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There is a ghost looming large over Central Europe, one of the past that has been recast as a threat for the future: the state of the rule of law – or, one might say, the lingering ability of the political elite to ignore the rules of the club that they joined with so much pomp over a decade ago.
The European Commission has already opened a case against Poland for alleged interference in the judiciary. Thanks to the skills of its Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Hungary dances on the edge of that precipice. And the populist leaders of their Visegrad neighbors – Prime Minister Robert Fico and the future Czech head of government, Andrej Babis – are carefully watching the ongoing spats with Brussels. All should be concerned about the growing consensus among their Western partners to condition money from EU funds sent to post-communist member states on their observance of the rule of law, since so few other options remain.
So far, the strongest case in that direction was presented in a recent policy brief from the Centre for European Reform (CER), a London-based think tank. Its authors argue that it is legally possible to tie the quality of the rule of law to the possibility of receiving EU funds – even without a treaty change. More precisely, they say that a new EU financial plan would make it possible after 2020 to cut funds that were initially destined for those now unwilling to obey the principles and values on which the European Union is based.
The authors argue there are successful examples of pushing through economic governance rules in the case of fiscal deficits, but that the EU has had almost no leverage when dealing with systemic problems in the rule of law or general governance criteria. That is because the latter were part of the scope of the so-called Copenhagen criteria, which laid down certain requirements that the post-communist countries had to fulfill before joining the EU. What was clearly unexpected was the degree of backsliding that has taken place in some of these countries over the past decade.
Any attempt to block the distribution of funds will made in anticipation of tougher times to come in general. There will certainly be less money to go around after the United Kingdom leaves the EU, and structural and investment funds will consequently be at different levels after 2020. Some will also surely counter that the younger and poorer EU members will fail to catch up with their Western counterparts if they are stripped of such funds.
That will only add to the East/West division of the EU, which seems ever more visible. A prominent example was the recent decision to relocate two EU agencies formerly based in London to Amsterdam and Paris, leaving newer EU members in Central Europe smarting (Bratislava was particularly keen on welcoming the pharma agency EMA). The feeling has thus resurfaced that Western Europe is not interested in truly uniting all the 27 EU member states (of course, Central Europe countries contributed to that feeling quite a lot through their populistic and nationalistic shifts to the right).
If the proposal to cut EU funds meant for those not fulfilling the rule-of-law criteria is put on the table, there will be new screaming from the Eastern part of the EU about unequal treatment. There is a clear danger that, in such a case, the already strong levels of Euroscepticism in many parts will increase, along with the popularity of governments and parties violating or talking of violating rule-of-law standards.
That could be the case of the Czech Republic, where the level of Eurscepticism is already quite high, while in Poland and Hungary such a move could put an end to the paradox of strongly pro-EU populations who, nonetheless, elect populist and Eurosceptic parties to lead their countries.
Brussels faces a tough situation, and the local pro-European politicians, who have been losing ground with every election, face an even harder one. On one hand this poses a challenge for EU marketing experts, who have to abandon political doubletalk when selling the EU cause in Eastern member countries. Otherwise they have no chance of success. And on the other hand local politicians should ditch their provincial thinking and look at the situation in their countries from a broader perspective. They cannot blame anybody but themselves – including the Russians, the region’s usual suspects –if they do not succeed.
And, in parting, a small tip for well-paid bureaucrats and politicians from Brussels: before you push through some new (and potentially threatening) initiative, try to check the history of Central Europe, and to go to the places like eastern Poland, eastern Hungary, or north Bohemia to understand why people there vote for populists and nationalists.
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