One of the world’s greatest acts of charity has been the aid given to the newer members and poorer nations of the European Union by wealthier states, especially since the admission of many former Soviet-bloc countries in 2004. This “cohesion” money is largely spent on reducing inequities in trade, transport, and communications across the Continent.
Yet soon those funds may also be used to ensure the EU has no inequities in democratic standards, such as freedom of the press and independence of judges, that lie at the core of Europe’s civilizational identity.
On May 2, the European Commission, which is the bloc’s bureaucratic body, proposed that the handouts be curtailed to any member state that has “deficiencies in the rule of law,” as EC President Jean-Claude Juncker put it. The move, which does not require the unanimous approval of the EU, is aimed particularly at Poland and Hungary. Right-wing nationalist governments there have violated norms that protect the liberty of individuals, media, and businesses from arbitrary rule.
For years, the EU has sought ways to punish Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party for its assaults on the independence of the judiciary. And as Hungary has curbed press freedom and taken other authoritarian steps, it, too, faces challenges from EU institutions. Under the bloc’s rules, however, it is difficult to discipline a country once it is a member.
The Commission’s threat to cut aid is a clever way to force Warsaw and Budapest to think twice. And it’s not merely a message about values. Rather the proposal is framed as a practical concern about aid being stolen or the possibility of a legal dispute not being handled fairly in a country’s court system. In other words, member states would be held to account for “sound financial management” of EU largess.
For Poland and Hungary, ending aid from the EU would have significant consequences. Most of their infrastructure spending has come from the EU. And in 2016, the subsidy amounted to 2.6 percent of Poland’s gross national income and 4.2 percent of Hungary’s.
Holding the line against dictatorial tendencies is key not only for the current EU but also for its expansion plans. Seven countries on the edges of Europe are candidates to join. This club of democracies has been critical in preventing war. It is also a model in showing rule of law can ensure prosperity and freedom.
The EU charity has built a safe home for Europe. Keeping it safe may require not contributing to countries that stand outside its democratic norms.