Sunday

7th Mar 2021

Column

European values are non-negotiable

In Blindness, a famous novel by Portuguese writer José Saramago, a man waiting in his car at a traffic light suddenly becomes blind.

Later, inexplicably, the same happens to other inhabitants in the city. Soon public life gets completely disrupted. Law and order, healthcare, food supply - everything sinks into chaos and lawlessness.

Read and decide

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  • At the EU summit, Portuguese prime minister António Costa gave Germany's chancellor Angela Merkel a present: Blindness by José Saramago. With a message

No one in the city, Saramago wrote in this dark tale about the degeneration of civilisation, "knew from now on when the light turned red".

On 17 July, the first day of the marathon European Council on the multi-annual European budget and the corona recovery fund, Portuguese prime minister António Costa gave this Saramago novel as a birthday present to German chancellor Angela Merkel.

This was a highly symbolic present.

No one can lecture the Portuguese on the rule of law. Their country was a military dictatorship from 1926 to 1974.

Only after the 'Carnation' revolution in April 1974 was it allowed to become a member of the European Union: only democracies may join.

If there is one prime minister in Europe today who perceives the steady erosion of the rule of law in Hungary, Poland and some other EU countries like a personal slap in the face, it's probably Portuguese prime minister Costa.

Hungary and Poland are in the 'club'. They are safe. No one can kick them out. Their leaders make this very clear - assertively, cynically, turning every word inside out until it loses all meaning.

For Costa, the son of a journalist and a writer who was imprisoned three times for opposing the Salazar government in the 1950s, this must be a bitter experience.

Yet it was Costa who traveled through Europe and worked the phones last week, telling other European heads of state and government how stupid it is to link European subsidies from the EU budget and the recovery fund to the rule of law in recipient countries.

Northern European countries kept insisting on 'no democracy, no money'. Initially, this looked right. How can anyone who cares about European values ever be against this?

However, because of that link, Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán immediately threatened to block the entire budget and the fund, worth about €1.8 trillion for the next seven years.

Costa was right: the link is stupid. And if anyone could say this, it was him. It's unfortunate that he only brought it up when Orbán started threatening to use his veto. Now it looks like Costa only challenged the link because he was afraid he wouldn't get his money from Brussels.

But Costa's central argument is important. He says we cannot and should not use European values, democracy and the rule of law as a bargaining chip in negotiations about money. Negotiations are about give and take.

If you use European values in this kind of horse-trading, you make them negotiable - which they shouldn't be, ever.

Values are not money

"If we negotiate about values and money," Costa wrote in the Portuguese newspaper Público last week, "we do not defend those values but monetise them instead. They become spare change."

This is why the European Council, in the end, kicked the can down the road. The European Commission will table a proposal later this year.

Many were dismayed. But in matters over which European leaders take unanimous decisions – meaning, each country has a veto - such as the EU budget, the consequence is that you put everything into the hands of those violating European values.

Strong conditionality would empower Orbán to shoot down Europe's entire multi-annual budget, without any improvement whatsoever in the rule of law in Hungary. This would be a win-win for Budapest.

All Costa did was trying to point out that the linkage is useless – not because the rule of law isn't worth defending but because the linkage rewards the perpetrators and paralyses the functioning of the EU.

"By doing this we would, out of naiveté or cynicism, repeat the process in which Orbán vetoed Frans Timmermans as president of the Commission last year," Costa argued.

So, is there nothing we can do?

Yes, there is.

First, this serves as yet another argument for the abolition of national vetos. It makes no sense that national leaders insist on keeping the veto and criticise the EU for being too weak to uphold the rule of law. The two issues are directly related. It is time they acknowledge this.

Second, until EU decision-making moves to (qualified) majority voting, the EU must rely on the one existing procedure dealing directly with the rule of law: Article 7 of the Treaty. If countries keep ignoring warnings from Brussels, cases based on Article 7 will eventually go to the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg.

Those procedures are, alas, annoyingly laborious and slow. But for now this limited tool is all we have, so we must make better use of it.

As we have seen in recent years political pressure from Brussels does not work: countries refuse to be lectured. Only the court can force them to stop violating the rule of law.

Hungary has often taken a step back just before cases come to court. Poland has been convicted twice. Twice, to avoid sanctions, it has overturned laws clipping the wings of independent judges.

Is this too bleak a prospect? Not necessarily.

In Blindness, Saramago's novel, there is one lady who keeps her eyesight. She, presumably, made Costa think of Merkel and her role in Europe. It is thanks to this lady that all the blind, at the end of the book, see the light again and start stopping for red lights – just like they used to.

Author bio

Caroline de Gruyter is a Europe correspondent and columnist for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad. This article has been adapted from one of her columns for NRC.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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