22nd Mar 2018


EU rules on democratic governance need updating

The question of how or whether the European Union as a whole can respond to violations of liberal democratic norms among its members has come up frequently in discussions about Hungary since Viktor Orban and his Fidesz party came to power in 2010.

Over the past three years, the government has taken a number of steps that resulted in the erosion of checks and balances and the rule of law, eliciting widespread criticism from the international community and triggering declines in most Freedom House governance surveys.

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However, seemingly hamstrung by its limited competencies in this area and preoccupied by the economic crisis, Brussels has been hesitant in its reaction to apparent democratic backsliding. Sooner or later the EU will be forced to take a firmer stance on the protection of democratic institutions within its member states.

Since the suspension of diplomatic relations with Austria in 2000, Brussels has never used its powers to punish a member state. Having failed to prove that the Austrian government was committing a “serious and persistent” breach of the principles upon which the Union is based European leaders moved to create a firmer legal basis for preventative action in cases of democratic backsliding.

Recent cases have demonstrated, however, that this prevention and punishment mechanism - defined under Article 7 of the Treaty of the European Union - is considered to be too harsh and too politicised.

Member states intent on protecting their sovereignty have been unwilling to resort to the mechanism, often dubbed the “nuclear option,” and are more inclined to curb the EU’s authority to interfere in domestic matters than to hold fellow member states accountable for the commitment to democratic values they agreed upon in writing just a few years ago.

It is worth noting that Hungary, by now a symbol of resistance to EU pressure, was the first country to ratify the 2007 Lisbon Treaty, which deepened European integration, gave more powers to the European Parliament, and made the Charter of Fundamental Rights legally binding.

Indeed, enthusiasm for the “ever closer union” in general is dwindling, and not only in the countries hit hardest by the economic crisis.

Even countries whose economies have been comparatively stable are afraid that relinquishing sovereignty would tie their hands in a crisis and force them to bail out fellow member states.

Eurosceptics also justify their hostility to intervention from Brussels by emphasizing the Union’s own alleged democratic deficit. Unfortunately, such arguments may serve to protect illiberal political behavior at the national level and lead to an erosion of national democratic institutions.

Several weeks ago, the European Parliament adopted a report on Hungary that calls for the reversal of several laws and measures instituted by the Fidesz government, condemning them as “incompatible with the values” of the Union (the government has since responded to some of the concerns, most recently by giving in to EU demands on constitutional amendments.)

In addition to reproaching Hungary, the report- authored by EU rapporteur for fundamental rights Rui Tavares- suggests an improved and more comprehensive approach to potential breaches of common values.

It proposes the creation of an early warning mechanism called the “Alarm Agenda,” the establishment of a so-called “Copenhagen Commission” that would monitor human rights compliance inside the Union, and strengthening the role of the Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA).

The creation of an effective monitoring mechanism is in the interest of every member state, as it is becoming more and more difficult for countries facing deep economic problems to maintain the normal democratic order.

In Romania, for example, Prime Minister Victor Ponta - unlike his Hungarian counterpart- gave in to EU pressure when his relentless efforts to impeach the president threatened to cause a major political crisis last summer.

Nevertheless, his actions inflicted some longer-term damage to the already waning confidence in political institutions and democracy in the region.

In Romania’s southern neighbor, Bulgaria, demonstrations have been ongoing for more than two months, leading to concerns about the longevity of the current government, which was formed after the country’s largest protests in 16 years forced early elections in February.

Even older member states have faced serious democratic setbacks recently.

Political turmoil and social unrest in Greece escalated in 2012 as a result of continued fiscal cuts and economic depression, while the right-wing extremist Golden Dawn party embarked on a campaign of terror aimed at immigrants, the political left, gays and lesbians.

The current rules governing democratic standards in the EU are clear in substance, but they are not enforceable in practice.

The reforms suggested by the Tavares report would create a much-needed intermediary mechanism to curb future violations without resorting immediately to extreme diplomatic sanctions of the kind levied against Austria.

Such a system could even encourage aspiring member states to commit to more difficult, fundamental reforms early on.

A more transparent and incremental EU-wide monitoring process, with independent evaluation, could also address smaller states’ complaints about double standards, and offset accusations of underlying partisan interests.

For these reasons, it is supported by the European Parliament’s largest group, the conservative European People’s Party (EPP), which counts Fidesz among its members.

Most importantly, the report sends an important message to heads of government in the European Council that the majority of their own countries’ parliamentarians want democratic violations in fellow member states to be addressed. European leaders who claim to value national sovereignty should heed their call.

Sylvana Habdank-Kolaczkowska is a central Europe analyst and the project director of Nations in Transit, Freedom House’s annual survey of democratic governance in the post-Communist world. Zselyke Csaky is a research analyst for the Nations in Transit survey

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