It may have been established primarily as a political union, but especially in the new member states the EU is increasingly failing to convey the notion that it is a value-based political community as well, and not only a business club. An (understandably) materialistic mentality in the new member states may be partly to blame for this, but the Union, too, is at fault for failing to develop its political dimensions, both conceptually and institutionally.
And this is a failure that is likely to cost the Union in years to come, when its handling of countries that fail to conform to its political values will appear haphazard and arbitrary. That is exactly the perception shared by many Hungarians – and apparently the Czech government – who believe that the EU’s threats and proposed sanctions against the Hungarian government are any preferred combination of hypocritical, unfair, ideological, anti-Hungarian, etc.
With the Commission now threatening to withhold 495 million euros (equivalent to 0,5 of Hungarian GDP) in Cohesion Fund payments because of Hungary’s failure to address its excessive deficit, the Hungarian right is outraged because it points out that Hungary has one of the lowest deficits in the EU and is (maybe) under 3%. This does make the Commission’s unprecedented move ironic, though it is explicable.
But the explanations are tortured and technical, which from a PR standpoint is a disaster, given that at the same time the EU is embroiled in a continuous dispute with Hungary about other, democracy related issues. Since the latter debates are about problems that mostly lack a solid framework in written rules and definitions, the appearance is that now selectively applied fiscal policy rules are the handy instruments to discipline a country that violates hazy norms.
Getting down to business
When a previous Hungarian government began its campaign to popularise the Union in the run-up to the membership referendum in 2003, one of the slogans was that after our EU accession Hungarians would be allowed to open a bakery in Vienna. This was of course totally ludicrous, seeing how most Hungarians could not even afford to regularly shop in a Viennese bakery, much less operate one.
Nevertheless, it says a lot about what the Union means in popular and political imagination: it’s something that allows you to open up bakeries anywhere. Let them make cake. In other words, the Union is primarily an institution that bestows direct and indirect economic advantages and allows for freedom of movement.
It would clearly be an exaggeration to say that there was never anything but the economy, since EU accession also symbolised the reunification of the continent after the division imposed by totalitarianism, as well as democracy and freedom. But while those where abstract concepts concerning which few people had specific expectations – and concerning which the EU itself provided very few specifics – subsidies, convergence and freedom of movement are much easier to relate to.
Consequently, as compared to the economic benefits, especially the tangible ones such as the de-facto development aid flowing from West to East, the political dimension is a very thin layer in the legitimacy of the European Union.
An undefined democratic community
The deficiencies of the Union’s political dimension become most obvious when a member state transgresses against the nebulous values of the Union and would ideally need to be penalised – except it can’t, really, because it isn’t clear what it transgressed against or what institutional form the punishment should take.
The EU’s aggressive but confused and ultimately toothless response against the participation of Jörg Haider’s party in the Austrian government in 1999 showed clearly: whatever sense of its basic values the European Union has, its means to assert these values against those who would subvert them are extremely limited.
Unless of course the value in question happens to be related to the economy or fiscal policy, in which case the EU has an arsenal at its disposal.
The Union’s mostly economic, or even more crudely financial legitimacy has obvious consequences when money is withheld. The Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his right/left/soft-authoritarian party have been stoking – mostly subtly, occasionally not so much – anti-EU sentiments for a while, and with the announcement that Cohesion Funds might be withheld they will probably let go of whatever reins they had put on their rhetoric.
The Commission insists, of course, that its decision is purely based on fiscal policy and is not influenced by the myriad of other concerns about Viktor Orbán’s predilection for gobbling up democratic institutions for breakfast.
Those on the right who believe that since Orbán won the election he has an indisputable mandate to undermine democracy are now afraid that communism and foreign domination are seeping back into Hungary via the Greeks the EU and their Trojan Horse its subsidies. Those on the left who have been praying for a European intervention to salvage whatever remains of their democracy believe that this is the first serious step in answer to their pleas.
Maybe I am naïve but I do not find it completely implausible that in arriving at its decision, the Commission may have considered the fact that the excess deficit proceeding against Hungary has been going on far longer than that against any other country. If I were optimistic, I’d even consider the possibility that the Commission has now officially rebuked supply side politics: much of the current problem with the budget stems from redistribution towards the wealthy.
But the EU has a real perception problem here and not all of it is Orbán’s fault. Not for the first time, the Union faces the question of what to do with the government of a member state that does not hold democracy in high esteem and even has the constitutional instruments to express its contempt by, erm, recalibrating democracy to better match its own ideas of good government.
So what can the EU do when a member state’s government undermines the independence of the judiciary, after having taken control of all other independent institutions? Or if it gerrymanders electoral districts and manipulates the electoral law to effectively make it impossible for new parties to get ballot access? Not much, in turns out.
These are obviously violations of ‘European’ values, but if you use the right instruments, you may do these things and still go scot-free. Pretty much all the EU can do is to utter the occasional inconsequential warning or – if it’s sinister enough – go after your money using a pretext.
Given that good democracy is impossible to define, and it is even extremely difficult to ascertain when a democracy stops being democratic, defining rules and setting up dedicated institutions to address such issues would be an extremely challenging undertaking. It’s much easier to let things slide and accept the reality that the Union’s penchant for diversity has to extend to the quality of democracy as well.
The price of lacking rules, however, is that when you have a justified need to lash out because you realise that your norms are being spurned by a member, then you’ll be perceived as arbitrary and overbearing. To avoid this, the European Union must define more clearly the qualities that are essential for a well-functioning democracy and must create an institution to ensure that these prevail in its member states.
Getting there will be an enormous political struggle, with lots of name-calling that will make ‘arbitrary’ sound nice by comparison. But the next time a member state with a dubious record on democracy violates the Maastricht Criteria, the Commission can withhold Cohesion Funds without the charge of hypocrisy.