The bad apples

Europe must fight the authoritarianism threatening its heart

By Timothy Garton Ash
  • Published 13.05.18

Boris Johnson should change his name and move to Hungary. "My policy on cake," Johnson famously says, "is pro having it and pro eating it." With this approach to Brexit, the British government will end up neither having its cake nor eating it. Viktor Orbán's Hungarian government, by contrast, is triumphantly practising the Johnson doctrine. It receives more European Union cake per capita than any other member state while mustering nationalist support by biting the Brussels hand that feeds it. Boris would be a happy trooper on the Danube.

Poland is also having its cake and eating it. According to European Commission figures, more than half of all public investment in Hungary and Poland in 2015-17 was funded by the EU. I recently visited one of Poland's poorest regions; wherever I went there was a road, a bridge, a marketplace or a train connection being modernized with EU funds. Yet the country's de facto leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, has eviscerated the independence of the courts, turned public service radio and television into propaganda organs for his Law and Justice party, and continues to pursue Orbánization à la polonaise. He hasn't got as far as Orbán, but the consequences of east central Europe's largest country sliding into Hungarian-style soft authoritarianism would be larger for the whole of EU.

Here is a fundamental challenge to anyone who thinks the EU should stand for the values of liberal democracy, pluralism, the rule of law and free speech. If it doesn't defend these values at home, it cannot be credible advocating them abroad.

Reflecting on Hungary, the political scientist, Jan-Werner Müller, asks, "Can a dictatorship be a member of the EU?" Of course Hungary is not yet a dictatorship, but the EU has completely failed to draw a red line and say 'thus far and no further'. I am confident Britain will remain a liberal democracy even if it leaves the EU; Hungary and Poland, by contrast, will remain members of the EU but are ceasing to be liberal democracies. In the very countries where, three decades ago, the causes of freedom and Europe advanced so magnificently arm in arm, these causes are now being prised apart.

Anti-liberal populists exploit a long-standing disconnect between the Europe of values and the Europe of money. This problem runs through the history of European integration, with the values being defended by the Council of Europe, its European Court of Human Rights, and to some extent the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe — whose election monitors found Hungary's recent election to be free but not fair. The EU started life as an economic community. For decades now, attempts have been made to reverse-engineer the values back into the economic community. This has worked well in influencing the behaviour of countries aspiring for EU membership, but once a country like Hungary is inside the Union, it rapidly finds that it can get away with almost anything.

What can the EU do? It has applied to Poland an elaborate procedure for addressing 'systemic' threats to the rule of law, including proceedings for infringement of the treaties. This has been important symbolically, but largely ineffective. Poland's own ombudsman, Adam Bodnar, finds that the rule of law has already been seriously undermined, and the constitutional court emasculated. Brussels has been playing chess against a kickboxer. The kickboxer wins.

For the first time ever, the EU has activated Article 7 of its basic treaty, identifying a serious and persistent breach of fundamental EU values in Poland. Article 7 envisages sanctions, up to and including suspension of voting rights in the Union's internal decision-making, so long as all other member states agree. But they won't, because Hungary will have Poland's back and Poland Hungary's.

Increasingly, attention has turned to linking the money countries get from Brussels to respect for the rule of law. In the recent proposal for the EU's 2021-27 budget, the European Commission elaborated a remarkable procedure: if there are 'generalized deficiencies' in a member state's legal system, the EU can cut the flow of funds. Since such an action only requires a qualified majority of member states, Poland and Hungary couldn't veto it. In addition, the European Anti-Fraud Office and the European Public Prosecutor are to crack down on corruption in the distribution of EU funds. This matters because a crucial part of east central European Johnsonism is using EU funds for political patronage, rewarding supportive media owners and other cronies, as well as for more straightforward pocket-lining. The outsize, brand-new football stadium and barely used single-gauge railway near Orbán's childhood village of Felcsút have become global symbols of this.

The Commission proposals are welcome, but will not begin to bite for several years. We need something with more immediate impact. That something is the expulsion of Orbán's Fidesz party from the European People's Party before next year's European elections. The EPP is the EU's main grouping of centre-right parties. Leading figures from its member parties include the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, the Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, the European Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker and the European Council president, Donald Tusk.

Party groupings such as this are supposed to be at the heart of the EU's internal democratization. Yet it keeps in its ranks a party, which is not only dismantling liberal, pluralist democracy at home but also fought its last election on an anti-Brussels, xenophobic platform, including dog whistle anti-semitism in posters plastered across the country targeting George Soros and a fictional 'Soros plan' for flooding Hungary with Muslim migrants. The EPP does not merely tolerate Fidesz; it actively supports it. As the Fidesz MEP, József Szájer, noted in an appreciative email to fellow MEPs, EPP parliamentary leader Manfred Weber "came... to Budapest to support our campaign, to stand firm beside us," and party president Joseph Daul "considerably helped us to score this success."

When I make this argument to friends in these centre-right parties, they say, 'Oh, but it's still better to have Orbán inside, because we can influence him there.' And so they go on nursing the classic illusions of appeasement, playing chess against a kickboxer. We don't have time for this any more. The matter is urgent. If Poland follows the Hungarian path, much of east central Europe will have succumbed to creeping authoritarianism — and this will have happened inside the EU.

The author is Professor of European Studies at Oxford University and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University