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Monday, 09 January 2012 16:45

Europe's mission in the Danube Monarchy

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Countries aiming to join the European Union need to guarantee their demonstration of functional democratic governance. In Hungary, an EU member since 2004, citizens are experiencing a fading trust in their government's commitment to these democratic values. The EU needs to put pressure on the government in Budapest, not just to prevent social and political tension in the country but also to maintain Europe's identity as a pioneer of democracy.

The right-wing party Fidesz led by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has continuously taken advantage of its two thirds parliamentary majority after its victory in the 2010 elections. Hungary’s democratic framework was initially shattered when Fidesz passed a law to create a supervisory body named the media council that controls all public and private media. This body can censor content and impose fines on media for being “politically unbalanced”, yet it is filled with Orbán’s allies. For many newspapers, the media law means the death of press freedom in Hungary. 

The new Hungarian constitution, in force since January 1st 2012, doesn’t require intensive reading to spot the changes. The former Republic of Hungary is now simply called Hungary. With the absence of the word “Republic”, the government has abandoned its earliest history of democracy since 1989. Besides this formal change, the constitution allows the president to dissolve the parliament if a budget is not approved and it limits the powers of the constitutional court.  The government is now also able to appoint members of the central bank of Hungary thereby strongly bringing the independence of this institution into question too.

Orbán’s idea of a Hungary with one governing party is the main driver of the drastic changes. To ensure this goal, Fidesz is expected to eliminate the second round of elections held in the Hungarian Parliamentary system. In order to win against the current government party it would then be necessary for the opposition parties to agree on one single candidate. Since the opposition is composed of a large number of members of the extreme right party Jobbik, which often votes together with Fidesz, and of two smaller left-wing parties, an oppositional consensus seems unlikely.

Impact on Europe

The government’s shift away from democratic norms has a considerable impact on the shape of the European Union. After all, the EU has built its identity upon human rights, checks and balances and the rule of law. The existence of a member country undermining only one of these principles changes the perception of the EU among its citizens. Europeans would begin to perceive the supranational bodies of the EU as unable to campaign for those who need it to live in pluralistic societies.

Moreover, Europe has a historical identity as the cradle of democratic principles and uses that to manifest its role in the world. How can we seriously criticise authoritarian regimes around the world without challenging one which is emerging in the heart of Europe. Wouldn’t any appeal for more democracy in developing countries be downgraded to a hollow phrase? At the end it is a question of credibility. Belarus, for instance, remains the only dictatorship on the European Continent (while not being an EU member). Even though Hungary is far away of the situation in Belarus, its renunciation from democratic principles as an EU member disrupts requests for reform in Minsk.

Once the accession process has finished, there remain remarkably few measures to ensure that democratic standards are maintained. The only instrument worth mentioning is the suspension of a member’s voting rights in EU bodies. In Hungary’s case the European Commission is currently investigating violations of the EU treaties, but a strong reaction is however doubtful. The European Council needs to vote unanimously to revoke Hungary’s voting rights. Until now, this method of punishment was never used and is unlikely to be in the future.

The EU wasn’t designed to impose strict rules on its members though, because most of the founding states upheld similar standards of government. The most recent enlargement, however can’t guarantee a common belief in the founding European principles, supposed to be held by all 27 states. It could be argued that strong mechanisms need to be put in place that regulate the framework of imposing sanctions and in fact facilitate the ultimate removal of countries as punishment for non-compliance.

However, mechanisms such as these very dramatic. Eurosceptics would undoubtedly argue that they grant Brussels considerable power to engage in the internal affairs of the sovereign state. And they do have a point. Yet, countries benefiting from EU membership must understand the associated obligations, even if that includes threatening them with expulsion. It would at least be a credible approach to reemphasise the core values of a united Europe.

Last modified on Wednesday, 11 January 2012 14:00
Simon Schmidt

Simon Schmidt holds a BA in International Business and is an alumnus of the International MA program of Political Science with respect to Russia and Eurasia of the European University at St. Petersburg. His main interests are Russian-EU relations and energy, security and economic developments in post-Soviet Eurasia. He currently lives and works in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.

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