Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

The Problem with ‘European Values’

The EU is set to cross a Rubicon which would threaten its political unity and cohesion forever.

A timeless axiom of statesmanship is catching up with the European Union (EU), one the bloc hoped it would never have to confront. If advancing lofty ideals requires foul plots against your supposed allies, then the real aim may be different—ulterior, baser, more unsavory—than initially advertised.

Early this month, a conclave of EU leaders—led by Germany and the Netherlands and egged on by the liberal-federalist consensus across the European Commission (EC) and the Parliament (EP)—drew a line in the sand against alleged “democratic backsliding” in Hungary and Poland. The so-called “rule of law conditionality mechanism” which they pork-barreled into the EU’s breakthrough deal from July over Covid-19 relief and the next seven-year budget would withhold funds intended for those two countries in the case of future violations, even as the criteria for ascertaining past ones and the impartiality of such assessments remain hotly contested.

The package in question—worth €1.8 trillion and months of rocky negotiations now on the verge of evanescing as a result—is the EU’s largest ever, one that the WSJ described as the bloc’s “Hamiltonian moment”, for it also allows the bloc to borrow in capital markets and levy its own taxes to repay states’ contributions to the Covid-19 fund. The plot’s schemers will never confess to it, but the inclusion of the conditionality rider represents a turning point in the 60-odd-year history of European integration, one that culminates the EU’s mutation into a Macchiavelian, coercive mechanism to underhandedly bend member state policies that the bloc deems unsavory. To be pegged onto the budget deal, the rider obtained the required qualified majority, but the whole deal needs to be unanimous. By upholding their veto threats, Poland and Hungary have chosen to throw the ball back on the EU’s court rather than accepting a legally flimsy mechanism that violates their sovereignty in a way not allowed by EU treaties. Yet, their castigators have likewise not backed down, and what’s at stake isn’t just vital Covid-19 relief for all Europeans, but the entire future of the EU as a plural, voluntary association of sovereign states.

A detour, first, into the succession of integration agreements that is the European project. By voluntarily ceding autonomy, the political creature that European states have created and nourished dating back to the 1950s has proved, alternatively, an instrument for economic integration or a reflection of shared values. Merging France and Germany’s coal and steel producing capacities—the earliest iteration of “ever-closer union” in 1951—or the treaty establishing the so-called “single market” in the mid-80s are clear examples of the former, while later accords to, for instance, delegate judicial review or prosecute human rights abuses collectively, speak rather to the former. But the fact that these two objectives—the economics and the ethics—have tended to go hand in hand is no coincidence, for the ability to find reasoned solutions on the basis of mutual interest—a political contractualism modeled on the free market—is precisely at the core of that normative canon. The extent to which these “European values” overlap with generic Western ones of inborn human dignity and natural equality remains contested, but when asked to list precisely what they are, the answer rolls off the tongue of EU citizens and leaders almost unthinkingly—peace, freedom, equality, the social market.

That these values were never codified beyond the forewords to EU constitutional texts and edgy social media campaigns is not a bug, but a feature of this unique process of integration through tacit consensus. Ever so torn apart by conflicting interests and imperial ambitions, the nations of Europe were finally able, in the aftermath of World War II, to sublimate history by joining forces in a shared quest for prosperity and liberal politics, absent any coercion. This—more than any contingent aim theretofore devised—was itself the ultimate reflection, if ever there has been one, of “European values”. The economic facet of integration—present at the creation but ascendant since the aforementioned Single European Act of 1986—naturally warrants a heightened degree of trust through reciprocity and impartial oversight, as it would in any other federal or multilateral context. Yet for member states to turn these values, by etching them in stone, into binding requirements susceptible to being used as cudgels to penalize deviance would itself have gone against the grain of this soft process of coalescence—hence the deliberate vagueness around “European values”. You don’t get to build a post-Historical liberal future of uncoerced integration with coercive threats.

In some ways, the critical leap of burden-sharing that was the July deal was bound to inch us closer to an impasse over conditionality in one form or another, and in this respect Poland and Hungary may simply be the casual victims of a natural trend that could have claimed a different scapegoat a few years earlier—Italy for corruption, Cyprus for Russia links, you name it. The architects of the conditionality mechanism—amongst whom, not coincidentally, the so-called financial “frugals” feature prominently—are claiming to seize on a watershed moment of solidarity to close ranks around foundational basics. But for all its sermonizing about values, the EU functions in the standard ways of most other multilateral fora, for whom conditionality is a routine mechanism whether or not financial transfers are said to reflect shared values. In this way, last week’s crisis was the latest stage in a process of horizontal burden-sharing followed by vertical delegation of autonomy that began with the sovereign debt crisis of 2012. Absent concerns over “democratic backsliding”, the target of conditionality could well have turned out to be, a few years earlier, some structural economic reform of one kind or another, and may become something different a few years from now. Culture wars over abortion or euthanasia would come back to haunt the usual Central European suspects, but what about France’s hard-edged approach to so-called “Islamist separatism” of late? That Germany and the Netherlands could one day unite to water down French laïcité sounds no more unlikely than our current impasse did as much time ago.

But this time is different for other reasons. However hard some have tried to hatch a legal case connecting the two, the conditions imposed on Poland and Hungary are immaterial to Covid-19 relief, the 2021-2027 budget, or how either will be spent. This alone makes the entire maneuver seem petty from the get-go, at a time when Europeans expect the EU to leave politics aside in the common interest of Covid-19 relief. A virus that these two countries—to add insult to injury—have been ahead of the curve in keeping at bay, notably by closing borders sooner than most others. Despite a recent uptick in Poland, case counts remain below the EU’s average in both countries as of this writing.

The sheer underhandedness of the tactic is also unprecedented. The European Commission’s (EC) ongoing infringement procedures against Hungary and Poland failed to ascertain breaches grave enough to warrant penalties. In pretending that they have, the schemers have also reneged on the EU Council’s word from July, when it agreed to table away the mechanism precisely in the interest of keeping the arduously negotiated deal alive at the last minute. This time, in throwing down the gauntlet for “rule of law”, the EU is flouting its own mechanisms and legal precedents, codified in Article 7 of the Maastricht Treaty (1993), which exist precisely to dissuade recalcitrant states without taking every other member hostage. The so-called “nuclear option” enshrined therein was already voted on back in early 2018 by the Parliament against Poland, and later in September that year against Hungary. But in order for it to be picked up by the EU Council, where the ultimate call to trigger Article 7 is made, a four-fifths majority of countries is needed, and the attempt to gather it was never made.

The reason for this short-circuiting is precisely because Germany and the Netherlands know they can’t reach that threshold, and this even before Hungary and Poland were cornered into signing a mutual defense agreement last week, which widens the number of allies they can together marshal. Though still shy of the unanimity needed for other similarly high-stakes decisions, the four-fifths requirement exists in part because the EU keeps a claim to majoritarianism despite some lowering of the voting thresholds since Maastricht. Additionally, countries are likely to refrain from triggering mechanisms that could be turned against them in the future, a reluctance the experts call “the glasshouse syndrome” or “reverse deterrence”. This is not to mention that the stick wielded for deterrence in each case has changed—while Article 7 takes away a member state’s voting rights at the EU Council, in this case it is vital Covid-19 aid that the EU’s current stratagem puts on the line. Its plotters may not have realized it yet, but putting a price tag on an intangible, supposedly sacred value such as “rule of law” cheapens it instead of bolstering its significance.

The entire process leading up to this Rubicon, in fact, is concerning for the EU’s endurance as an attractive forum for mutually beneficial cooperation, whomever ends up claiming the day. Poland’s left-liberal opposition has circumvented national democratic accountability by enlisting a coalition of NGOs, MEPs and Commission bureaucrats to beat a steady drum about “authoritarianism”. When one country’s factional minority is able to come this close to effecting what it couldn’t secure a mandate for at the polls, it isn’t just the democratic nature of the EU that’s at stake. It is democracy within member states themselves that’s being put at risk, by EU membership—unbelievable but true. Most worrying of all is the sheer Jacobinism of the EU’s crusade against alleged “democratic backsliding”—all performative, without any self-limiting principle. Going all-in to advance a politically colored interpretation of “rule of law” contravenes the tacit norms of pluralism and consensus building that should characterize the EU.

Perhaps this has all been hedged for, and the direction the EU will unavoidably take as a result is deliberate. Some dead angles in the German-Dutch strategy remain, nonetheless. If they thought the bloc would emerge stronger and more cohesive, and that the groundwork would be laid for more trust and integration, they are in for some sour disillusion. Machinating underhandedly to impose unpopular policies on countries so fresh off the shadow of communism that hoped, by joining the bloc, to leave top-down diktats behind won’t bolster the EU as a champion of post-Soviet democracy and a bridger of East-West divides—quite the contrary. Is it any wonder that the crisis is being met in Warsaw and Budapest with a flurry of meme-like commentary about the EUSSR? The impression of double standards also stokes further cynicism. Just this weekend, as Paris went up in flames over a bill to ban the recording of on-duty police activity, Poles on Twitter couldn’t be blamed for questioning “rule of law” in France. Whether those claimed to be outside the law were the policemen who beat a black man unconscious for not wearing a mask last week, or the violent radicals setting cars aflame in riposte wasn’t entirely clear, but as the EU should learn, cynicism breeds cynicism.

Perhaps even that much is assumed, and those responsible still think risking the EU’s largest burden-sharing agreement ever is worth it in the interest of advancing “European values”, but let’s disabuse them of that last delusion. Just when you think a strategy so costly would focus the minds of its architects, a resolution in the Parliament has emerged condemning a ruling by Poland’s Constitutional Court from last month tightening abortion access, with language about “European values” almost identically phrased as in the conditionality mechanism. Even if the plot fails and Poland and Hungary are allowed their rights as member states, this entire maneuver will have succeeded in turning Groucho Marx’s famous quip about club memberships from the realm of irony into that of sad cynicism. When a club is bent on not having you as a member, it may not be worth joining after all.

Jorge González-Gallarza (@JorgeGGallarza) is the co-host of the Uncommon Decency podcast on European issues (@UnDecencyPod) and an associate researcher at Fundación Civismo.