Why is the EU attacking Poland and Hungary in a crisis?

11 March 2022

11:30 PM

11 March 2022

11:30 PM

With Russian bombs harassing Kiev and Kharkiv, the two unsung heroes of Europe have been Poland and Hungary. With very little notice, they have between them welcomed, fed and accommodated well over a million refugees from Ukraine. This they have done gladly and without complaint.

Yesterday the European parliament passed a ponderous 2,500-word resolution devoted to Poland and Hungary. An appreciation, perhaps, or even a vote of thanks? Not exactly. It was actually a call for the EU to take steps as soon as possible to block payment of EU budget and Covid recovery funds to both countries, and criticising Brussels for not having started the process earlier.

Why? The background is that for some time both Hungary and Poland have been subject to pressure from Brussels, and legal proceedings in the European Court of Justice, for perceived failings in their internal judicial systems. These proceedings have been controversial. Both countries object to them on the basis that they see this as an attempt by the EU to muscle in on purely internal affairs. But an expansionist Court of Justice disagrees and has ruled that this is a matter engaging EU law. In January last year, the EU introduced a regulation allowing it to make payment of any EU funds conditional on the observance of the rule of law, which means in the case of Poland and Hungary conditional on their doing as the EU says on their judicial systems.

It is this that the European parliament has now insisted must be enforced. Even at a time like this, it says, discipline and strict subordination to Brussels’s law must be strictly maintained and quickly imposed. Indeed, the document goes on to excoriate the European Commission and its president Ursula von der Leyen for having been too soft on Poland and Hungary, especially since last month’s judgment from the Court of Justice sanctioning penalties.

The obvious point is that it is hard to imagine anything more politically inept and ill-timed than this document. Whatever the technical rights and wrongs of how Poland and Hungary appoint their national judiciaries, it can wait. In the present crisis, there is something seriously wrong with depriving the Polish and Hungarian states of many billion euros when they, the refugees they are feeding, and their own people who are looking after them, need every euro they can get their hands on.

Furthermore, while the typically wordy euro document has the air of a legal statement, the MEPs who voted for it seem entirely to have missed the point that for the present such legalities are a side issue. If ever there was a time when law must yield to politics, this is it. Faced with fighting in Ukraine and conceivable war in Europe, the EU’s overwhelming need now is unity on the global scale and for all member states to be brought on side in the effort to curb Putin’s megalomania. Questions about whether judicial appointments are euro law compliant are a supremely irrelevant distraction. If this means back-pedalling by Brussels on the strict application of European law throughout the Union, or the fudging of some face-saving compromise with Poland and Hungary, so be it. Indeed, this point has not escaped even Commission president Ursula van der Leyen. In February she obtained the legal green light from the European Court to cut off the flow of funds but she had sensibly decided that she had bigger fish to fry.

Why is any such concession to practicalities apparently unacceptable to MEPs? At first sight, it seems surprising that a group of elected politicians, of all people, should so roundly reject the political fudges, compromises and horse-trading that make up so much of democratic politics. But then perhaps it is not so surprising after all. For all that the EU desires that the European parliament is seen simply a grander version of its members’ parliaments (just as the Congress is, say, the New York State Assembly or the Kentucky House of Representatives writ large), the truth is that it is not.

MEPs, it is worth remembering, are largely elected on a party list system, thus initially detaching them from individual constituents. Furthermore, once in parliament an MEP is encouraged to affiliate with an EU-sponsored (and subsidised) pan-European political group with no national equivalent, such as the European People’s party or the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe. In addition, note that the parliament has no power to introduce legislation (all it can do is officially petition the Commission to do it). Meanwhile, debate is effectively non-existent, with individual MEPs’ speeches for the most part strictly limited to one-minute pre-prepared statements.

The result is straightforward. The democratic facade is there, but control is largely in the hands of party bosses, insiders and wire-pullers at the EU level. The kind of democracy that we know, with politicians pulled this way and that by ministers, acquaintances and constituents, compromising here and standing by their principles there, simply does not exist. And the outcomes reflect that: the foolish resolutions like yesterday’s, which read more like prompted pronouncements of a politburo or supreme soviet than the outcome of any normal political debate.

There is one silver lining. The undemocratic nature of the European parliament goes hand-in-hand with the general irrelevance of its views. For the moment, we can for once live in hope that the European Commission can politely ignore posturings such as these, try to keep the EU together, and get on with the issues that really matter. Like Ukraine.

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