As the Rule of Law crisis in the EU exacerbates, the calls for kicking out the biggest perpetrators of this crisis have become louder. These calls are understandable, but misguided. In medicine, amputation is a last-resort method for saving a patient. It implies all other options have been exhausted. It implies that the patient is dying. And even if those things were true for the EU, which they are certainly not, amputating two important member states will require a long period of revalidation. A full recovery is by no means guaranteed.
Let’s first acknowledge why the rule of law crisis is a giant problem for the entire EU, and not just for Hungarians or Poles. Besides the real-world impact corrupt regimes are already having on EU decision-making, the mere principle that EU decisions are shaped by politicians, who have gained power through undemocratic means, is unacceptable. When these are decisions affecting your life as an EU citizen, then you should have absolute confidence that they are made by lawfully and fairly elected people.
Let’s also acknowledge that no member state is immune from the Rule of Law epidemic. Hungary or Poland are the most affected, but not having treated this gangrene with a healthy dose of preventive medication, has allowed the rot to spread to other member states. The whole plane has tilted, and now everyone is sliding towards the bottom. Some quickly, others more slowly. Some at the top are now yelling towards the bottom: “stop the democratic backsliding or we kick you out”, oblivious to the fact that they are on the same sliding scale. Even if not nationally, then definitely as part of the EU. Which brings us to one final acknowledgment; the backsliding has been allowed for years. Viktor Orbán did not start choking off Hungarian democracy yesterday. He started a decade ago. His actions were known, and he was aided and abetted in his project by his political enablers in other capitals and the European People’s Party. Even a mini-Trump needs his Mitch McConnell to get away with crime. Then there are the ones who merely stood by.
One of the bystanders now has become the first major voice to openly speculate about kicking Poland and Hungary out of the EU. The Dutch prime minister made such remarks in the Netherlands’ Parliament, when he voiced his firm new-found commitment to Rule of Law measures in the EU budget. The problem is; until recently he had been a firm believer in a minimalist mission for the European Commission. No meddling in internal affairs, please. Unless it is about budget discipline; we are talking about the Netherlands after all. Not valuing democracy and rule of law as equally important to budget discipline makes this new tack all the more dishonest.
- photo: Stéphanie Lecocq/AFP
The truth is that the Dutch hesitance is not unique. The EU member states have discovered long ago that they agree on one thing only; they don’t like a strong European Commission keeping them on the straight path. That is why they have degraded the Commission to a point where it cannot solve the deep-rooted gridlock that has taken hold of the EU. This gridlock is not just the result of the failing intergovernmental method. It is the failing intergovernmental method. A method that has worked so well for reaching compromises on quota and other micro decisions, but has failed spectacularly at politics and big stroke decisions. As corruption has become the biggest problem in the world today, tackling it is such a big – highly political – decision. And the national leaders have rendered themselves unable to solve it.
EU governments have systematically valued a false sense of national self-determination over bolstering the rule of law provisions in the EU treaties. These articles were put in there to keep all European nations honest, democratic and law-abiding. Let’s treat these articles as a doctor’s prescription and pull out all the treatments we have in our cabinet, before we start pondering amputation. We can only have full recovery with all limbs attached, and with all doctors present. Including the European Parliament, that resist the European Commission’s attempts at dodging it’s responsibilities on the rule of law conditionality, and insist on the EU taking the bitter medicine. Not just in order to save democracy in Poland or Hungary, but more importantly to bring a halt to the collective backsliding that includes the healthy democracies.