The issue of democratic decay within the European Union (EU) has perceived extensive attention in recent years. Since the commencement of the EU, democratic values have remained among the prominent principles of the institution. The Union explicitly stated that the incoming members must have a “stable institution” guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights, and respect for and protection of minorities.” The EU is committed to holding its member states accountable to EU treaties. The EU has also created a system to sanction those member states who fail to preserve and break away from the Union’s democratic values in their country (TEU, Article 7).
In the contemporary period, the EU faces threats to its established core principles of democracy and the rule of law. Democratic Backsliding within the EU keeps growing as the Populist leader and nationalism become more dominant and take control of the highest government office.
The breakdown of the Soviet Union gave birth to many independent countries in the Central-Eastern region of Europe, which went through a radical political and economic transformation. Those days, the EU emerged as a great success of European integration and set a prime precedent for regionalism. Many countries pushed to reconfigure to acquire membership to solidify and consolidate these changes. In 2004 eight former Soviet components joined the European Union that further strengthened the EU’s objective to erase internal borders. But after, a few years back, the core principles of the EU were challenged by these countries and started to jeopardize the foundational values. Recently, some evidence shows the democratic decay in the EU member states such as Hungary, Poland, Slovenia, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, amongst others, that appear to be reneging on the democratic duties articulated in EU treaties.
A question arises: What factors drive the democratic backsliding in Central-Eastern Europe. Anna Grzymala-Busse, a renowned political scientist, enunciated that one of the prominent examples of democratic backsliding in the region is Hungary. Since 2010, the Fidesz government has systematically dismantled its formal institutions of democracy and the rule of law, such as court independence, media autonomy, and university autonomy- familiar circumstances could be observed in Poland since 2015 and in the Czech Republic since 2017. At the same time, other analysts stated that the rise of populism and anti-democratic parties in such countries reinforced the notion of democratic backsliding and threatened the integration process of the EU.
Under the leadership of Viktor Orbán and the ruling party (Fidesz) for the last decade, they attempted to take control over the state’s legislative and judiciary. For instance, they have undermined several independent institutions like checks and balances by directing power in the executive branch and singularly changing the constitution. The major news agencies are now owned by them and censor the information broadcasted to the Hungarian public. Moreover, the Constitutional Court has filled many judges with Fidesz loyalists.
In Poland, the Law and Justice (PiS) party, a right-wing populist, contributed to the democratic backsliding. Since the arrival of the PiS party in power in 2015, they have been waging war against the judicial system to change it into a pliant political fool. The EU has criticized the party over an illegal takeover of the state’s constitutional Court. The party took revenge by persecuting some individual judges in 2019. The rise of Andrej Babiš and his ANO movement in the Czech Republic has been considered a paradoxical populist disruptor, but as a potentially authoritarian leader whose rise to power is intimidating the democratic structure in the country.
The EU cannot withdraw the membership of any member state itself. The most it can do is suspend the voting right under Article 7 of the treaty of Lisbon only if that member state is found guilty of breaching the EU’s fundamental values. However, it cannot be done unless the EU council members vote unanimously. In the meantime, Article 7 could never be successful shortly as Hungary and Poland will be supporting each other in the EU council against the EU’s punitive measures. The other available option at the EU’s disposal may also prove futile. The Union could restrict the amount of funding allocated to Hungary and Poland to exert pressure on them to avoid practicing illiberal democratic practices and political interference in liberal institutions. By some means, it could be an option because these countries’ economies depend on the EU’s funding. But again, the European Commission cannot make the decision unilaterally, which makes room for such countries to violate the EU’s Treaties or laws. The other option is to penalize those countries by taking them to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) for their democratic violation. Suppose the ECJ finds those countries guilty, then it can impose financial penalties. But it is a time-consuming process that needs to be sped up to take punitive actions against them.
Romania was also on the track of democratic backsliding, but the timely intervention of the EU saved Romania, which could have followed Hungary and Poland’s path.
Over the last two decades, many countries in Central and Eastern Europe have seen an increase in support for nationalists, populists, and anti-establishment political parties termed “Eurosceptic” because most of them consider Brussels is compromising their national sovereignty. Fear of globalization, influx of refugees and migrants are the driving factors that give support to these political parties among individuals. The EU sees it as a threat to its integration process of enlarging its membership in the region. Last year the ruling of the Polish Constitutional Court of having supremacy over EU laws and treaties and the fourth consecutive victory of Viktor Orbán in Hungary is a real time concern for officials in Brussels
The Eastern and Central European countries were allowed to join the Union under the condition of not violating the EU law and working to promote democracy and protect human rights. Unfortunately, the surge of right-wing radical political parties, nationalism, and populism in Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, and others threaten the EU’s values. At the same time, the inadequate mechanism of the EU to sanction member states for trespassing EU treaties and laws highlights a significant loophole in the supranational institution. The rise of populist leaders, nationalism and far-right political parties indulging more in anti-democratic practices set a stage for competitive authoritarianism that could cripple the democratic values and practices in the near future in Europe. Since the timely intervention in Romania revered the undemocratic moves, it is imperative to ask why it cannot be carried out in Hungary, where democratic backsliding gains momentum and threatens the EU’s principles.
Muhammad Adil is a Research Assistant at Balochistan Think Tank Network (BTTN) at BUITEMS, Quetta.