Rule of law warriors are not promoting European values, they’re pushing a political agenda

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

The result of the vote on a draft law concerning extraordinary measures is displayed during the plenary session of the Parliament in Budapest, Hungary, 30 March 2020. [EPA-EFE/Zoltan Mathe HUNGARY OUT]

The idea of a rule of law mechanism in the EU is hopelessly half-baked. Rule of law warriors are unable to define or measure what they mean, they are simply waging an ideological battle, argues Zoltán Kovács.

Zoltán Kovács is Hungary’s Secretary of State for International Communications 

Budget negotiations in the EU always provoke a vigorous back and forth, and this year’s talks are no exception. One of the reasons for the current, heated debate is that some continue to push for the so-called conditionality mechanism, which would place conditions on budget allocations to member states based on nebulous rule of law criteria.

The European Council clearly rejected the idea in the conclusion of its July meeting, and even German Chancellor Angela Merkel has affirmed that the creation of some kind of rule of law mechanism would require the consent of all member states and an amendment of the treaties.

So from an institutional and treaty point of view, the proposal is dead on arrival, but that’s not its only problem. The idea is also hopelessly half-baked. Ask proponents what they mean by rule of law, how to define it and how to measure it, and what you get in response is a lot of subjective muddle.

See exhibit A: The Commission’s recently published Rule of Law report.

But none of this deters the rule of law warriors, who wage this campaign like an ideological struggle. If they cannot use objective criteria and reasonable argument to support their cause, they bend the details to make their case.

In her opinion article published on Monday on EURACTIV, Anna Donáth, an MEP from Hungary’s Momentum party, provides perfect illustration, writing that “if supporters of European values are to beat Orbán,” then they should not take a “quantitative and formalistic” approach, but instead focus on the “true nature of illiberal systems.”

In a single sentence, the Momentum MEP attempts to alter the scope of the rule of law debate. Critics have been frustrated with a lack of objective criteria. So now, Anna Donáth suggests that “supporters of European values” must abandon fact-based reasoning and trade it in for the study of the “true nature” of Hungarian democracy.

And what’s the “true nature” of Hungarian democracy? For starters, she says, it “contains no real limitations to the exercise of power.”

Except elections, of course. Elections remain the most fundamental means to exercise – and limit – power. But the funny thing about elections is you have to win them to exercise power or limit your opponent’s power.

Critics like these would have you forget that Hungarian voters have given Prime Minister Orbán large parliamentary majorities in three, consecutive elections. They claim that there is somehow a threat to rule of law, complaining of a lack of “pluralism” in parliamentary debate.

It’s as if they had confused the Hungarian National Assembly – where like every parliament, the winning party has the most seats – with the UN General Assembly – where everybody gets a say.

Speaking of winning – and losing. The Momentum party, which caucuses with Renew Europe, joined an electoral coalition in a closely-watched by-election in Hungary earlier this month to fill an empty parliamentary seat.

That coalition backed a candidate from the far-right Jobbik party, a man with a troubling history of anti-Semitic and anti-Roma rhetoric. They lost badly. The Hungarian voters weren’t buying their brand of hate-filled pluralism.

The rule of law warriors understand that they have to change the terms of the discourse. In a televised debate with Minister of Justice Judit Varga last month, for example, the Momentum MEP admitted that “we should not look at a [rule of law] checklist because Hungary is performing very well in that department.”

What’s more, in a video that leaked to the Hungarian press recently, MEP Donáth acknowledged that “legally speaking about the rule of law, Fidesz and Judit Varga are right.”

They must extricate the debate on rule of law from legal questions and instead focus on a subjective discussion about the “true nature” of our democracy. Why? Because their arguments have failed.

Unfortunately, they find politically allies in Brussels, including in the Commission. News reports based on leaked video show Donáth boasting about having informal consultations with European Commission VP Věra Jourová “at least every three days in order to ensure that the Hungarian government’s decisions have political consequences.”

The recordings also include her awkward admission that contrary to what opposition parties had been asserting earlier this year, the Hungarian government did not acquire “omnipotent powers” this past spring through the Coronavirus Protection Act. By crying “dictatorship,” Donáth said, they spread falsehoods about Hungary and its government.

No one should be fooled by the nature of this rule of law debate. Rule of law warriors like MEP Donáth are political actors with a political agenda.

That they have failed to put forth reliable rule of law definitions, objective criteria and facts and now attempt to shift the terms of the debate to soft discussions based on their own terms shows us that this is not at all about European values but about politics and ideology.

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