Friday

15th Dec 2017

Opinion

Preventing the return of Europe's authoritarian right

  • The rule of law framework should be applied to Poland and it should have already been used in Hungary (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

So now it’s Poland. For the last five years Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orban has dismantled democratic checks and balances and declared the end of the liberal aspect of liberal democracy.

The other EU member states and Brussels huffed and puffed, but did not want to take any serious action against the erosion of democracy.

Thank you for reading EUobserver!

Subscribe now for a 30 day free trial.

  1. €150 per year
  2. or €15 per month
  3. Cancel anytime

EUobserver is an independent, not-for-profit news organization that publishes daily news reports, analysis, and investigations from Brussels and the EU member states. We are an indispensable news source for anyone who wants to know what is going on in the EU.

We are mainly funded by advertising and subscription revenues. As advertising revenues are falling fast, we depend on subscription revenues to support our journalism.

For group, corporate or student subscriptions, please contact us. See also our full Terms of Use.

If you already have an account click here to login.

  • After second world war the right wing in Europe broke its link to authoritarian rule, paving the way for stable democratic pluralism in Europe (Photo: wikipedia)

Understandably there was little appetite for another EU crisis, but it was the moment to nip the idea of illiberal democracy in the bud before it spreads. That moment has passed.

Being rammed through parliament in no time, the attack of Poland’s Law and Justice party on the country’s Constitutional Court and media bears the hallmarks of an Orban manoeuvre, but it is even more breath-taking, coming within weeks of being elected with 38 percent of votes.

The ideology of Orban’s Fidesz party and the Polish Law and Justice party are sometimes described as a rebellion of a majority which feels marginalised. While this may be their self-perception, it’s not how these parties behave.

There are many models of democracy and there is nothing wrong with a party that promotes re-calibrating the balance of power somewhat towards majority decision-making, for example by introducing referendums, or by reducing the scope of a Constitutional Court.

But such delicate shifts should come after consultation rather than being made overnight and they should not result in one branch of power being completely undermined.

Orban paints an image of himself as a man of the people, who is not hiding behind laws and bureaucracy, ready to make tough decisions. Yet, he is not relying on the power of persuasion.

He has barricaded his ideology behind a pliant constitutional court, tamed media and a new constitution which he never dared put to a referendum. The OSCE’s election observers had serious concerns about the level playing field in Hungary’s elections.

Democracy

At heart, these new right-wing parties are not the robust pro-people forces they claim to be. They are afraid of the people and skew the system to make sure their positions become immune to democratic challenge.

In short, they look much like the old authoritarian right.

After the Second World War the right wing in Europe broke its link with authoritarian rule, paving the way for stable democratic pluralism in Europe. Hungary’s Fidesz and the Polish Law and Justice party are now re-establishing the link.

Socially conservative positions are no problem for democracies. EU member states ruled by conservative parties have adopted all kinds of conservative policies, but they do not try to lock down the pluralistic process.

Many in Europe hope that Poles will withstand the onslaught on their democratic order and solve the problem at home. This would indeed be the best outcome, but given how the Law and Justice party steamrolls state institutions, only a massive social mobilisation could stop it. Will enough Poles conclude that while they wanted a new government, they do not want to end democracy?

In the EU a democracy problem in one member state is a democracy problem for all, because member states have votes in legislating for the whole Union. Democratic shortcomings in one member state contaminate the entire system, which is built on the premise of including only functioning democracies.

This is why the main remedy to an erosion of democracy in a member state is the suspension of voting rights of that member state in the EU Council according to article 7 of the EU Treaty.

Despite clear language in the EU Treaty on human rights and democracy, in the case of Hungary the European Commission did not make an overall assessment and instead focused on limited issues where it had a more specific legal basis.

When Fidesz got rid of judges by lowering the retirement age, the commission approached this as a matter of age discrimination, rather than an attack on the independence of the judiciary.

Under pressure for its limited response to the developments in Hungary, the commission then adopted a “rule of law framework,” essentially a dialogue with a member state to find out if it is willing to change course sufficiently to avoid the article 7 process. Until today it has not used the framework.

Poland’s Law and Justice party, in its outright refusal to accept a judgment of the country’s highest court and its transparent attempt to paralyse it, has provided a smoking gun that proves that domestic rule of law does not work any more.

The rule of law framework should therefore be applied to Poland and it should have already been used for Hungary.

The commission will discuss this on 13 January.

It should decide to launch these procedures now and deserves the support of the other EU member states.

Europe cannot look the other way when authoritarian rule is raising its head in a member state.

When joining the EU, states made a clear choice for pluralistic democracy. They should not be allowed to go back on that obligation.

Michael Meyer-Resende is the director of Democracy Reporting International, a Berlin-based NGO (@Meyer_Resende). This is his personal opinion

Poland to trade UK welfare for Nato bases

Poland says willing to trade British welfare rights for UK support for Nato bases, as country edges closer to EU pariah status over domestic reforms.

Magazine

'Dictator' vindicated

In January, Viktor Orban's inflammatory comments concerning migrants raised eyebrows. By the end of the year, politicians across Europe echoed his sentiments.

Iceland: further from EU membership than ever

With fewer pro-EU MPs in the Iceland parliament than ever before, any plans to resume 'candidate' membership of the bloc are likely to remain on ice, as the country prioritises national sovereignty and a more left-wing path.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Dialogue PlatformThe Gülen Community: Who to Believe - Politicians or Actions?" by Thomas Michel
  2. Plastics Recyclers Europe65% plastics recycling rate attainable by 2025 new study shows
  3. European Heart NetworkCommissioner Andriukaitis' Address to EHN on the Occasion of Its 25th Anniversary
  4. ACCACFOs Risk Losing Relevance If They Do Not Embrace Technology
  5. UNICEFMake the Digital World Safer for Children & Increase Access for the Most Disadvantaged
  6. European Jewish CongressWelcomes Recognition of Jerusalem as the Capital of Israel and Calls on EU States to Follow Suit
  7. Mission of China to the EUChina and EU Boost Innovation Cooperation Under Horizon 2020
  8. European Gaming & Betting AssociationJuncker’s "Political" Commission Leaves Gambling Reforms to the Court
  9. AJC Transatlantic InstituteAJC Applauds U.S. Recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s Capital City
  10. EU2017EEEU Telecom Ministers Reached an Agreement on the 5G Roadmap
  11. European Friends of ArmeniaEU-Armenia Relations in the CEPA Era: What's Next?
  12. Mission of China to the EU16+1 Cooperation Injects New Vigour Into China-EU Ties

Latest News

  1. Estonia completes two out of three priority digital bills
  2. EU countries are not 'tax havens', parliament says
  3. Tech firms' delays mean EU needs rules for online terror
  4. Slovak PM: Human rights are not a travel pass to EU
  5. British PM limps to EU capital after Brexit defeat
  6. US pleads for clarity on Brexit aviation 'black hole'
  7. Tusk migration note prompts institutional 'hysteria'
  8. Migration looms over summit, as Africa pledges fall short

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. EPSUEU Blacklist of Tax Havens Is a Sham
  2. EU2017EERole of Culture in Building Cohesive Societies in Europe
  3. ILGA EuropeCongratulations to Austria - Court Overturns Barriers to Equal Marriage
  4. Centre Maurits CoppietersCelebrating Diversity, Citizenship and the European Project With Fundació Josep Irla
  5. European Healthy Lifestyle AllianceUnderstanding the Social Consequences of Obesity
  6. Union for the MediterraneanMediterranean Countries Commit to Strengthening Women's Role in Region
  7. Bio-Based IndustriesRegistration for BBI JU Stakeholder Forum about to close. Last chance to register!
  8. European Heart NetworkThe Time Is Ripe for Simplified Front-Of-Pack Nutrition Labelling
  9. Counter BalanceNew EU External Investment Plan Risks Sidelining Development Objectives
  10. EU2017EEEAS Calls for Eastern Partnership Countries to Enter EU Market Through Estonia
  11. Dialogue PlatformThe Turkey I No Longer Know
  12. World Vision7 Million Children at Risk in the DRC: Donor Meeting to Focus on Saving More Lives