A new view on Rule of Law and Democracy can bridge EU’s East-West divide

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

European Commissioner for Values and Transparency Vera Jourova and European Commissioner for Justice Didier Reynders (R) give a press conference on the 2020 Annual Rule of Law Report in Brussels, Belgium, 30 September 2020. [EPA-EFE/OLIVIER HOSLET / POOL]

Taking a comprehensive approach to democracy that encompasses all aspects of democracy, rule of law and human rights would bridge the growing east-west divide, argues Sam van der Staak.

Sam van der Staak is the head of Europe for the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA).

The latest rule of law fight between the European Parliament and Central European governments has become a discussion over apples and oranges. While parliament rightly condemns the deterioration of the judiciary, Central European governments deflect by pointing to their electoral victories and democratic legitimacy.

To do away with this deadlock, a broader view on democracy could bring all issues of rule of law, democracy and human rights into one basket.

Central Europe’s democratic erosion has long been well documented. For years, Hungary and Poland especially have seen a significant drop in judicial independence, independent media, and civic space, as well as rising corruption.

The EU responded long ago by triggering its disciplinary Article 7 procedure against Hungary and Poland. European Parliament’s latest reprisal has been to try and condition EU funds on Member States’ rule of law track record.

Until recently, such EU retaliation impacted only Central Europe. But for some time, Central Europe has flexed its muscles in ways that threaten to grind important EU decision making to a halt.

Last year, EU leaders faced a veto from the four Visegrad countries – Poland, Hungary, Czechia and Slovakia – on their nomination of Frans Timmermans as President of the Commission.

In the summer, the same Visegrad Four went on to block all rule of law-based conditionality measures proposed for the EU’s new multi-annual budget. Even less prominent EU policies are now encumbered by protracted East-West divides.

Europe’s new East-West divide has therefore become as much a problem for Central Europe as for Western Europe and the EU. Some member states have started to call for ways to break this deadlock.

Much of Central Europe’s chagrin lies in its self-acclaimed democratic legitimacy. In an opinion column in Euractiv this week, Hungary’s Secretary of State for International Communications explained that his government came to power through democratic elections.

country’s controversial rule of law reforms, he argued, in fact followed democratic procedure. This fallacy has wrongfully pitted democracy against the rule of law. Instead, discussions on the state of democracy in Central Europe should factor in the full breadth of democracy and rule of law through a single comprehensive instrument.

That catch-all democracy stress-test would cover not just elections, as Hungary’s state secretary would have it, but also judicial independence, checks on government, as well as civic-space aspects such as civil society participation and media integrity.

This broad definition can be meticulously measured in dozens of aspects through instruments like the Global State of Democracy Indices. It would show that Hungary has serious media integrity issues and a dysfunctional parliament, but that voter turnout is looking much sunnier than many may think.

It shows that Poland lacks judicial independence but is holding on tight to its representative government.

And it demonstrates that Slovakia has seen significant declines on Freedom of Expression and on the predictability of law enforcement, but still has stellar checks on government. It shows that Bulgaria in fact lags behind its chastised neighbours in many areas, including the democratic participation of citizens.

Democratic backsliding in Central Europe is therefore not a black and white affair but a mixed bag, in which countries vary in both the type and speed of democratic decline. Once the EU takes a comprehensive approach to democracy that encompasses all aspects of democracy, rule of law and human rights, it will more easily draw its red lines, and define its green zones.

Although it will not lead to an endgame overnight, it will at least allow all players to sit at the same chessboard.

A broad definition of democracy, moreover, debunks the myth that the EU is peddling a Western form of democracy. Already in 1978, then dissident Vaclav Havel argued that after Communism, democracy should become more than just a copy of western democracy.

Today, every time Central Europeans see their democracy criticized by Brussels, this deep-rooted longing for new forms of democracy is reinvigorated. An all-encompassing democratic lens would show that the same principles apply universally, from Estonia to Greece and from Slovenia to Sweden.

This universal definition of democracy would also explain why Central-Europe is criticised more harshly than countries such as Italy or Spain, who also deal with democratic erosion but much less seriously.

The EU should stand firm on any forms of democratic erosion in its broadest sense. But it should credit Central European countries for areas in which they do pass the democracy stress test.

That diversified dialogue will allow for a more focused and less deadlocked discussion on where improvements need to happen. Ultimately, it should help Central Europe to come in from the cold and unblock EU decision making.

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