April 12, 2017    5 minute read

Has the EU Failed as a Vehicle for Democratic Change?

Diagnosis: Autocracy    April 12, 2017    5 minute read

Has the EU Failed as a Vehicle for Democratic Change?

Last week, Hungary’s parliament approved legislation that will force universities like the Central European University (founded by George Soros) to close. What might be presented as an isolated attack on liberal values and free speech is, however, only a fraction of a long-standing attack on European democracy.

In fact, the recent Freedom House report “Nations in Transit” claims that there has been a long period of stagnation and decline in democratic governance across the central European and Eastern European countries. According to their research, “for the first time in the report’s history, there are now more Consolidated Authoritarian Regimes than Consolidated Democracies”.

All of those countries have acceded the European Union in its latest enlargements or are candidates for such. It has always been the EU’s pride and project to act as a vehicle of democratic change through its accession process. The new evidence suggests the opposite. It seems to call into question the European Union’s power to transform new members into viable democracies. What has gone wrong?

Diagnosing European Democracy

The last few decades, the European Union has used several tools to build stable institutions and transparent democratic processes in the accession countries. Through both a ‘stick-and-carrot’ incentive system and constant socialisation efforts to improve civil society and political dialogue, the EU saw itself as the driver spreading democracy across Europe.

Now, Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán has significantly weakened his country’s checks and balances, rewritten the constitution and electoral code in order to ensure his party’s dominance, and contributed to increasing state capture and corruption. In Poland, the PiS (Law and Justice Party) has attacked the constitutional tribunal, delegitimised the nation’s judges and successfully captured the state media. Both countries are now planning to hit civil society with equal, illiberal force. Things do not look much better in the Balkans and other Central European countries.

Limp Mechanisms

The sheer impotence of the EU to prevent this decline has several reasons.

For one, the biggest incentive that made these countries comply – the prospect of gaining future membership in the EU- disappears upon accession. Of course, there are still some positive incentives, like membership of the eurozone, or negative ones like the threat of sanctions through the Council of Europe or the European Court of Human Rights. Nevertheless, they seem to be hardly effective.

At the same time, the institutions in some of these countries, which have been built with the help, funding and capacity of the European Union in the accession period, are proving to be clearly unstable. Too much importance was given to the superficial compliance towards certain rules. Too little attention was paid to the enforcement of these rules at the lower end. In no way could it substitute for a proper internalisation of these rules.

As such, hollowing out constitutions and passing laws restricting powers of the media, judiciary and (with Orbán’s newest university legislation) civil society has been less difficult. This is especially so as most of the legislation in Poland, Hungary and other Central European countries is allegedly passed as a response to ‘the threat of mass immigration’, a topic that is salient and now supported by a majority in the country.


While the EU has tried to strengthen civil society and an independent media in the accession process in order to resist such unconstitutional and undemocratic practices, many NGOs and media organisations have now been rendered powerless by constitutional changes in Poland and Hungary. Instead, state-captured media and state-influenced civil institutions have conveyed a fear-mongering narrative of immigration and nativism that has led to a wider support of undemocratic practices.

A European Union that acts decisively against such trends could have contained a decline of European democracy. Instead, the European Union has been in institutional crises for the last 10 years and faces immense credibility issues. For the most part, there are still no consequences for politicians and parties that undermine the democratic systems in their countries. Without the positive incentive of membership or capacity funding, and, especially, without credible sanctions for these countries’ infringements after accession, the current situation is not that surprising.

Now What?

There is no denying the fact that the global phenomenon of populism, including the recent election of Donald Trump, has captivated Poland’s and Hungary’s leaders and played a role in their more authoritarian confidence. This trend cannot be fully blamed on the EU. Its indecisive stance against member countries dismantling their democracy, however, can be.

In the face of the new members’ rather unstable institutions, the EU should step in to defend their democratic processes and should prevent them from being hollowed out by current leaders. The European Union should counter undemocratic practices with a new self-confidence and determinacy that can include common sanctions in the worst case. Some will say this would violate a country’s sovereignty and can delegitimise the EU. If the EU does not act, on the other hand, it could lead to its own destruction.

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