Reawakening a debate on what the European Union should do when one of its members threatens its democratic principles, the bloc’s executive arm opened legal proceedings on Tuesday against Hungary, which critics contend is sliding toward authoritarianism.
It had been more than 10 years since the union faced a similar dilemma, when an Austrian coalition government included a far-right party. Austria was forced into semi-isolation when the bloc’s other countries severed political ties.
The government of Hungary, by contrast, is being taken to task on technicalities rather than the wider claims that it is undermining democracy, centralizing power and destroying pluralism.
On Tuesday, the European Commission, the union’s executive arm, said it was starting proceedings over Hungarian measures that threaten the independence of the country’s central bank and its data-protection authority, and over rules on the retirement age of judges. Ultimately, Hungary can be forced to change rules that breach European law or, if it refuses, can be taken to the European Court of Justice.Joshua Tucker over at The Monkey Cage recently covered the massive controversy over the conservative Fidesz party's move to introduce a new constitution that many argue consolidates too much power in the hands of the ruling administration and moves Hungary in an increasingly undemocratic direction. While a number of EU leaders have openly decried the new constitution, the Times article points out that the European Commission is currently focusing on a narrow and largely technical subset of the controversial package of laws, mostly with regards to central bank and judicial independence. Certainly the EU has the authority to levy Article 7 sanctions (which include fines and the suspension of voting rights) against Hungary for many more of the anti-democratic provisions in the new constitution. However, given current political tensions within Europe, it appears that the European Commission is treading carefully (although according to the Telegraph EC officials have hinted that these initial complaints are just the "tip of the iceberg"). Will the EU then continue to put pressure on Hungary to reverse more of its anti-democratic laws if Hungary relents on the three currently in dispute? Moreover, would a rebuke by the EU be politically damaging enough to the Fidesz party to give the opposition a chance to sweep them out of office or is their current supermajority resilient enough to survive a conflict with the Union?
More generally though, how good are international organizations at promoting and consolidating democracy? Jon Pevehouse (gated)(ungated) argues that membership in international institutions that have a large proportion of democratic states - a high "democratic density" - can help stabilize democracies and check potential rollbacks. Regional institutions that share common democratic interests can impose external costs on leaders that follow undemocratic policies by restricting access to the benefits of membership. Perhaps the most recent example of such pressure was the Organization of American States' decision to suspend the membership of Honduras after that country's leader, Manuel Zelaya, was deposed in a coup in 2009. The OAS reinstated Honduras' membership in 2011 after Zelaya was allowed to return from exile.
Pevehouse suggests that international organizations that have the political will to coordinate on conditions for membership and to enforce these conditions (i.e. organizations with members that have common goals) will be better able to generate penalties for anti-democratic behavior as they can make more credible threats. Regional organizations (which tend to be more valued due to their proximity) that are highly democratic (and thereby able to coordinate on promoting democracy) therefore tend to be the most effective at punishing states that take anti-democratic actions.
Certainly the European Union is an example of such an organization so one can expect the actions of the EC to be taken very seriously by Fidesz. Moreover, the fact that Hungary's leaders have been lobbying the EU for an economic rescue package to boost the country's flagging economy gives the union even more leverage in enforcing conditions. However, in the short term, conditionality can only go so far. While the reversal of the small set of policies isolated by the EC may be a concession the Hungarian government is willing to make, how many more changes can the EU demand before its threats are no longer credible?
Perhaps the more relevant question is whether a policy reversal on the part of Fidesz will also weaken the party in future elections. The literature on "audience costs" and interstate bargaining (i.e. Fearon, 1994) argues that democratic leaders who back down in a crisis suffer public opinion setbacks as they may appear weak and/or politically ineffective. Therefore, even if the EU only exerts pressure on a few issues, it may have the effect of weakening the overall clout of the current government. Conversely though, a political crisis with the EU may generate a kind of "rally 'round the flag" effect as conservative leaders pander to eurosceptic sentiment to gain support. Such an outcome would likely strengthen the conservative government's power and exacerbate tensions with other European states. Unfortunately, I am not enough of an expert on Hungarian domestic politics to get a sense of which effect would "win out" (nor am I familiar with any research comparing the two effects in general).
Nevertheless, the controversy with the European Union could itself become valuable to Hungarian activists. By acting as a symbolic center of attention it may help to unite a diverse base of political actors around a single cross-cutting issue - the government's new constitution. Indeed, the logic behind Joshua Tucker's argument that electoral fraud in Russia may have been an important "focal point" for the recent protests may be somewhat applicable in the case of Hungary as well. A public censure by the EU could provide a central coordination mechanism around which citizens could mobilize and thereby serve as a means of solving the "collective action problem" facing any protest movement.
Edit: 12:43 AM 1/18