Peace and prosperity on a continent that has torn itself apart throughout history may have once seemed unimaginable, is now a reality, owed to those who instead of seeking division, sought alliance. Ever since the origin of the European Union, its purpose has been relatively straightforward, to promote integration amongst member states and avoid conflict after Europe lay devastated after World War II. Since then, the alliance weathered storms such as the Cold War, the fall of the Soviet Union and the Great Recession, amongst many others. But the Union now faces a threat, partially of its own making, a difference of ideologies amongst member states, a poison from within and the legislative inability to progress past any issue that does not have unanimous support.
Earlier this week Hungary and Poland blocked the EU 1.82 trillion Coronavirus budget and stimulus package over legislation aimed at stemming financial support to member states which do not follow the rule of law as deemed appropriate EU itself.
But what gives any country the right to veto the largest EU budget in the history of the institution? To put it simply, the EU itself does. In what was an attempt to ensure total harmony amongst members, and to reassure smaller states that the union’s direction, was not decided on the whim of larger, financially powerful states, legislation that has to do with the bloc, such as budgets is decided through total agreement in the European Council, which consists of the President or Prime Minister of each state. For this historic budget to be passed, it will have to go through the European Council, it is here where Poland and Hungary will exercise their right to veto. It is perhaps, the ultimate stalemate for an institution that exists on cohesion of the highest order, but in a world that grows ever more divided, appeasing everyone is a near impossible task and is the rule of law acceptable matter to concede on? Many member states have already expressed that they will go no further with regards to giving into Poland and Hungary. Which begs the question, is the EU in its current form capable of moving forward into a turbulent future?
Hungary and Poland have long been accused of ‘backsliding’, a term attributed to countries who are moving backwards in terms of democratic progression, however both countries dispute that label, and condemn those who apply it as no better than the previous dictatorships such as communism that crushed all sense of national sovereignty. It is worth nothing that both Hungary and Poland, were once part of The Iron Curtain, and victim to a communist ideology that made a point of crushing one's self sense of individualism. For the citizens of these countries, the threat of an overarching government is a very real fear, that same fear is tarnished by its Presidents, Andrzej Duda of Poland, and Victor Orbán of Hungary and used to stoke division that populist movement often rely on.
Both leaders regularly paint the EU as the possible future source of tyranny, like the chain of dictatorships that acted as a chokehold to past progression. The creation of LGBT+ zones within Poland led to the European Parliament, headed by Ursula von der Leyen, creating legislation which would see such zones be exempt from possible future EU funding. Poland has also removed the independent element of judicial selection, which is a vital framework of the separation of powers concept, aimed at ensuring no single government body is able to consolidate too much power, akin to a dictatorship. Hungary has also verged on the concept of total state control, with government-controlled media, the main source of information for citizens, now producing narratives that suit the government in a propaganda like fashion. At the start of the Coronavirus pandemic, many countries, introduced legislation to provide the acting government with extraordinary powers in order to allow them act more decisively in times of crisis, for a limited time only. Hungary however, removed the time limit for the government to enjoy such powers, effectively granting the government indefinite control over curfews, gatherings of people and the police force to ensure compliance.
The ideology of both countries is undoubtedly in authoritarian territory, and with Poland having effectively banning abortion recently, neither show sign of slowing, and with this blocking of the vital budget, both seem intent on curbing the progression of not just their own citizens, but the rest of Europe too. Poland's justice minister, Zbigniew Ziobro, told reporters. “It’s not about a rule of law … but about political and institutional slavery”.
But this stalemate has been a foreseeable for a while, Hungary has been democratically backsliding for years but Orban’s political party in Hungary, Fidesz, until its suspension, served in the European Parliament's largest political party, the European’s Peoples Party (Christian Democrats), which also happens to be the same party of the Commission leader Ursula von der Leyan, as well as those of Fine Gael. While Orban has proved himself a potential adversary to the rule of law for years, his party’s votes were necessary for the European’s Peoples Party, the largest bloc in parliament. Orban’s actions being once tolerable, until it jeopardized the stability of the bloc, could be viewed as hypocritical of those who were once fine to gain from Orban’s alliance.
The EU itself also failed to act upon the potential of a member state gone rouge, as there is no statutory instrument to eject member states who no longer have the union’s harmonious potential in mind and seek to capitalize on that fact. There are only economic sanctions, that the bloc may avail of to curtail Hungary and Poland’s actions.
According to top EU officials, this is an intuitional crisis that has been brewing for years, with no evident way out, which raises questions of the EU’s ability to react in times of crisis and whether there is any hope for future development. French and Finnish ministers have said they will not give any further to demands which demean the rule of law and basic democracy, meaning that conceding to Poland and Hungary is not an option. While the EU struggles to navigate its way through continued crisis, one thing is certain, Hungary and Poland have highlighted a key legislative oversight that will be seen by unscrupulous actors as shining weakness in the EU legal armor that will undoubtedly need mending, if the EU has any hope of competing as a dominant force in this everchanging political climate.