A Double Standard: The Disparity Between EU Membership Criteria and Member Behavior
By Cameron Hall
These are certainly dark times for the European Union. British Prime Minister Theresa May’s decision to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty on March 29, 2017 officially marked the first time a member state has chosen to leave the Union. Ever since the “Brexit” referendum in June 2016, many have feared other EU members will follow suit, and the unfortunate trend of tacking “-exit” onto the end of country names has spread like wildfire across Europe. However, amidst this talk of countries choosing to leave the EU, the body faces another pressing issue: many of its member states increasingly violate the EU charter. Dangerous authoritarian trends in several countries, particularly in Hungary and Poland, put these states in direct conflict with the EU’s espousal of liberal democracy, and if these trends are not reversed, serious consideration should be given to removing these states from the organization.
Democracy has always been a fundamental requirement for states seeking to join the EU. According to the membership criteria outlined by the European Commission’s website, countries wishing to join must possess “stable institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities.” In November 2016, the EU Parliament voted to suspend ascension talks with Turkey because of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s limits on freedom of speech and increasingly authoritarian power consolidation, which violate these requirements. However, this same scrutiny is not being applied to states that have joined the EU and have since regressed away from the democratic requirements.
The most startling example of this trend is Hungary, where the far-right Fidesz Party has governed since 2010 under the leadership of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Orbán does not hide his disdain for liberal democracy and has praised authoritarian “illiberal democracies” in Turkey, China, Singapore and Russia. According to an Amnesty International report, the first signs of trouble appeared in 2010 and 2011, when all media outlets were required to register with a government body, allowing for regulation of media content. This action violates the EU’s mandate for its members to respect human rights, since the UN Declaration of Human Rights lists freedom of speech and expression as a human right.
Following this came a series of constitutional amendments in 2013 that, according to Human Rights Watch, weakened judicial independence and the Constitutional Court, limited the ability of non-state-owned media sources to run political campaign ads, and left the door open for religious discrimination by giving parliament sole discretion to determine what institutions are “a church” and thus receive state funding. While the provisions pertaining to campaigns ads have further curtailed freedom of speech, the human right of freedom of religious worship has been violated by allowing the government to intervene in certain religious institutions via its control of funding. Additionally, the amendments’ changes to the judicial system, which included replacing veteran judges with judges more amendable to Orbán’s wishes, go against the EU’s requirement of “stable institutions guaranteeing democracy.”
The same amendments also defined the family as “based on the marriage of a man and a woman, or a linear blood relationship, or guardianship,” limiting the rights of LGBTQ people and thus failing to fulfill EU membership requirements of “respect for and protection of minorities.” In addition, Hungary further violated this principle by blocking an EU agreement to prevent discrimination against the LGBTQ community in 2016.
Just recently, on April 4, Hungary passed a law intended to forcibly close the Central European University, a renowned university founded by financier George Soros that largely operates free of government oversight. This again presents freedom of speech and expression issues by labeling an institution “illegal” simply because its views and statements cannot be controlled by the government.
Hungary is but one example of a dangerous trend of authoritarianism among EU member states. A Freedom House report describes the actions of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party in Poland as strikingly similar to those of Fidesz in Hungary, discussing how the party is “transforming the Polish landscape at breakneck speed and in violation of the country’s own laws.” The Polish government even went so far as to ignore judicial rulings by refusing to publish them in the official register. While the EU has expressed concern over these actions, its concern has been largely ignored by the governments of Hungary and Poland. Such actions clearly violate the principles of the EU, as well as its membership criteria, and if things do not improve, the organization should reconsider its relationship with Poland and Hungary.
The EU should first consider punishing these countries that violate its membership criteria by invoking Article 7.2 of the EU Constitution. This clause prescribes sanctions and a suspension of voting rights for countries violating fundamental rights. While there has been debate about punishing both Poland and Hungary under Article 7.2, both countries have escaped unscathed. Given these countries’ flagrant violations of fundamental rights and repeated ignoring of EU warnings, the EU must punish them under the terms of Article 7.2 without delay. Such an action would send a message to Poland, Hungary, and other countries that quasi-authoritarian power consolidation and human rights violations will not be tolerated.
However, if Poland and Hungary still do not bow to EU pressure, their membership status should be terminated. A strong, expansive EU is crucial to ensure political and economic stability in Europe, but states must also remain loyal to the principles upon which the EU was founded. When democracy has been as thoroughly torn asunder as it has been in Hungary and Poland, there must be consequences to ensure that this democratic backsliding does not spread to other EU members. If leaders and parties believe they can get away with becoming repressive and authoritarian while retaining EU membership, they may be incentivized to stray from democracy, just as Poland and Hungary have.
The current situation perpetuates the notion that states must merely appear democratic to get into the EU, and once in they can do whatever they want. Many of the EU’s current members, from formerly Francoist Spain to the formerly communist Eastern European countries, have authoritarian pasts, but none was permitted to join the Union until democracy was in place. The same scrutiny applied to the admission of new members must also be applied to already existing members.
While neither Poland nor Hungary nor any other EU country has become a fully-fledged authoritarian state, liberal democracy is vanishing rapidly in both Poland and Hungary, and these countries must be punished if they continue down this path. While so much emphasis is placed on keeping the EU together these days, there is no point in keeping it together if its members are violating the principles for which it stands. It is crucial that the EU remain intact, but it is also imperative that the organization remains true to its values, and if Poland or Hungary or any other member takes issue with this, their membership should be revoked without delay.