Title: Europe’s Rule of Law Crisis
Authors: Dorothee Bohle, Bela Greskovits and Marek Naczyk
Abstract: The paper explores the conflict around European Union's €1.8 trillion seven-year budget and coronavirus recovery package, which saw Hungary and Poland vetoing it on the grounds that it would link the disbursal of EU funds to a rule of law mechanism. It starts from the following puzzle: Why is it that two major beneficiaries of the current and new EU budget and recovery package decided to veto the package despite the facts that their very economic (and, at least in the Hungarian case political) survival depends on the disbursement of these funds? Existing explanations point to two possible factors: first, the rule of law mechanism endangers the corrupt dealings of the Hungarian (and to a lesser degree Polish) elites, and exhibits therefore a real danger that these countries would lose funding. We argue, however, that this is not very plausible for two reasons: first, the rule of law mechanism was already conceived as a relatively weak instrument, and second, the EU has a track-record of not enforcing its existing toolkit to sanction rule of law violations. Second, pundits have pointed to a game of chicken, where, although risky, there was a relatively high likelihood that in the end the EU rather than Poland and Hungary would cave in. We largely subscribe to this explanation, and argue that the game of chicken was relatively riskless for Poland and Hungary because of the very strong economic and political ties linking the east European elites with the de-facto party in power in the EU; the EPP, and especially its German center. However, while proponents of this view often point to the cynical motivation of both EPP representatives and their east European counterparts, we argue that they underestimate the ideologically motivated cultural war that east European leaders and some of their conservative counterparts in the West have unleashed on the liberal order. The fact that the conflict over the rule of law mechanism is fueled by a combination of economic interests, political power instincts and principled ideological beliefs makes the compromise that has been reached understandable, but also very dangerous for the European project as a whole.