Future of the EU

The year has barely started, and yet another ‘critical and defining moment’ in EU history is already upon us

While I have been thinking about an appropriate and a bit more optimistic way to start our blog in 2012 (and we grapple with the workload of getting back to work), the relations between Hungary and the EU have reached a new low and provoke me to add something to the debate on whether Hungary is getting more and more undemocratic or is just finally getting rid of communism…Reports from yesterday tell us that European Commissioner Olli Rehn has been criticising Hungary’s ‘unorthodox’ fiscal measures and the fact that the government has taken no action to curb its excessive budget deficit, while the Commission is examining if the new Hungarian constitution, coming into force in January, is so out of kilter with democratic principles that there is ground to take legal action. This is of course, article 7 (TEU), adopted in Amsterdam and modified in Nice,  the big gun, nuclear option for the EU member states, to use if they consider a member state to have become undemocratic.  The explanation of the procedure for using the article and the prevention mechanism added at Nice can be read here (with thanks to Edward Hugh for the link!). Edward Hugh’s comment that the Hungarian government and the EU, represented by the European Commission are heading for a showdown and are leading us towards another critical and defining moment in EU history inspired the title of this post. There are many aspects to why , were the Commission to recommend suspension of Hungary under article 7 TEU or the member states to take further steps along this road, this would represent a critical juncture in the history of the EU. The Orban government, as their representatives never tire of reminding us, was elected with a huge majority. The measures and policies that they have implemented so far may be called  populist by commentators but they may bring a sense of  grievances well addressed in parts of the Hungarian electorate. The slide of the forint in the face of unsustainable economic policies in a globalized environment, exacerbated by temper tantrums against the IMF is another story, but if we leave the Hungarian economy out of it (can we really?), it is for the Hungarians to protest if they find their government does not do what it promised(we can find out here how protests are shaping in the last months). If they do not and the EU suspends Hungary, the big question will be, would this be a victory for democracy in Europe or not? The most obvious conflict here is between the procedural side of democracy and the principles and norms that make democracy work beyond its  hardware of laws. Giving the opposition some voice and keeping the executive removed from judicial appointments may not be formal requirements to be considered a democracy, but the EU’s approach to a similar situation in Slovakia under Vladimir Meciar testifies that it takes seriously the preservation of division and balance between the branches of power. At the same time however, the EU’s own authority in democratic matters has been undermined from all sides, mostly by its own leaders and their reaction to the financial crisis, for example, to former Greek PM’s proposal to hold a referendum on the Greek reforms and rescue package… and when it comes to norms, the EU has been only successful in the past when it has been able to rely upon the implicit moral authority of a community of democratic states with impeccable democratic credentials. Otherwise criticism of the Orban government becomes a meaningless war of words in which those being criticized can claim that all criticism is instigated by their political opponents, the well connected Hungarian socialists. We have to hope that the analysis the Commission is conducting will come up with exceptionally well grounded legal arguments, whichever way it goes, to get us out of this PR war between rival political frames interpreting the actions of the Hungarian government…The EU’s moral authority just does not cut it at the moment.

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