As the European Union (EU) struggles to dig itself out of an unimaginably large pit of pressing issues, certain member nations almost seem to be trying to maintain and build upon the insurmountable pile of challenges confronting the bloc. Most guilty of such behaviour is Hungary, a country that can be dubbed as the pariah of the EU. Things have gotten so bad that this pas September, Jean Asselborn, foreign minister of Luxembourg, even called for the temporary suspension of Hungary’s membership and doubled down by hinting that they should be ‘cut loose’. The other ‘evil’, Hungary’s partner in crime according to pro-EU leaders, is the current Polish government, who has received much criticism for the systematic threat it is posing to the rule of law in Poland.
The EU is standing on a one way cross-road; the states and citizens urgently need to decide how they want to rigorously transform the organization. This transformation is necessary because it is the only way to enable the EU to deal with its current challenges (such as the refugee, economic and financial crises) more effectively. This transformation is bound to change the relations between the EU on the one hand and Hungary and Poland on the other.
A contradictory relationship
Hungary and Poland are textbook examples of the economic impact EU membership and open borders has had on Eastern European countries that had once been part of the Soviet block. Both countries have enjoyed enormous financial benefits through the EU’s development programs, Poland receiving a 283.90% return on its EU membership contributions in 2013 as part of its membership is a prime example. Hungary on the other hand earned an even more staggering 484.50% return. Exacerbating the point is the fact that these calculations don’t even include the economic benefits both countries have received from being part of the biggest single free market block in the world.
Nevertheless, irregardless of these tangible benefits of membership, anti-EU rhetoric seems to be uttered most in these Central-European states. Hungarian Prime Minister Orbán is on a mission to gain Hungarians’ support for a tougher stance towards Brussels. His recent victory in a referendum challenging the EU’s refugee redistribution policy is one shot across the bow that demonstrates his support for such a stance in which he received a North Korean-like support of 98.3% in declining the EU’s proposal, one in which would force Hungary to receive 1294 refugees (unfortunately for Orbán the legal minimal voter turn-out for a binding referendum was not met to meet quorum). Orbán spent an estimated 10 million euros of public money in an effort to convince Hungarians to vote against the EU’s proposal, at the same time implementing constitutional changes that muddle the separation of powers between the executive and the judiciary, all of which the EU had strongly advised against, claiming it went against European liberal democratic values.
Consequently the Hungarian government’s strong opposition towards any EU interference is bearing its fruit: only 42% of the Hungarians support EU membership, which constitutes a decrease of 13% from five years ago. In Poland, citizens support the EU in large numbers, but at the same time have re-elected the conservative Eurosceptic ‘Law and Justice Party’. The victory of the eurosceptic party endangers the good relation that the Poles have always had with Brussels. Instances such as the EU advising against constitutional changes and new abortion laws are examples of this but might not remain as this could devolve into a pattern of more frequent EU meddeling in Polish affairs. This would force citizens to increasingly feel that they have to choose between loyalty towards the European project or their own government.
An unsustainable relationship: EU-sanctions
The most important question here, however, concerns the sustainability of Poland and Hungary’s contradictory relationship with the EU. Other member states are calling for sanctions which is a signal that the EU will have to show diplomatic strength soon. However, already being being criticized for its undemocratic manner of governing, its dealing with the financial crises and the refugee crisis, the EU’s full plate does not leave it with much of a leg to stand upon, ultimately pushing these two unfaithful members low upon the agenda of priorities. The member states already have to work more closely together than ever to be able to solve the economic, financial and refugee crises; a failure in collaboration between member states in dealing with these problems and the co-optation of individual states of the EU mandate would indicate that the European project has failed. However as has become clear by the Bratislava meeting, a clear majority of member states are still committed to making the European project work.
Whether the member states are willing to make the necessary sacrifices to make the EU work, however, is a whole different matter. Countries will be more reluctant to do what is necessary if some freeriding members (read: Hungary and Poland, as seen above) complain while reaping all the benefits. Hence the EU must take a tougher stand on Poland and Hungary if it wants others, especially Central and Eastern European countries, to cooperate. It seems as if for Hungary and Poland, the choice of either getting onboard or being punished is probably just a matter of time.
So far the EU has only once before tried to sanction one of its members, humiliating itself in the aftermath. In this instance, dubbed the Austrian Haider affair in 2000, involved the election of a far right party taking a seat in government and thus obtaining a voice in the EU. In response, the EU ‘isolated’ Austria from any meetings. Ultimately, this ended with the EU repealing their sanctions within six months and without anything having been changed – a humiliation indeed.
Now however, the EU has a much stronger legal basis (article 7 of the EU treaty) for sanctioning member states if there is “a serious and persistent breach of fundamental rights”. Although experts have so far been highly critical of the diplomatic inclinations of such a procedure, the rough waters that the EU is in right now could force it to make radical decisions – and indeed decide to sanction Hungary and Poland. Examples of sanctions could be the postponement, cutting, or cancelling of EU money flowing towards Hungary and Poland, as well as taking away voting rights in the European Council and the Council of the European Union.
Domestic pressure and alliances
On the other hand, besides EU pressures, the Hungarian and Polish governments are also facing domestic pressures in the form of opposition parties that have become more and more vocal these past years. While the strongest opposition party in Poland, the Civic Platform, is pro-European, the dominant opposition party in Hungary is a party known for its anti European, homophobic and racist makeup. Jobbik, as this party is called, sees the EU as the institution that only wanted Hungary as a member state in the EU to make Hungarians “Western slaves”. In that sense, the Polish public and political sentiment is more likely to shift towards a more conciliatory stand towards the EU than Hungary’s public- and political sentiment.
A last resort for the “pariahs of Europe” would be to seek strength in unity – so, to go about it together. However the chances of Prime Minister Orbán and President Duda of Poland forming a strong bloc against EU interference are minimal. Even though the countries have excellent diplomatic relations (they even have a national day of interstate friendship) their positions differ substantially. Because of its large population, good diplomatic relations and rapidly growing economy Poland is seen as the leader of the Eastern European member states. This is one of the reasons why former Polish president Tusk was elected president of the European Council. Therefore the EU would be willing to give in to certain Polish demands in order to get the rest of Central and Eastern European countries on board as well. Hungary other hand can only distance it self so much from the EU as to the point that the EU will allow this to happen. Unfortunately for Orbán, Hungary barely has any leverage over the other member states, and therefore depends on the current inability of the EU to respond, to keep the precarious ‘freeriding’ status quo. This status quo, and the dynamics surrounding it, it seems, is about to change.
Photo: Flickr, commercial use permitted Leon Yaakov