Aspiring autocrats in Hungary and Poland have continued to tighten their grip on power while other EU countries have been allowing their democracies to stagnate, according to a report published last month by Liberties on the state of democracy in the EU. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine should make EU governments realise that they need to strengthen democracies in the Union.
Unaccountable autocrats are dangerous
Putin’s actions remind us that when government isn’t accountable to citizens, it’s easy for leaders to abuse their power and bring suffering to ordinary people at home or abroad. The way the Kremlin has supressed protests and manipulated public opinion illustrates that in an autocracy, citizens don’t have the tools they need to control their leaders. That leaves autocrats free to serve themselves instead of their people.
The EU has been slow to take effective measures to protect democratic standards in Hungary and Poland. The latest development has seen Von der Leyen further prevaricating over using a new mechanism to cut funding to governments damaging democracy, even though the Court of Justice declared the mechanism lawful. The invasion of Ukraine should increase the resolve of the EU to use the powers it has to protect democracy for three reasons.
Hungary and Poland follow Putin’s playbook
First, because PiS and Fidesz have both been copying Putin’s measures to turn their countries into autocracies, and autocracies are dangerous. Liberties 2022 report on democracy in the EU documents how the regimes have taken steps to subjugate the media, taken over their courts or re-written the constitution so they can bypass laws that block their agenda, tried to strangle rights and democracy groups and restrict the right to protest. Other reports detail how the two governments have taken steps to skew the playing field of elections.
Orban and Kaczynski haven’t been in power as long as Putin and haven’t behaved as violently. It’s unimaginable today that PiS or Fidesz would use force against another EU country. But the rules are changing quickly. Ten years ago, it was unimaginable that regimes like theirs could exist inside the EU.
Today, their ability to control public debate, bypass the law and stifle criticism has made it easy for both regimes to persecute marginalised groups, like LGBTIQ persons, feminists and people who migrate. It allows them to whip up their base with by attacking Germany over the Second World War and whip up grievances over lost Hungarian territory. And it gives both governments the latitude to intimidate Brussels with threats to turn domestic opinion against the EU and maybe even to leave altogether. If PiS and Fidesz consolidate autocracies in Poland and Hungary, what kind of actions will they be willing to engage in ten or twenty years from now?
The EU is now better placed to protect democracy in Hungary and Poland
Second, because the EU now has a stronger hand. Some commentators have questioned whether the EU is in a position to maintain pressure on Orban and Kaczynski to reverse their destruction of democracy. They argue that Poland and Hungary will threaten to veto EU measures against Putin unless the EU stops pressuring them to respect the rule of law.
On the contrary, the current situation, although it may help their popularity at home in the short term, in the long term it weakens these regimes’ hands in relation to the EU. First, they are genuinely scared that they’re next on Putin’s menu, because they border Ukraine (even if Orban isn’t yet prepared to burn his bridges with Putin). Blocking EU action against the Kremlin would be against their interests. Second, they need the EU and its funds even more now. Being part of the EU offers them greater economic and political protection. They will both need extra EU support to cope with Ukrainian refugees. And, at least for Hungary, turning to Russia for funding as an alternative to the EU is no longer an option. Third, the way that the EU and NATO have responded to the invasion removes the rallying power of the nationalist narratives used by Fidesz and PiS. Would even their supporters still be convinced that the EU treats its members like the Soviet Union or that Germany is still an enemy of Poland?
The EU is now in a stronger position to point out to Orban and Kaczynski that they have lost their leverage. Public opinion across Europe has rallied against Putin. Surely it would be easy for other EU governments to convince their voters to support EU measures that stop PiS and Fidesz copying Putin’s policies to establish an autocracy. And the regimes are unlikely to be able to intimidate Brussels with the threat of whipping up domestic anger towards the EU, because that narrative is now too implausible. This should give the European Commission and other EU governments the political will to use the tools they’ve been cautious to trigger to date, like cutting EU funds and triggering Article 7.
But all EU governments need to renew their democracies
Third, because EU governments have allowed their own democracies to stagnate, leading to governments that don’t work for their peoples and divisions that can be exploited by Putin and others with ultra-conservative agendas. There are many problems eating away at democracies in the EU. Restrictions on the right to protest and on rights and democracy groups, declining quality and independence of the media, underfunding and tampering with the judiciary, data theft and monetisation of disinformation and political polarisation by social media companies, backsliding on equality, strategic corruption and demonisation of people who migrate.
Some of these problems have been fuelled by the Kremlin and far-right forces behind Trump in the USA. Partly to turn back the clock on progress towards freedom and equality by promoting an ultra-conservative ideology. Partly to create instability and make it harder for democracies to respond to Putin. A properly functioning democracy isn’t just the best way to make sure that leaders work for their citizens rather than for themselves. It’s also key to immunising our societies from malign interests that want to weaken and divide democracies for geopolitical reasons.