Protecting Hungary from Itself: The Limitations of Forcing Compliance
All eyes are on the European Council and Commission as their long-running dispute with Hungary over frozen EU funds nears its ostensible conclusion, with both the credibility of the European Union and the future of Hungarian democracy at stake. The core question is whether the European Union has the legal power and political will to force Hungary to adhere to its rule of law commitments, or whether Viktor Orbán’s government can once more horse trade or game its way out of full compliance. The dispute began in May 2021, when the EU refused to pay Hungary's share out of the Recovery Fund - the European Union's largest-ever stimulus package, which provided financial assistance for member states in the wake of the COVID-19-induced recession. This September the Conditionality Mechanism was used to withhold an additional 7.5 billion euros over concerns about the country's adherence to the rule of law. A final decision about the funds is expected by March 2023. To gain access to the frozen funds, the Hungarian government must adopt a set of new laws to strengthen the rule of law and combat corruption in Hungary. On 30 November 2022, the European Commission found that Hungarian action in addressing the EU’s concerns remained insufficient and funds will be further withheld. Two weeks later, however, in exchange for Orbán dropping his vetoes on the question of the Global Minimum Tax or the EU’s Financial Aid for Ukraine, the Committee of the Permanent Representatives of the Governments of the Member States to the European Union (COREPER II) agreed in principle to approve Hungary’s Recovery and Resilience Plan (RRP) and lower the amount of the suspension of the Cohesion Funds to 6.3 billion euros. Although the payments of the funds are still conditional and are withheld until Hungary has completed all anti-corruption and rule of law reforms, the question is for how long. The Hungarian government is passing laws at an unprecedented speed and several countries urged the Commission to produce a new assessment. Additionally, the lists including the 17 preconditions and 27 ‘super milestones’ could be easily manipulated to appear as if the conditions have been satisfied. Even if Hungary changes its laws every day according to the separate points raised by the EU, it probably will not have a real effect as these laws only target isolated, individual problems but not the issues in their full complexity. With a two-thirds majority in the parliament, there is a risk that Orbán’s government can change such laws once more after receiving the funds. Since the government has already filled the Constitutional Court with its preferred justices years ago, the impact of any minor adjustments Hungary makes in its legal system is questionable. The context: limitations of EU interventions and forcing compliance Previously, EU institutions, such as the European Council and Commission, either could not do enough or member states sought political compromises and simply ignored Orbán’s gradual dismantling of democracy. This was meant to change with the introduction of the Conditionality Mechanism. As the recent decision of COREPER II shows, however, there is a risk that the EU will still prioritize other issues over concerns about the rule of law, thanks to the Council’s voting rules (which require unanimity) and Viktor Orbán’s tactical vetoes. Consequences? As of now, conditionality does not seem to be a solution for Hungary. The Viktor Orbán-led coalition, Fidesz-KDNP, was able to build up a democratic façade and gain control over key institutions with seemingly democratic tools, such as lowering the retirement age for judges, amending the constitution several times, and continuously tailoring the electoral law to favour the incumbent. After creating a legal system that locked in its power, Orbán’s regime then built an additional parallel power structure. This alternative infrastructure enables Orbán to maintain his influence even in the event of a possible electoral defeat. This entrenchment of power means new institutions established to meet EU conditions, such as the Integrity Authority and the Anti-Corruption Task Force, are insufficient to reinstate the rule of law. Any anti-corruption program that is not well-insulated from political influence will be ineffective. If the European Union gives in and pays out both funds to Hungary without it implementing complex legal changes, it will call into question the European commitment to supporting the rule of law, anti-corruption efforts, and the whole notion of the Conditionality Mechanism. Moreover, it would set a precedent for other states, sending the message that politics trumps principles. But even if the Commission understands that rule of law issues in Hungary have much deeper roots, it can be argued that withholding funds is not the best strategy at all. Although the introduction of the Conditionality Mechanism could pressure a clientelist regime like Orbán’s, it may also backfire: with harsher anti-EU rhetoric and the help of a biased media landscape the Hungarian government can easily control the public discourse, weakening any public support for EU interventions. Policymakers in Brussels need to be careful when intervening and keep such repercussions in mind.
Prove Putin wrong, listen to Tchaikovsky
Every year when the holiday season is upon us, we go back to lasting traditions. They give us a sense of belonging and a connection to history. But what happens when a ritual loses its lustre? This was what a group of friends were passionately arguing about over drinks at the table next to me. Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet, a long-celebrated classic had suddenly become a flashpoint. Some insisted that they would purchase tickets for this year’s show in Stockholm, reasoning that culture has nothing to do with politics. Others said they hoped the show would be cancelled altogether, arguing that it was unacceptable to celebrate with Russian culture following Putin’s aggression in Ukraine. The latter accused Russian citizens of supporting the war in Ukraine, while others pointed out that reality is more complex. Half of the table claimed that all ties with Russia should be cut as a form of pressure to stop Putin. But that strategy – from the removal of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 overture, to the harassment of the Russian community around the world and to the call to the NHL to ban Russian players – has not stopped and Putin still enjoys a degree of support in Russia. This cultural backlash has not only failed to produce any results, but it is counterproductive to the growth and development of democracy worldwide. Instead, our frustration with Putin’s war in Ukraine should be channelled into supporting pro-democracy actors in Russia. Needless to say, we need to be attentive about whom we endorse and how the support is offered. Although a democratic Russia does not necessarily equal a peaceful Russia, it would only raise the probability of a Russian government that benefits Russians, its neighbours and the international order. This prospect is jeopardized if we don’t fight the unfair anti-Russian sentiment, which threatens to alienate or impede the activism of Russian pro-democracy voices and to overlook the courage of those who aren’t supporting this regime. Whilst a democratic opening at present seems remote, pro-democracy dissidents embody hope for political transformation in authoritarian contexts. There is more influence in authentic Russian voices sharing what is really happening in Russia, and they are essential in preparing the ground for a democratic dispensation so that when it does materialise, it can be seized upon and result in sustainable change. Additionally, the unfair backlash against the Russian people could further enhance the distance between Russians and Western democracies. The two main views that pro-war Russians share are that the Russian-speaking population in Ukraine was under threat and needed protection and that the West (particularly NATO and the US) is responsible for the escalation of the conflict in Ukraine. Anti-Russian sentiment could feed into Russian victimization narratives, empowering and strengthening Putin’s propaganda machine. It also endangers Russian speakers in Ukraine who now demonstrate a drastic shift in their loyalties to Russia, despite their cultural ties to the country. The devastation inflicted by Russia has reversed their support, driving them to endorse Ukraine’s move in the direction of EU and NATO membership. Instead of feeding into the anti-Russian sentiment, countries should seize the opportunity to better integrate their ethnic Russian minorities under a shared civic national identity, unlinked from the Russian government. Fundamentally, contributing to an unjust anti-Russian sentiment goes against the basic values and principles of human rights. We can’t pick and choose human rights. To protect democracy’s credibility, we must be consistent in confronting systemic discrimination and racism, even if that requires fighting our own biases. There’s no other way for sustainable democracy to succeed. Allowing the anti-Russian backlash to go unchecked threatens to widen the distance between the West and Russia, alienates potential Russian pro-democracy allies, and clashes with the most basic values that democracies hold. These factors are essential for the prospect of a democratic Russia, which as we’ve witnessed, is key to global security. The fact that the Nutcracker was almost fully booked in Stockholm shows that there is hope, as it seems that the campaign to punish Russian culture has at least not resonated among Swedes. For this end-of-year holiday season, I am listening to Tchaikovsky to prove Putin wrong, and I hope that those who were sitting next to me will all eventually agree to do the same.
The Global State of Democracy 2022: Forging Social Contracts in a time of Discontent
The fourth edition of International IDEA’s Global State of Democracy report comes at a time when democracy is under assault around the world. Beyond the lingering pandemic, today’s wars, and a looming global recession lies the challenge of climate and the multi-fold consequences for democratic governance. Global opinion surveys show that this period has coincided with declining public faith in the value of democracy itself. This is immensely worrying for those who care about the fate of democracy, but sadly not surprising. Democracies are struggling to effectively bring balance to environments marked by instability and anxiety and populists from both sides of the political spectrum continue to gain ground around the world as democratic innovation and growth stagnate or decline. Even in countries that are doing relatively well, performing at middle to high levels of democratic standards and not backsliding, troubling patterns are evident. Over the last five years, progress has stalled across all four aggregated Global State of Democracy Indices (GSoD Indices) attributes. In some cases, scores are the same as they were in 1990, when many experts assumed that democracy would only grow into the future. Figure 1. World averages for attributes of democracy Source: International IDEA, The Global State of Democracy Indices v. 6.1, 2022, <https://www.idea.int/gsod-indices>, accessed 24 October 2022. The stagnation exists in parallel to democratic decline elsewhere. The number of backsliding countries (seven) remains at its peak, and the number of countries moving towards authoritarianism is more than double the number moving towards democracy. As of the end 2021, nearly one-third of the 173 countries assessed by International IDEA are experiencing declines in at least one subattribute of democracy. Figure 2. Trends over the past 5 years in backsliding countries Note: Points at 2021 values and traces back to 2016. Source: International IDEA, The Global State of Democracy Indices v. 6.1, 2022, <https://www.idea.int/gsod-indices>, accessed 24 October 2022. To rebuild and revitalize these institutions and to re-establish trust between the people and their governments, it is necessary to develop new and innovative social contracts that better reflect the changing global environment and that meaningfully prioritize equal access to the mechanisms of participation. Figure 3: Redesigning social contracts Our newest report lays out a series of recommendations, focusing on the prerequisites for renewed social contracts. These include protecting electoral integrity through more peer-to-peer learning and partnerships, rebuilding trust through increased accountability and stronger protections of the freedom of expression, and meaningful inclusion that allows heretofore marginalised perspectives to be front and centre. Governments, civil society, media, expert groups, academics and individuals each have a role to play in supporting and participating in the renovation of social contracts. Our collective ability to come together, locally and internationally, to pursue the citizen-centred design of these contracts will determine the fate of democracy in the years to come.