BRUSSELS – When European Union leaders announced a landmark stimulus package to save their economies from the devastation of the coronavirus, they agreed to collectively raise hundreds of billions of dollars to use as aid – a bold one and widely welcome leap in collaboration that was never attempted in the block history.
That unity, however, was shattered on Monday when Hungary and Poland blocked the stimulus plan and broader budget, breaking one of the bloc’s most persistent existential divisions over what democracy looks like in the European Union.
The two Eastern European countries said they would veto the spending bill as funding has been made conditional on compliance with rule of law standards, such as an independent judiciary, which the two governments have weakened as they defiantly tear down domestic powers.
Their veto has messed up a signed achievement by the bloc, deepened a long-standing stalemate against its core principles, and threatened to prevent stimulus money from getting into EU member states if a new deal can be reached at all.
Many EU states are currently in a new round of nationwide lockdowns as a second wave of the virus has brought cases in some places to levels rivaling the Scourge last spring, flooding hospitals, closing businesses and leaving countries that desperately looking for economy revived.
The show of force by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and, to a lesser extent, his Polish counterpart Mateusz Morawiecki was the most prominent example to date of how the two members can now take the bloc hostage on an important issue such as protecting democracy – and the relative impotence of values EU to stop them.
Mr Orban was brought about by the tolerance of other European Union leaders, the powerlessness of the EU institutions to hold his government accountable for violations of EU laws and standards, and the cover that President Trump, a close ally, had towards the EU Offered, Encouraged Over the past four years, he has improved both his politics and his rhetoric on the global stage.
At a meeting of EU ambassadors on Monday, the two Eastern European governments effectively blocked the stimulus and budget package and sent shock waves through the policy-making machine in Brussels, and officials crawled back to the drawing board to quickly bail out the budget.
EU leaders will now attempt to break the stalemate on a conference call on Thursday, but it was not clear whether that would lead to a watered-down version of the offensive language to appease Hungary and Poland, or further negotiations with the two countries and the European Parliament.
The multi-year budget of $ 1.8 trillion, or $ 2.1 trillion, includes at least $ 750 billion to get member economies out of the catastrophic recession sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. After tough negotiations between national governments agreed in July, the new budget marked the first time the EU agreed to jointly issue debt and marked a groundbreaking change in the bloc’s willingness to jointly mobilize resources in times of crisis.
However, at the urging of the European Parliament, which has to approve the spending, the draft budget adopted earlier this month included language that made funds dependent on rule of law standards that the EU considers fundamental to its values. The point was clearly addressed to the Hungarian and Polish governments, which, despite different democratic norms, have defiantly rejected independent judicial authorities.
Hungary in particular has also opposed greater transparency in the use of EU subsidies by Mr Orban’s government and at times directed funds to political allies in an environment of cronyism.
Both Hungary and Poland, undemocratic outliers, have enormous leverage, as elements of the stimulus and budgetary package have to be unanimously approved by the member states.
Conversely, Hungary and Poland say that it is the EU bureaucracy that is trying to force them.
“Without objective criteria, based on ideology, they want to blackmail countries without granting them legal remedies,” Orban criticized the budget and the stimulus packages in an interview on Friday. “We didn’t want that. That is why we did not create the European Union so that there would be a second Soviet Union, ”he added.
Delaying the draft law beyond the end of November would put the funds back into the new year and deeply hurt the EU. As the pandemic drags on, the bloc’s economy plunges deeper into recession and national stimulus programs are rapidly dwindling.
“When we have millions of EU citizens and businesses in need of an EU lifeline and on the verge of bankruptcy to use this blackmail to kick out judges who don’t like them and put money in their pockets the least solidarity. Actions I’ve seen in the EU, ”said Daniel Freund, a member of the European Parliament who took part in the business cycle and budget negotiations.
Hungary and Poland have long been in the crosshairs of the European Commission for such violations. They are the only two countries in the history of the EU that have been investigated by the Commission, the bloc’s executive body, under what is known as Article 7 of its treaty, which provides for the suspension of a member state’s voting rights if it has been repeatedly stated that fundamental EU values are being violated.
Efforts to hold the two governments accountable, however, have failed: ultimately, removing one member’s voting rights would require a unanimous vote by the remaining members, and Poland and Hungary would always veto punishment.
In its first Rule of Law report for Hungary in September, the European Commission highlighted the bloc’s longstanding concerns about the independence of the judiciary, the “systemic lack of decisive action to investigate corruption cases involving senior officials or their immediate circle” Freedom of the media and attacks on civil society.
In response to the results of the report, Mr Orban’s government circulated a document in Brussels in which it categorically rejected the concerns raised by the Commission and added that the report denied Hungary the right to a fair hearing.
European Commission officials complain about the limitations of the legal instruments they need to force Hungary and Poland to change course. However, experts also criticized the heads of state and government of the European Union, including Chancellor Angela Merkel, for making the behavior of Mr Orban possible.
Ms. Merkel, whose country now holds the rotating EU presidency and headed the business cycle agreement, was originally against the idea of tying EU funds to the rule of law mechanism, as she and other EU leaders have shied away from opening further rifts this could mean further compromises by the bloc after Britain’s withdrawal.
“This veto shows the dangers or the costs for the EU if it does not prevail against these regimes earlier,” said R. Daniel Kelemen, professor of political science and law at Rutgers University.
“Now that they are consolidated autocracies, they can try to take the EU hostage to keep their money flowing,” he said.
Concerns about Mr Orban’s authoritarianism have increased during the pandemic. He has used the crisis to further consolidate power, and the Hungarian Parliament has extended Mr Orban’s full executive powers to combat the surge in coronavirus cases.
However, critics accuse Mr Orban of using his expanded authority to take actions unrelated to the pandemic, such as his desire to continue a culture war against the LGBTQ community.
Last week his government pushed for a sudden flurry of bills that, if passed, would restrict marriage as an institution between a man and a woman and make it much harder for gay couples to adopt children. Some would also amend electoral laws to bolster Mr Orban’s prospects for staying in power and tweaking the legal definition of public funds to mask suspected corruption cases.
Mr Orban’s rise to European culture warrior has also been bolstered by his close association with President Trump, whose defeat to Joseph R. Biden Jr. in the US presidential election could now open up new opportunities for the EU to contain Hungarian leader Veronica Anghel, scholarship holder for Political Science at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and the European University Institute.
“Having the US back as an ally will give the EU another push to be less complacent about what is happening in Eastern Europe,” said Ms. Anghel. “Biden is very keen to put democracy on his agenda and it is likely that he will take a closer look at the troublemakers in Eastern Europe.”
Ms Anghel added: “It is still the EU that is making the call.”
Matina Stevis-Gridneff reported from Brussels and Benjamin Novak from Budapest. Monika Pronczuk reported from Brussels.