometimes people ask why we’re even involved as Americans.  Some of the critics such as the peace advocates in Poland say keep your nose out of our business.  Which is all fine and good.  But from a US perspective, the problem with Europe is that whenever Europe has descended into turmoil, the United States has had to come in and bail them out one way or another, usually militarily.  And that’s really the key concern from a US point of view.

The US has different interests in Europe.  On the one hand, basically the United States has supported the European project because it has been demonstrated to keep peace on the continent of Europe.  You see a lot of people who are European experts and knowledgable about Europe in the United States generally supporting Europe.  Some people will say “well, that’s not true because the United States competes with Europe,” but I still think our main interest in Europe is to see peace, stability, lessening of conflict.   And, in fact, right now what we see is greater conflict, more problems being created, and that is just potentially dangerous for the United States.  We are trying to raise awareness both in Europe and the United States about the real dangers that are going on.  Things are going to get worse in the next year or two before they get better.

Kelemen:  I think with regard to Poland we might not see things descend as low there as in Hungary.  The PIS doesn’t have quite the degree of power that Fidesz did.  They don’t have the kind of constitutional majority that enables them to change the entire constitution at will right now.  That’s a bit of a restraint on them.

Secondly, there is a stronger domestic opposition both in terms of opposition parties and the kind of civil society with these street protests.  Finally, because of the lessons the EU took from its inaction on Hungary, we see it trying to do more about Poland.  Because Hungary could veto really strong action, I don’t think they could impose the full range of sanctions one might hope for. The move to launch this rule of law mechanism could put some brakes on how far PIS tries to go.  So that is the optimistic scenario.  The PIS government will still be in place.  They’ll be trying to press this objectionable program.  But they won’t be able to consolidate power to quite the same degree.

If you talk about the EU more generally, I think it’s going to be a pretty rough year, particularly with the migrant crisis, for which there is no clear solution on the horizon.  Come Spring I think we’ll see a resurgence in the number of migrants so long as the situation in Syria and the region remains so grave, and a kind of backlash politically in Europe that will follow that.

Budapest Beacon: If the richer members were to suspend fiscal transfers to those member states that refuse to cooperate, would this bring everybody back into the fold or would it cause greater problems?

Kelemen: There is something deeply ironic in the fact that two governments, Hungary and Poland, are thumbing their noses at EU migration policy and refusing to participate in the refugee relocation scheme, and pursuing this Euro-sceptic, populist style of politics.  Those countries are the ones that are most dependent on structural funds.  Poland is the largest recipient.  Hungary is also a major recipient.  Which raises the question: can’t the EU just cut off the money if they are defying EU values, refusing to participate in programs, such as the refugee relocation program?

In terms of structural funds and the programs, legally speaking, at least under the current framework, money can only be suspended for reasons having to do with the actual implementation of structural funds programs. For instance, if a country is found to have corruption problems in the public procurement process or the administration of these programs, then funding can be suspended.  But there is no legal mechanism to suspend structural funds because of bad behavior in some other field or disagreement.

The other problem is when the Austrian government or others say “Oh, we’re going to stop giving transfers to these countries” is that isn’t really how the EU budget process works.  You pay into the common pool and then the budget framework has been established over a multi-year period.

A lot of people have forgotten that the details of the refugee relocation scheme, which has been a total failure, is that if you do not take the quota of refugees you are expected to take, then you pay a financial penalty or contribution. The idea is that if you are not taking your fair share, you should pay money to  the countries that are housing and settling the refugees. Imposing a penalty that way, which the EU could do, and that is what the policy entails, that wouldn’t be directly cutting off their structural funds. But if you say money is fungible, you’re still getting your structural funds but you’re having to pay for your refusal to take in refugees. I think they could implement and enforce this.

Looking to the future, donor countries can make it very clear that, when the next round of budget negotiations come up in the next EU budget framework, they are going to keep very much in mind what they saw in this period, and they are going to cut significantly what they are willing to give, or suspend entirely.  And that development money has been very important for countries in the region. So that longer-term threat could happen.

Orenstein: It is possible to imagine a more radical scenario unfolding similar to what the Austrian government is suggesting, particularly if the British leave. The budgets are going to have to be renegotiated. The European Union also operates on a political basis.  It should be possible to find some mechanism to withdraw, or not spend even, money that’s has been appropriated for EU structural funds, and certainly put it on the chopping block, or even just talk about putting it on the chopping block.  You’ve seen the great sensitivity that Poland had to just the discussion in the European Union about its rule of law mechanism.  So even just talking about structural funds has to send shivers through anybody who is paying attention in Poland.

The EU is a surprisingly vast bureaucracy that is surprisingly nimble at certain points in time when it gets its mind made up and decides to do something.  So if it’s not just Austria, if it becomes some of the core countries who start to share the opinion that something needs to be done, I think you’ll see the EU finding a way to do that.

Budapest Beacon: If Angela Merkel doesn’t survive until 2017, and “Brexit” happens, and the V4 aren’t playing ball with the net donors, are we looking at the end of the European project?

Orenstein: I think it can break down. That would only be the case if you had a lot of right-wing governments coming to power in a lot of the core countries.  A more likely scenario is that you start to see some big rollbacks that haven’t happened before in some of the core areas of European Union regulation, such as Schengen.  It may be that a number of countries are going to come under enough pressure that Schengen will sort of disappear, at least temporarily.  You may see a rollback in structural funds because people aren’t confident that the governments who are spending these funds are doing a good job of it.  Why should Germany be supporting Poland when Poland has taken an anti-German policy?

The European project is important enough to majorities of the population in a lot of European countries.  It is hard to imagine people saying “we’re fed up with this, let’s get rid of this.”  It’s sort of like an avalanche.  If Britain exits at this point in time, if Schengen falls apart, you don’t know what is going to happen.  It’s certainly a possibility.  A more likely scenario is that you start to see some rollbacks.

A lot of this is really generational.  The European project is something that people understood inherently.  If you lived through the war, you knew why there was a European project.  It was because you needed to keep the peace. Leaders that are coming now, like Merkel and Cameron who were born after the war, have a different idea of what Europe means to them.  A lot of people see Europe as an economic thing—that this is all about making money and trading and being able to get a job somewhere else if you want to.  And they don’t understand that the economic aspects of Europe were meant to underpin a security aspect of Europe that is trying to take a group of countries that had fought bitterly for many, many years and create a situation where they would have peaceful relations.  This explains the emphasis on human rights, on solving border disputes, on treatment of minorities.  All these aspects of Europe that people tend to see as secondary are primary.  And they are coming into sharp relief right now.

Follow Ben Novak on Twitter or send him an email at bnovak@budapestbeacon.com .