This article is based on research presented at the UACES Graduate Forum 2023 (8-9 June, at IBEI, Barcelona).
In the past decade two EU member states– Hungary and Poland– have experienced a process of rule of law backsliding which both threatens the state of democracy at home and the decision making and legitimacy of the European Union as a whole. The rule of law or autocracy crisis that has since engulfed the EU has been characterised by scholars as “existential” Following the blueprint of Putinism, the governments of Hungary and Poland have systemically annihilated checks and balances by restricting judicial independence, freedom of expression, minority rights and independent scrutiny.
In February 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine, bringing war to Europe once more and putting the EU’s unity and cooperation to the test. In the face of Russian aggression, the response of Hungary and Poland has been diametrically opposed, but equally damaging to the rule of law in the EU.
Doubling Down: the Hungarian Reaction
On one hand, Hungary has embraced its position as Russia’s closest ally. Viktor Orbán has long been considered e a “Trojan horse” as he promotes Putin’s interests within Western institutions. Moreover, the war of aggression has not deterred continued cooperation between the two countries: the Hungarian government leverages its veto powers in the Council to defend Russian interests, namely by blocking sanctions, or watering down aid packages towards Ukraine.
Conversely, the need for unanimity in matters related to the EU’s response to the invasion has granted Hungary a powerful bargaining chip to avoid supranational oversight into its domestic rule of law issues and to obtain the (partial) deployment of EU funds despite its failure to meet the necessary requirements with regards to the respect of EU values. As such, Hungary has been able to hold decision-making hostage and weaken the action of the EU on both fronts, while simultaneously continuing its erosion of its domestic checks and balances.
Poland’s Contradictory Narratives
On the other hand, Poland has become the strongest advocate for a united response against Russia. Relations with the Kremlin have been tense since the end of the Cold War and were further exacerbated by the PiS government, in spite of its closeness with Hungary and its use of backsliding techniques which closely resemble Putin’s own systemic state capture. Having been proven right about Russia’s danger, Poland has now placed itself as a world leader in defence of Ukraine, earning a lot of goodwill on the international stage.
As a result, the EU has let the Polish government off the hook and been much less strict towards Poland than it has to Hungary. Nevertheless, positive steps towards cooperation in one area should not raise hopes for systemic compliance with EU values. Indeed, in the shadow of the war, the government continues its crusade against free judges, recently passing a piece of legislation nicknamed “Lex Tusk.” This new provision, which is outwardly meant to contrast Russian influence, could be used to prevent opposition candidates like former European Council president Donald Tusk from running for election. Interestingly, this method is not dissimilar from that used by Putin to exclude Alexey Navalny from the 2018 Russian elections.
A Challenge and an Opportunity?
After years of negotiating and compromising, the EU faces yet another juggling act: keeping its resident autocrats at bay while navigating the pressure of war at its footsteps. However, this crisis could also offer an opportunity to strike at a time in which both Hungary and Poland are in dire need of support from the Union: Hungary is dependent on EU funds to keep its economy afloat, while Poland also seeks reassurance on the security front.
At this time, keeping EU values on the agenda could be crucial. The activation of the so-called Rule of Law Conditionality Regulation with respect to Hungary and the latest infringement proceedings launched by the Commission against Poland in response to Lex Tusk are welcome displays of strength and commitment towards democracy. But while a degree of optimism is warranted, it is paramount that EU institutions hold their ground to finally enforce their values.
Fighting Two Crises at Once
The paradox of Hungary and Poland’s different responses to Russia’s belligerent turn is perhaps not surprising, but it serves as a moment of reckoning for the Union. The respective aspiring autocrats rely on the benefits of EU membership for their survival, even though their actions undermine it from within. The multiple contradictions shown by each government highlight the need for strong leadership from the EU to keep its values of democracy and respect for the rule of law at the forefront, and not let rogue governments hold decision-making hostage. Now is the time to be tough on autocrats in and outside their borders and fulfil the EU’s potential as a defender and promoter of democracy.