Carl Sacklen

To Stop Authoritarianism, the EU Must Act Decisively

I wrote for the University of Chicago’s political review about the Polish government’s increasingly authoritarian tendencies. If the EU wants to continue promoting liberal democracy it should act decisively

Read it here, or click here to see its source


Under the low, thick gray clouds of a dreary November day, Warsaw’s streets burned red as an estimated sixty thousand people marched with flares to mark the ninety-ninth anniversary of Poland’s independence. Among the swathes of people were ultranationalists and neo-Nazis, numbering in the thousands, who carried banners and signs that bore clear extremist messages such as “White Europe” and “Clean Blood.”

Organisers of the march included the All-Polish Youth and the National-Radical Camp, both of which are anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim groups. The Law and Justice Party, currently in government, has close ties with these groups, and in 2006 the former chairman of the All-Polish Youth became Poland’s vice prime minister.

Relations between Brussels and Warsaw have soured since the Law and Justice Party took power just over two years ago. The transition has seen Poland, often touted as a post-Soviet success story, fall into the grasp of nationalism.

This conflict was evident in the differing responses to the independence march. Rather than condemn the march, Polish officials within the government supported it publicly. The foreign ministry called it a “great celebration of Poles,” and the interior minister said it was a “beautiful sight.” Meanwhile, EU officials in Brussels made their disgust and condemnation clear, calling the march “xenophobic and fascist.”

This rift has been growing for some time, and Poland’s incumbent government has steadily been rejecting the institutional principles it signed up to a mere fourteen years ago when it joined the EU. Aside from meeting economic benchmarks, nations seeking to join the bloc must also fulfil several political requirements. These include free elections with a secret ballot, the rule of law, a commitment to human rights, and respect for minorities. According to the EU Parliament, “the situation in Poland represents a ‘clear risk of a serious breach’ of the European values, including the rule of law, enshrined in the EU Treaty.”

In December, for instance, the Polish parliament approved the government’s proposals to grant the executive effective control of the supreme court and judicial appointments. The Council of Europe, which is responsible for monitoring the state of rule of law in member states, warned that the proposal “puts at serious risk the independence of all parts of the Polish judiciary.” This was a direct assault on judicial independence that is so central to the EU’s tenets relating to the rule of law.

In response to Poland’s steady descent towards authoritarianism, the European Parliament has initiated the process to invoke Article 7, which would suspend Poland’s voting rights in the bloc. The article has never been invoked, but a similar investigation is underway against Viktor Orban’s increasingly authoritarian government in Hungary.

This is a welcome move by the EU Parliament. Unlike Britain, Poland is a net benefactor from EU contributions. Therefore, with Brexit looming, there will soon be a large gap in the EU budget and Poland will want to have a say when it comes to allocating funds. It is in Poland’s best interests for its government to turn back toward the liberal democratic values that allowed the country to join the EU.

The EU has its flaws; the benefits of unified defence are debatable and calls for further integration are badly timed. However, one only has to look at the massive political overhauls in eastern European states to see the EU is a force for good when it comes to incentivising liberal democracy. Lithuania is an apt example. As a direct result of obtaining membership in the EU, Lithuania overhauled its judicial framework by creating a judiciary independent from government. Meanwhile, just a few years after the fall of the USSR, Lithuania managed to hold free and fair elections with high public confidence in the process—all in return for EU membership.

This is exactly why the EU needs to act assertively against Poland (and Hungary). If the EU is to maintain its status as a promoter of liberal democratic values, it is vital its members abide by those same values if they are to retain their membership benefits. Of course, Poland’s government has the right to adopt as many illiberal policies as it wants, as worrying and saddening as its present course may be. However, the EU has the right to disincentivize illiberal reforms with the threat of suspension. If it doesn’t, the EU shouldn’t call itself a bastion of liberal democracy, nor should it expect the same level of success in the future when it comes to incentivising true democratization.