In Depth

Is it time the EU took on Hungary and Poland over ‘illiberal democracy’?

Dispute over Covid-19 recovery package highlights divisions at heart of EU27

Calls for the European Union to clip the wings of Hungary and Poland have reemerged after the two countries vetoed approval of a Brussels budget and Covid-19 recovery package worth €1.8trn (£1.6trn).

In a meeting on Monday, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his Polish counterpart Mateusz Morawiecki announced that they would block the package citing the EU’s “woke” agenda and perceived interference in domestic politics.

The bloc has repeatedly criticised the countries’ slide towards right-wing authoritarianism over the past decade, during which both have restricted civil liberties and curtailed political dissent.

Step to the right

The socially conservative leanings of both Poland and Hungary have long been a thorn in the side of the more liberal-minded EU, but 2020 has seen the tensions veer into something of a crisis.

Over the course of his ten years in power, Orban has “chipped away at the foundations of Hungarian democracy”, replacing it with an “authoritarian regime that wields a cynical interpretation of the law as a weapon”, Vox reports.

“Hungary’s civil society looks free and vibrant on paper”, the site says, “but a patchwork of nonsensical regulations makes it nearly impossible for pro-democracy organisations to do their work”.

Meanwhile, while the economy seems to be growing at a healthy pace, “a significant number of corporations are controlled by Orban’s cronies,” the site adds.

Under his rule, Hungary has been described as “the EU’s first dictatorship” by Euractiv, and in April passed a law that handed the prime minister the right to rule by decree indefinitely

Poland, meanwhile, has long relied on religious argumnets to defend socially conservative legislation, while the ruling Law and Order party recently set of alarm bells in Brussels by attempting to restrict the independence of Polish judges.

Writing in The Atlantic ahead of the country’s election earlier this year, Yascha Mounk said that the country’s state television networks have become “reliable purveyors of government propaganda”, free speech has been restricted and “control of the country’s court system” has been achieved.

European frenemies

While the democratic backslide in both countries has been long festering, overt policies targeting LGBT communities, immigrants and women’s autonomy have more recently pushed the EU to consider taking action.

Ahead of his re-election earlier this year, Duda campaigned against an “LGBT ideology” he said was “more destructive than communism” and pledged to ban teaching of gay rights in schools.

Poland also “has some of the most draconian abortion laws in Europe”, The Guardian says, and in October ruled that one of the few exceptions to a nationwide ban - cases of severe foetal impairment - should also be made illegal, effectively outlawing all abortion.

Just last week Hungary’s far-right government used the passing of emergency measures for tackling coronavirus to ram through a constitutional amendment that requires children to be brought up with a “Christian” interpretation of gender roles.

The legislation introduces the phrase “the mother is female, the father is male” to the constitution and outlaws same-sex adoption, gay pride parades and legal recognition of transgender and intersex citizens.

The EU Council on Foreign Relations’ Coalition Explorer survey of policy professionals reveals that collectively they regard Poland as the second “most disappointing country in the bloc”, beaten to the top spot by Hungary. 

What could the EU do about it?

Hungary has so far faced little pushback for what Orban calls “illiberal democracy”.

However, his party is currently facing expulsion from the European People’s Party - the largest group in the European Parliament - after former President of the European Council Donald Tusk took over its leadership and vowed to purge it of populists.

Poland has borne the brunt of the EU’s wrath, and is currently facing economic sanctions for its decision to restriction the freedom of the Polish judiciary. 

But what if the EU wished to make a real statement over the countries’ decision to block a coronavirus recovery package?

At the “worst possible time during a worldwide pandemic”, Poland and Hungary are “taking the 25 other EU member states hostage in their ongoing attempt to crush democracy”, Deutsche Welle says. 

Since “the money from the Covid-19 relief fund is urgently needed in southern Europe”, the website argues, the EU “needs to draft another clause - one that deals with kicking out member states”.

This view is also held by former US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice, who tweeted earlier this year that Hungary should be ejected from the bloc. 

However, Euronews notes that while Article 50 allows for a country to leave the EU voluntarily, there is “no such mechanism for forcing a member state out”.

“The Article 7 process, which suspends members' voting rights, is also unlikely to go anywhere,” it adds, as “another member state can simply veto it”.

In this worst case scenario for Europe’s populist pair, Poland and Hungary would certainly have each others’ backs.

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