The principle that every EU member must be a constitutional state with an independent judiciary, free media and academic autonomy cannot be questioned. That should be a given for every rational politician in the European Union.
The fact that the European Parliament ordered an investigation into whether the rule of law is in serious danger in Hungary is already a shock. It should be the ultimate warning to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a resounding political slap in the face. The problem is, however, that Hungary has been following a nationalist path to the point where the EU's investigation is more likely to benefit the autocrat on the Danube River domestically than it is to harm him.
Orban can now present himself as the victim of the bureaucrats and EU fanatics in Brussels. He can rein in allies, and he can continue to ride the alarmingly high wave of right-wing populism within the European Union. The governments in Poland, the Czech Republic, Italy and, partly, in Austria, too, are part of his camp. Right-wing parties in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and Germany are going to support Hungary's misguided nationalist pride. These anti-EU forces could well form a large and powerful faction in the next European Parliament in May 2019 — and cause a lot of harm.
Triggering proceedings against Hungary under Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union was long overdue. The other EU member states can no longer put up with the Hungarian government's riding roughshod over basic values while collecting ample subsidies from the bloc. Orban's relatives and their companies are among the main beneficiaries of EU contracts.
Orban has engaged in rampant nepotism perfected, members of the European Parliament believe. He has long proceeded along the lines of "one state, one people, one Orban."
The parliament's vote was right — and it was overdue. Now, the European People's Party group, which includes Germany's Christian Democratic Union and Christian Social Union in addition to Orban's Fidesz party, will finally have to send the Hungarian packing. The CSU in particular has clung to the idea of Orban as a role model for too long.
A widening gap
Yet another sanctions procedure is bad news for the European Union. First Poland, then Hungary in the EU pillory: Two member states are suspected of systematically breaking the rules of the club. That has eaten away at the European Union. The split between old members and new members is deepening in particular, as there has been suspicion that the rule of law in Romania is also failing. In his speech on the state of the EU, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker underlined the importance of reconciliation rather than division. The question is how to achieve that goal with politicians as stubborn as Orban in Hungary and Law and Justice party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski in Poland.
The Article 7 procedure is lengthy; the outcome is uncertain. Hungary and Poland could use their vetoes to protect each other. The member states have so far shied away from taking definitive action against one of their own. There is only one way to force a change in attitude, and that is by way of finances. Negotiations are currently also underway for the 2021-27 EU budget — a matter of billions in subsidies for both Hungary and Poland, and soon to be linked to the rule of law as a precondition. This is the leverage that could halt nationalists.
Italy's nationalists could also turn out to be problematic. It could be much more difficult to bring Matteo Salvini, the country's right-wing interior minister, to his senses. Unlike Orban, Salvini hasn't acted as rashly against the rule of law — but, above all, Italy is a net payer. It is unlikely Italy would be impressed by the threat of financial consequences. Hungary and Italy, however, just might work together to protect each other, as well. Unfortunately, they have the potential to divide, block and drastically change the European Union.
The Article 7 sanctions procedure is a political warning shot. It does not replace a debate on right-wing political ideas. In the end, voters in Poland, Hungary and Italy must be persuaded to get rid of their dangerous governments while they still have a choice.