European Union’s balancing act: Democracy with unity

Ronald Wittek/AP
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki defends his government before the European Parliament last Tuesday. In the same debate, the European Union's top official accused Warsaw of threatening European values.

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The European Union is going through an existential identity crisis that is bound to have repercussions in the wider world. At its heart, it is a manifestation of what U.S. President Joe Biden calls the defining issue of our era: the contest between democracy and autocracy.

The EU is wrestling with how to treat two members, Poland and Hungary, whose governments are challenging the union’s core democratic principles, including press freedom, judicial independence, and the rule of law. How to defend those principles, while holding the European Union together?

Why We Wrote This

Two European Union countries are breaking the bloc’s rules on democracy. Can they be brought back into line without a unity-busting showdown?

The EU could go for a showdown, and withhold budget funds from so-called illiberal democracies such as Poland and Hungary. But such a confrontation carries political risks that some leaders are reluctant to run.

In one of her last acts as German chancellor before she steps down, Angela Merkel is counseling caution. “We have the duty always to try to find compromise, without giving up our principles,” she says. “Europe is only as strong as it is united.”

Call it the geopolitical equivalent of a midlife crisis or perhaps a case of delayed adolescence. Either way, the dramatic identity check underway in the European Union, the world’s third biggest economic power, stands to affect the wider world.

At its heart, the crisis is a manifestation of what U.S. President Joe Biden has framed as the defining political issue of our 21st century world, the contest between democracy and autocracy.

The EU’s 27 leaders, convening for a summit today, are wrestling with an existential question: how to treat Poland and Hungary, once Soviet-bloc members, who are challenging the union’s core democratic principles, including press freedom, equal rights for minorities, judicial independence, and the rule of law.

Why We Wrote This

Two European Union countries are breaking the bloc’s rules on democracy. Can they be brought back into line without a unity-busting showdown?

The ideological choice is not really in question. The EU’s political values enjoy overwhelming support among both national leaders and the European public. But the debate over how to bring the self-declared “illiberal democracies” of Poland and Hungary into line gets tangled in a web of competing internal and international political priorities.

That’s where navigating the identity crisis gets especially tricky.

A powerful economic union that has morphed and expanded from an initial six-nation trade pact seven decades ago – with World War II foes France and West Germany as its fulcrum – is having to defend its values while also holding itself together on a continent, and in a world, changed beyond recognition.

As the summiteers gather, they have a powerful tool to deploy in driving the democratic message home: They could withhold billions of euros in EU social, economic, and COVID-19 recovery funds. Poland and Hungary are major beneficiaries of an EU budget largely funded by wealthier member states.

The immediate focus of controversy is Poland, the most likely to suffer from a recently adopted European Commission rule that makes some budget aid dependent on respect for the rule of law.

Czarek Sokolowski/AP
A protester stands in front of the ruling Law and Justice party headquarters in Warsaw during a demonstration in support of Poland's EU membership. Poland's constitutional court had ruled that Polish laws have supremacy over those of the European Union, a decision that has worsened the government's already troubled relationship with the EU.

Warsaw first provoked EU wrath by subjecting its judges to political control. Now it has compounded Brussels’ anger: When the EU Court of Justice ordered the Polish government to correct that situation, the Polish constitutional court ruled this month that national law overrode such an EU judgment.

“This ruling calls into question the foundations of the European Union,” European Commission President Ursula von Leyen told the European Parliament on Tuesday.

“The rule of law is the glue that binds our union together,” she added. “We cannot and we will not allow our common values to be put at risk. The commission will act.”

Still, even as pressure has built to withhold EU funds from Poland, some leading European leaders are worrying about the potential repercussions of such a showdown.

Could it play into the hands of the Polish and Hungarian leaders – allowing them to portray Brussels as heavy-handed – even as they are beginning to show signs of political vulnerability at home?

Would it breathe new life into euroskeptic parties in a number of member countries where currents of concern about overly centralized EU power run strongly – just when the pandemic and Britain’s post-Brexit travails have strengthened the case for unionwide coordination?

Finally, might it further embolden Russian President Vladimir Putin, who views his former Soviet-bloc neighbors as within Moscow’s natural sphere of influence and bridled at their joining the EU and NATO?

These rumbles from the east are resonating with particular force now. The Russian-backed dictatorship in Belarus, sanctioned by the EU over its diversion of a civilian flight in order to detain two dissidents, has retaliated by welcoming tens of thousands of Middle East asylum-seekers and routing them to the Polish border. Many who manage to cross that frontier have made their way to Germany.

Few EU leaders are voicing this range of concerns publicly amid the debate over how to reassert the political values underpinning the union.

Yet the message of caution has been unmistakable, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel – now in a caretaker capacity, but still the EU’s most influential voice – put it succinctly last week.

“I think now is the time to talk in depth with the Polish government,” she declared. “We have big problems, but my advice is to solve them in talks. We are all member states of the European Union, which means we have the duty always to try to find compromise – without giving up our principles.” 

Part of this was classic Angela Merkel. The enormous influence she has built up during her decade and a half in power has rested largely on her role as a force for stability, and her ability to bring opposing views together.

Yet she seemed also to be conveying a deeper message: that getting the EU’s future role and identity right was bound to be a difficult task, and that it was too important to rush.

Above all, she insisted, especially in the wake of Britain’s departure from the EU, the union should stick together. “Centrifugal forces have been at work in the EU for several years now,” she noted. “Europe is only as strong as it is united.”

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