Tuesday

25th Apr 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.

Dear EUobserver reader

Subscribe now for unrestricted access to EUobserver.

Sign up for 30 days' free trial, no obligation. Full subscription only 15 € / month or 150 € / year.

  1. Unlimited access on desktop and mobile
  2. All premium articles, analysis, commentary and investigations
  3. EUobserver archives

EUobserver is the only independent news media covering EU affairs in Brussels and all 28 member states.

♡ We value your support.

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.

'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.

Column / Brexit Briefing

May's drive for one-party Brexit state

Snap election will kill off attempts to reopen debate on second referendum and inflict further damaged on confused opposition.

News in Brief

  1. Hungary's Orban will participate in EU parliament debate
  2. Malta floats cash-for-refugees plan
  3. Ivanka Trump to meet Merkel at Berlin women's conference
  4. Arctic Ocean could be ice-free in 20 years
  5. Nord Stream 2 to get €4.8bn from European energy firms
  6. Defeated Fillon retires from French politics
  7. Hollande: Vote Macron to avoid 'risk' for France
  8. Italy misses deadline on air quality warning

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. UNICEFRace Against Time to Save Millions of Lives in Yemen
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersDeveloping Independent Russian-Language Media in the Baltic Countries
  3. Swedish EnterprisesReform of the European Electricity Market: Lessons from the Nordics, Brussels 2 May
  4. Malta EU 2017Green Light Given for New EU Regulation to Bolster External Border Checks
  5. Counter BalanceCall for EU Commission to Withdraw Support of Trans-Adriatic Pipeline
  6. ACCAEconomic Confidence at Highest Since 2015
  7. European Federation of Allergy and Airways60%-90% of Your Life Is Spent Indoors. How Does Poor Indoor Air Quality Affect You?
  8. European Gaming and Betting AssociationCJEU Confirms Obligation for a Transparent Licensing Process
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Region and the US: A Time of Warlike Rhetoric and Militarisation?
  10. European Free AllianceEFA MEPs Vote in Favor of European Parliament's Brexit Mandate
  11. Mission of China to the EUXinhua Insight: China to Open up Like Never Before
  12. World VisionViolence Becomes New Normal for Syrian Children

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. International Partnership for Human RightsTime to Turn the Tide and End Repression of Central Asia's Civil Society
  2. European Free AllianceAutonomia to Normalnosc - Poland Urged to Re-Grant Autonomy to Silesia
  3. UNICEFHitting Rock Bottom - How 2016 Became the Worst Year for #ChildrenofSyria
  4. Malta EU 2017Green Light Given for New EU Regulation to Bolster External Border Checks
  5. ACCAG20 Citizens Want 'Big Picture' Tax Policymaking, According to Global Survey
  6. Belgrade Security ForumCall for Papers: European Union as a Global Crisis Manager - Deadline 30 April
  7. European Gaming & Betting Association60 Years Rome Treaty – 60 Years Building an Internal Market
  8. Malta EU 2017New EU Rules to Prevent Terrorism and Give More Rights to Victims Approved
  9. European Jewish Congress"Extremists Still Have Ability and Motivation to Murder in Europe" Says EJC President
  10. European Gaming & Betting AssociationAudiovisual Media Services Directive to Exclude Minors from Gambling Ads
  11. ILGA-EuropeTime for a Reality Check on International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination
  12. UNICEFHuman Cost to Refugee and Migrant Children Mounts Up One Year After EU-Turkey Deal