William NATTRASS: Viewing Central European governments as enemies would be a fatal mistake for the EU

Viewing Central European governments as enemies would be a fatal mistake for the EU

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British journalist based in Prague and news editor of Expats.cz

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The current state of relations between Brussels and governments in Central Europe is unsustainable – writes William NATTRAS

.Last week’s ruling of the Polish Constitutional Tribunal on the primacy of the Polish Constitution over EU law was the culmination of a series of disputes over rule of law and adherence to „EU values” in Poland, as well as in Visegrád Four ally Hungary. In appearing to threaten the EU’s entire legal order, the court’s verdict led to speculation about a possible break-up of the bloc.  

Clearly, something needs to change. 

Political calculations make it increasingly unlikely that the current Polish or Hungarian regimes will back away from conflicts they have helped to create. Being seen to stand up for the sovereignty of their nations has become vital to the political personas of Fidesz and PiS. Poland, in particular, crossed the Rubicon with its declaration about the primacy of the national constitution over EU law. Having elevated the nation’s legal dispute with the EU to questions of such fundamental significance, backing down now would seem a craven act of political cowardice, from which the ruling parties would struggle to recover. 

Brussels must take the initiative, then: either to defuse the tension, or to bring the disputes to a head. Many are calling on the EU to inflict tough financial sanctions on Poland and Hungary, through the bloc’s new rule-of-law conditionality mechanism for the distribution of EU funds, and possibly also on the basis of alleged violations of human rights. 

Indeed, financial punishments are the only realistic form of retributive action open to Brussels (other than excluding Hungary and Poland from decision-making processes, a move which the EU is hesitant to take because of the likelihood that it would push those countries firmly towards the exit door).  

But what could the EU hope to achieve through such economic sanctions? It is surely not in Brussels’ long-term interest to make Poland and Hungary poorer. And does the EU really want to become an oppressive force which must rule by fear in order to enforce conformity to legal and cultural norms? 

No. Sanctions on Poland and Hungary could have only one realistic long-term goal: hastening a fall from power for the Fidesz and United Right governments. Brussels will calculate that, when the wellspring of EU money dries up, public anger at these governments’ readiness to put economic prosperity at risk will lead to electoral defeat. 

A situation is emerging, then, in which the most the EU can hope to achieve in rebellious Central European member states is regime change. But this situation presents difficult questions about the nature of the bloc as a political entity. If the EU can only work with compliant national governments and politicians of a certain ideological persuasion, then some „EU citizens” really are made more equal than others. 

Hanging all hopes for reconciliation on regime change is also problematic because of the inevitable disappointment when such change finally takes place. Opposition coalitions – such as the one which recently won the Czech election, and the „United Opposition” which will contest next year’s Hungarian election – consist of diverse political groups with varying attitudes towards EU integration. Some of these parties are more representative of „EU values” than others: on LGBT+ rights, migration, and other contentious issues. Coalition governments always involve compromise, so disputes with Brussels will not disappear overnight even if more pro-EU groups do assume power. 

There is, moreover, undeniable support for euroscepticism among large parts of the Polish, Hungarian and Czech populations. Politicians such as Viktor Orbán and Jarosław Kaczyński have encouraged feelings of grievance against the EU with such success that a total reversal of their policies by succeeding governments could easily be portrayed as spineless surrender. 

The recent actions of the Polish and Hungarian governments may have been controversial, but they have also been grounded in legitimate popular concerns about the evolution of the European project – an evolution driven primarily by the bloc’s wealthy western and northern member states. So, if the EU really does value democracy – if it respects the concerns of people living in Central and Eastern Europe – its aim and hope must not be the removal of troublesome eurosceptic governments, but the discovery of solutions to their grievances.  

Rather than resorting to punishments, the EU must engage with these countries’ concerns, recognizing the fact that even if Orbán and Kaczyński go, the sociocultural influences responsible for disputes with Hungary and Poland will not. Cooperation and compromise are needed, not threats and recrimination. The bloc must protect its legal and financial integrity; but it must also show itself ready to listen to the concerns of its citizens, instead of ruling by fear. 

William Nattrass

This content is protected by copyright. Any further distribution without the authors permission is forbidden. 16/10/2021