Andrzej Duda e Viktor Orban (La Presse)

What’s Next for Poland and Hungary Following Their Defeat by the EU?

On Thursday, the EU passed the delayed €1.8 trillion Euro budget and coronavirus recovery fund much to the relief of many of the bloc’s leaders. The fund was finally approved after Poland and Hungary removed their vetoes during the recent EU summit.

Polish Prime Minister Andrzej Duda and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban had blocked the approval of the budget last month, amid plans to link cash payouts to a nation’s respect for the EU’s core values.

Both Hungary and Poland are the subject of an Article 7 procedure — the EU’s so-called “nuclear option” which allows for nation states to be sanctioned if they are believed to be undermining democracy and the rule of law.

Judit Varga, Justice Minister for Hungary’s right-wing government, said she would challenge the new provision of making EU funds conditional on the bloc’s rule of law criteria in the European Court of Justice, but that never happened.

Poland and Hungary Have Suffered an Embarrassing Defeat

However, it is unlikely that this is going to be the end of the tale. Last week, a state-controlled Polish company said it would buy dozens of local and regional newspapers from a German media company, following years of calls for the “re-Polonization” of the media from Poland’s conservative Law and Justice party (PiS).

In Poland, the ombudsman’s office used to have the power to bring cases before the constitutional court and invalidate controversial legislation before the former became politicized.

According to the NGO Freedom House’s Nations in Transit report, which was released in May, Hungary is no longer a democracy due to the adoption of an emergency law that allows its government to rule by decree indefinitely, brought in after the coronavirus pandemic struck.

Therefore, the EU has its work cut out if it is serious about forcing Poland and Hungary to become more democratic. Yet the bloc failed to prevent both nations from sliding away from democracy this year, which shows how toothless the EU is.

The EU Cannot Force Poland and Hungary to Embrace its Version of Democracy

Making the coronavirus relief fund conditional on accepting the principles of rule and law and democracy may not be enough to persuade Orban and Duda to introduce democratic reforms. There is a strong possibility that both leaders have fooled the EU into believing that they will respect democracy and the rule of law just to receive the money they need to trigger an economic recovery in their respective nations.

Piotr Buras, Head of the Warsaw Office of the European Council on Foreign Relations, said EU member states should push for a transparent and fair mechanism of withholding financial assistance for countries ignoring the Court of Justice of the EU judgments relating to Article 2 of the Treaty of the European Union, which outlines the union’s core values. He added that such a mechanism would be a strong warning that solidarity and democracy are indispensable pillars of the European order. But because of the economic crisis caused by the coronavirus, there seems to be no appetite for such a measure.

Bold Choices are Needed in the Year Ahead

On September 9, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said the EU should proceed with integration without Poland and Hungary. Tom Theuns of EU Observer suggests that Rutte’s argument is correct because a new EU could be founded without Warsaw and Budapest. Such a move would be bold on the EU’s part, but doing nothing is not an option for them, and they cannot realistically do anything else to stop the Polish and Hungarian governments from pursuing their individual paths.

Also, neither Duda nor Orban seem serious about triggering Article 50 so that their respective nations can leave the EU. This means the bloc is stuck with the headache Poland and Hungary are causing them.

The coronavirus relief fund is a short-term victory for the EU. It is likely that the war Budapest and Warsaw want to wage with Brussels will continue into 2021, but what happens next remains anyone’s guess.