The EU must stop funding illiberalism

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Ciolos: "For Orbán, Janša and Vučić, European values of the rule of law, the founding principles of democracy, freedom of speech, individual rights and the protection of minorities are all part of a so-called cultural Marxism". [EPA/Valda Kalnina]

Last week, we had the dubious pleasure of witnessing the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán team up with his Slovenian counterpart Janez Janša and the Serbian President Alexander Vučić. Their request? Asking to be “left alone”; apparently because they do not wish to be bothered by the European Union’s “cultural Marxism”, writes Dacian Cioloș.

Dacian Cioloș is the president of the Renew Europe Group in the European Parliament.

During their conference, they claimed the right to the inheritance of Central Europe, that mythical Mitteleuropa – which, incidentally, is rather ludicrous coming from a Serbian leader – and also the exclusive right to interpret Christian values.

I am struck by their ignorance, but also by their arrogance. Firstly to hear them speaking on behalf of an entire part of Europe and, secondly, because, for historic and obvious reasons, the very brand of narrow nationalism cultivated by Viktor Orbán and likeminded leaders brings back painful memories from the past for many in Central Europe.

Let’s be clear: last week’s conference was a teambuilding event for politicians who seek to exploit their nationalism in a post-truth and populist era. They falsely offer themselves as the liberators of national identity and providers of solidity and protection. Yet, let us not forget, they are still members of the European People’s Party, the same political family of the strongly pro-European Angela Merkel.

For Orbán, Janša and Vučić, European values of the rule of law, the founding principles of democracy, freedom of speech, individual rights and the protection of minorities are all part of a so-called “cultural Marxism” – a lazy jibe meant to deflect attention from their own assault on these values in their own societies. I am sure that in reality, their citizens are more open-minded and proud to be both Europeans and Hungarians or Slovenians or Serbs.

If Orbán, Janša and Vučić were indeed “left alone”, as they keep telling us they prefer, they would quickly run out of the cash that allows them to keep their grip on power – a power fuelled by nationalism, an attitude of defiance towards Europe and most disturbingly – fear. Given that Hungary and Slovenia gain more from the EU’s fabled coffers than they contribute, this means that in practice Europe is also funding their anti-EU propaganda, lies and hate. They are net beneficiaries of EU funds, yet they dare call Europe “Marxist”, knowing very well the negative connotations this term has in their part of Europe. The language they use is not accidental; it is calculated to stir mistrust and fear.

Orbán in particular, though sadly he is not alone, is cut off from reality; his sole aim is to stay in power. This model seems to be working and is catching on. We cannot allow EU funds to line the pockets of anti-democratic, anti-EU autocrats.

This is not a debate between Eastern and Western values, but between European and anti-European values. This is why the forthcoming European Summit has to put an end to any possibility of funding illiberalism. In addition to a well-financed and functioning European Public Prosecutor – which is thankfully now on the table – we need a new mechanism that makes EU funds conditional on the rule of law.

Viktor Orban’s threat on Friday to veto the recovery fund and MFF if it did contain such a conditionality mechanism was disgraceful and shows he would risk the recovery of a whole continent from COVID-19, just so he can continue to dismantle democracy in Hungary.

We need a strong recovery fund to invest in our common European destiny, but our future must also be built on basic common democratic values. Europe’s future cannot be sacrificed at the altar of Viktor Orban’s illiberalism.

The EU has a painful history of totalitarian regimes and dictatorships. We cannot turn our backs to history and allow this to be repeated. Renew Europe will be relentless in fighting to prevent this, but we should not be fighting alone. As long as the European People’s Party continues to remain silent and provide safe harbour to the likes of Viktor Orban, they risk a return to a dark, painful past.

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