EU must halt spread of illiberal democracy

The European Commission (EC) decided last week to formally launch a rule of law procedure against Poland, which will allow Brussels to determine whether the new government in Warsaw has weakened democratic institutions.

The EC is right to be alarmed about the trajectory of Polish democracy. But long before Poland’s democratic backsliding there was severe backsliding in Hungary.

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After rising to power in 2010, Prime Minister Victor Orban moved quickly to alter the Hungarian constitution. He curtailed the independence and authority of the constitutional court, and created a new media regulator controlled by his party. The net effect of these and other measures has been a dangerous centralization of power and self-censorship among Hungarian journalists.

Despite all this, there has been a reluctance to criticize Orban, even by some devoted democracy promotion advocates. The logic goes something like this.

Hungary is among our most dependable NATO allies. Budapest deployed troops to both Iraq and Afghanistan after 9/11, and recently extended its presence in Afghanistan. Hungary has sent over 100 soldiers to Iraq as part of the anti-ISIS coalition.

In the 1990s, Hungary was one of the most successful countries to transition away from communism, establish democratic institutions, and reform its economy. By 2004, when the European Union (EU) expanded to include 10 new member-states, Hungary was also one of the most worthy of accession.

It defies reason that a country, after enduring four and half decades of repressive communist authoritarianism, including a crushed uprising in 1956, would roll back its hard-won democracy. And even if Hungary has regressed in its democratic development the situation there isn’t nearly as bad as it is in Azerbaijan or Belarus.

That’s all true. But the problem is Orbanism has now spread to Poland and if nothing is done will continue to expand in a region where countries and leaders tend to emulate one another.

The U.S. response to Orban’s attack on Hungarian democracy has been fairly robust. State Department officials have spoken out against his policies publicly and with clarity. President Obama himself has mentioned the repression of Hungarian civil society.

And most importantly action has been taken. In 2014, the United States banned six Hungarian officials over suspicions of high-level corruption. The move was widely seen as a direct response to Hungary’s backsliding on democracy.

But Europe has said far less and done virtually nothing to alter Hungary’s movement toward what Orban calls “illiberal democracy.” The consequences of this are what we see happening in Poland today.

Like in Hungary, the new government in Warsaw led by the Law and Justice Party (PiS) has begun to gradually dismantle the pillars of Polish democracy. This should come as no surprise. In 2011, the party’s leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski vowed that he would “bring Budapest to Warsaw.”

And Kaczynski has started to do just that since PiS assumed the presidency and formed a government several months ago. In December, Poland adopted a new law that requires a two-thirds majority by the constitutional court—rather than a simple majority—to overturn PiS policies. Last week, Poland’s President Andrzej Duda approved another law giving the government control over state broadcasters.

The European Commission’s (EC) response has been critical but ineffective. Brussels sent two letters and requested for the laws to be delayed but Warsaw adopted them anyhow. At the same time, EC President Jean-Claude Juncker has warned not to “overdramatize” events in Poland.

He also stated that Article 7 of the Lisbon Treaty, which suspends a member-state’s EU voting rights but requires unanimous support among the remaining countries, would not be used. Last May, Juncker jokingly greeted Orban with the words, “Hello, dictator.”

The public perception that the head of the EC does not take democracy and governance seriously gives Orban, Kaczynski, and future leaders the impression that Brussels isn’t willing to impose real costs on them. As a result, their policies to weaken democracy will continue to proliferate throughout the region.

So what should the EU do to halt this cascade of democratic backsliding? First, address the source of the problem: Victor Orban’s Hungary.

Orbanism inspires those who want to build an illiberal democracy in their own country. What inspires them in particular is Victor Orban’s success. Take away that success and Orbanism won’t seem feasible and therefore attractive. For over five years now Brussels has failed to stop Orban’s assault on democracy in Hungary. This needs to change or the virus will continue to spread.

Second, Brussels must confront the new Polish government in a manner that is profoundly different from its timid, inconsistent, and ineffectual approach to Orban. The same mistakes cannot be made again. Poland is the largest and most successful country in Central Europe. Its transition to Orbanism would ripple throughout the region from the Baltic to the Balkans and beyond.

Finally, Brussels must create the institutional mechanisms to achieve all this. Article 7 is meaningless unless the EC credibly threatens its implementation, while the rule of law procedure is slow and simply leads back to the prospect of suspension under Article 7.

At a time when Europe faces ostensibly existential challenges from the migration crisis to terrorist threats and Russian aggression, democratic backsliding in a number of EU member-states may seem trivial by comparison. But this too is an existential threat.

The future trajectory of Hungary and Poland will determine whether the EU can survive as a community of democracies.

Vajdich is a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and former lead staffer for Europe and Eurasia on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee

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