EU must hold itself to higher standards on democratic rights

It is extraordinary to have to write, in 2013, that the European Union could be said to contain a non-democratic State as one of its members. That Member State, following the adoption of its new constitution in 2011-2012, is Hungary. That Constitution expunges the name ‘Hungarian Republic’, it bans gay marriage and attributes the wrongdoings of 40 years of dictatorship to the current Hungarian Socialist Party and all its members.

Since then, Viktor Orbán has applied his supermajority to pursue his agenda and make it exceptionally problematic for any future Government to repeal or even erode his political legacy.

While Hungary is certainly the most extreme example of democratic, civil and human rights abuses in Europe, it is not alone. Freedom House, an independent watchdog organisation that advocates for democracy and human rights, still classifies Hungary as a ‘Consolidated Democracy’. Three other EU members, Bulgaria, Romania and Croatia, are still ‘Semi-Consolidated Democracies’.

Similarly, when the centre-left Prime Minister of Romania, Victor Ponta, took power in 2012, the Government spared no time in tightening its grip over the machinery of the State and the media. As a result of the political crisis that broke out when he tried to impeach the President, Ponta wrote to the European Socialist Party to ‘politely request’ that it hold its Activists Forum elsewhere (after I had bought my non-refundable plane tickets).

There is also no escaping the fact that there was widespread corruption and fraud in the Bulgarian parliamentary elections in 2013, which a delegation of European Socialists, including myself, witnessed. The day before our arrival, 350,000 ballots were found, pre-marked in favour of the ruling conservative GERB party, in a printing warehouse. The owner of the press, who in a delightful coincidence was a GERB councillor, claimed that they had been printed accidentally. Those 350,000 were only fake ballots that were found. Who knows how many, suspected up to 700,000, had already been sent out? Enough to shift the nationwide vote by nearly 10%.

Other countries featured in FH’s 2013 Nations in Transit report provide mixed data. Estonia sees a decline in its corruption rating, while Latvia improves. The Czech Republic’s judicial framework and independence has improved, but Slovakia’s has declined.

This makes for unpleasant reading, and combined with the pressure of austerity measures it may not be surprising, but the fact that we are so shocked by the deficiency of such freedoms means that we forget that most of these democracies are less than 25 years old. The UK began developing its democracy with the Bill of Rights in 1688 (some would even point to the Magna Carta in 1215). Spain, a very young democracy, is 40 years old, emerging from dictatorship in 1975. Neither would consider themselves perfect democracies.

We may be asking for too much too soon from these central European States, but the EU accession process, particularly the protracted one for Croatia, has encouraged fundamental changes in the country over the last 10 years. The thought that ‘Europe is watching’ has proven to be a force for good when it comes to the respect for democracy in post-Soviet countries which do not revere these ideas in the way that some in Western States do. As a Latvian woman put it to me, ‘You can’t just do what you want. What use is democracy if you can’t eat?’

The European Commission plays the role of Guardian of the Treaties and monitors whether Member States are implementing their Directives effectively. The European Parliament must develop a similar role when it comes to safeguarding human, civil and democratic rights in central Europe. There are already committees and instruments for doing this being used, but they must be strengthened and more widespread. The Commission tried to discipline Orbán by ‘raising serious concerns’ over his agenda, but in the end it was Barroso who blinked because Hungary’s membership was put on the table.

More broadly, though efforts must be concentrated where they are needed most in the hybrid-regimes Balkans, the EU most hold its own members to account even more so. That goes for Italy and Germany as much as it does for Bulgaria and Romania.

This piece was commissioned and published as a guest article for the EU Progressive Forum. See here.

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