The rejected cornerstone of democracy

The Polish and Hungarian governments’ definition of ‘fundamental European values’ differs from the one espoused by the European Commission

Magdalena Wnuk
21 September 2017

Since 2015, the issue of infringing on fundamental rights and the democratic rule of law has been regularly debated in the European Parliament. The Polish and Hungarian governments’ definition of ‘fundamental European values’ differs from the one espoused by the European Commission.

Half of the ten main debates in the EP on democratic values carried out from 2015 to 2017 were devoted to the actions of the governments in Warsaw and in Budapest. The Parliament passed six resolutions calling for compliance with the democratic values of the EU, one of which concerned Poland, one Hungary, and the rest the situation of fundamental rights in the EU and Turkey and the European Pact for Democracy. 

Czech MEPs overall support these actions. They were in favour of five of the six resolutions, while Slovakian MEPs voted in favour of three, and Polish MEPs of two. It is the Hungarians who most vociferously oppose the calls for monitoring the rule of law. They supported only the resolution assessing the state of fundamental rights in the EU in 2015.

V4 MEPs are divided when it comes to the actions of Polish and Hungarian governments. The EP passed resolutions for diligent monitoring of the situation in Poland and Hungary in September 2016 and May 2017 respectively.

The resolution passed in September 2016 concerning the government’s reforms in Poland attracted more supporters than opponents: 51 V4 MEPs votes for, 40 were against, 1 abstained, 14 didn’t vote or were absent. 17 out of 21 Czech MEPs voted in favour of the resolution, as did 7 out of 13 Slovakian MEPs. Polish MEPs supported the resolution with a slight majority of 23 to 22 votes, and 12 Hungarian MEPs voted against it with 4 voting in favour.

The resolution on Hungary was supported only by Czech MEPs, with 9 MEPs voting in favour, six against and five abstaining. For the resolution overall voted 37 MEPs with 50 voting against. 9 abstained and 6 were absent or didn’t vote.

While opposition parties in Poland do not hold back in criticizing the government’s reform, it isn’t easy to find a fierce supporter of the EU’s involvement with Polish issues among the MEPs. More eager to support monitoring of their neighbour’s democracy are centrist Czech MEPs and the Hungarian democratic opposition, which often reproaches the European Commission for its idleness when it comes to Orban. Slovakian MEPs are not fans of EU interfering in internal affairs of any member states.

The UE takes its time when it comes to punishing the member states

The response to one of the member states’ disregarding the common European values is inscribed in Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union. It is triggered by a motion put forward by one third of the member states, the EP or the European Commission. Next, member states in the Council can declare, with four fifths of the votes, ‘a clear risk of a serious breach (…) of values’, but it takes unanimity to take it from a risk of a breach to ‘the existence of a serious and persistent’ disregard for EU’s values. This may result, though it has never happened before, in suspending a given member state’s right to vote in the Council.

Since the year 2000 when Jörg Haider’s far-right Freedom Party of Austria became a member of the Austrian government the only countries in danger of having Article 7 triggered against them are Hungary and Poland.

In July 2017 a bill was passed in Poland that would allow for, among other things, a complete exchange of the judges in the Supreme Court. On the 26th of July 2017 the European Commission issued a warning to Warsaw that they will trigger Article 7 if even a single judge is fired. This warning came already after president Andrzej Duda promised to veto the bill. On the 28th of August the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued an official response saying that the Commission’s statement concerns legal acts that are not implemented and that the reform of the judiciary is coherent with the European standards.

Even if the European Commission were to trigger the article, it is unlikely that any sanction will be imposed on Poland. To suspend a member state’s right to vote in the Commission requires unanimity that is virtually unattainable, seeing that Viktor Orban promised to veto any actions against Poland. If it were Hungary’s right to vote at stake, Warsaw would surely do the same.

The Polish-Hungarian alliance compels the European Union to seek for new ways of monitoring the rule of law and protecting the fundamental values in member states. In October 2016 the Parliament has adopted a resolution calling for creating a mechanism for regular monitoring of the state of democracy in the community, a so called European Pact for Democracy, proposed by the liberal Dutch MEP Sophie in ‘t Veld (ALDE). The pact supported 66 percent. V4 deputies were divided.

This pact would require the European Commision to examine the state of democracy in all member states once a year. However, the Commission is reluctant to implement the pact, viewing it as something that only replicates solutions that are already in place. Suspicious of the solutions themselves, the Commission promised to complete a survey of their efficiency in preventing and combating violations by 2019.

Will member states face sanctions?

The EU must face another, after Brexit, dangerous internal dispute. There is a risk that any sanctions against V4 countries may prove counterproductive. Polish and Hungarian governments will maintain their course and gladly use any threats from the EU in order to paint Brussels as a despotic force against which their people should rebel.

During a LIBE meeting on the 31st of August 2017 Frans Timmermans, the First Vice-President of the European Commission, said the the Commission remains ‘open to dialogue’ but that the Commission will ‘use all our tools as guardians of the treaty when this is necessary’.

In the conflict with a member state the actions of the Commission are crucial. However, the Parliament can trigger the Article 7 if the MEPs are fed up with Commissions passivity in this matter. Most LIBE committee members are of the opinion that the time for dialogue with Warsaw has ended. The European Commission wants the Polish issue to be re-discussed at the forthcoming Council of the European Union on 25 September 2017. It will be a chance for Poland to try to get along with Brussels.

This text was created within the joint project of four organizations: Czech Kohovolit.eu, Slovakian Demagog.sk, Hungarian Atlatszo.hu and Polish MamPrawoWiedziec.pl. The project “Closer to V4 Policy” is funded by the Visegrad Fund. Collaboration in collecting and compiling the data: Jaroslav Bilek, Barbora Belovicka, Emese Keyha, Magdalena Wnuk, Wojciech Gąsior.

BUY