Freedom, democracy, equality, rule of law, and human rights… these are the official values that bind the 27 nations which form the European Union. The institution has set an example for the potential of liberal multilateralism by bringing peace and stability to a region historically beset by conflict. Over the last 20 years, the crises faced by the EU such as terrorist attacks, deep recessions, and the effects of the changing climate have not differed drastically from those experienced in many regions of the world. However, the union’s newest confrontation comes from within. The European Union is facing an identity crisis. There is growing worry that the difficult task of integrating the diverse countries of the continent has potentially run its course as some countries favor their own sovereignty over finding commonality and upholding the core values which define the union.

Upholding the Rule of Law

Much of the talk surrounding the internal challenges of the EU centers around Poland and Hungary, and their commitment to the rule of law in particular. In his second stint as the Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán has consolidated power behind extreme nationalist and anti-immigrant rhetoric. He has spoken clearly and openly about his desire to end “liberal democracy.” Poland has experienced a similar erosion of the independence of its courts, and the nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party received a mandate to continue governing following this year’s closely contested elections. Both countries have also come under fire for their contempt for human rights with the creation of “LGBT-free zones” in some areas of Poland and Hungary’s attempts to constitutionalize “Christian values” that would allow for legal discrimination.

The two nations are kindred spirits on the eastern edge of the union, and so far, the EU has been indecisive on how best to handle their behavior. Non-member Norway, able to act on its own accord, has reacted swiftly and more forcefully than the EU by deciding to withhold its funding to the two countries based on their violations of democratic and human rights norms. The European Commission’s recently released report on the rule of law admirably assessed the shortcomings that exist in all member states, but did not draw any lines that would constitute action against the most egregious offenders. A few weeks after the release of the report, long-standing discussions in the European Parliament finally ended with an agreement to create a mechanism which would tie EU funding to rule of law cooperation. The idea had been a point of discussion for some time, but competing interests in the bloc had previously prevented any agreement from being reached. Some of the “frugal” countries had hoped that a delay in the budget’s approval caused by rule of law discussions might reduce the final amount spent on the landmark COVID-19 recovery package. Meanwhile, Poland and Hungary have responded to the report by proposing the creation of their own parallel institute to assess the rule of law, in an effort to reveal the double standard which they feel exists in the bloc. Regardless of the legitimacy and potential effectiveness of this institute, the move shows how emboldened the two countries are to stand against the authority of the union.

Committing to European Values

With the establishment of the Copenhagen Criteria of 1993, the EU cemented the idea that there was more to the union than the members’ geographic proximity and shared interests of economic prosperity. As a purely economic institution, they would be able to set aside value-based differences in pursuit of improving trade and development. Such an arrangement has already been made with Turkey, a long-aspiring EU member that enjoys access to the EU’s Customs Union while the country’s human rights record and regard for the rule of law have prevented it from being formally accepted into the union. While the agreement has aided in the modernization of Turkey’s economy and established a fruitful trade partnership between the two sides, Turkey is not satisfied with access only to the customs union. Turkey still regards EU membership as a primary foreign policy objective, proving that inclusion into the union holds value on the global stage. While no legal provision to expel a member state currently exists, the value of full membership could be leveraged to change countries behavior who are not exhibiting the traits of EU nations. The current administrations in Poland and Hungary are both cognizant of the benefits that come with EU membership. In the same speech where Orbán derided liberal democracy, he recognized as well that Hungary “needs the EU.” The leading parties in Poland’s election all strongly supported their place in the EU and surveys show Poles to be some of the strongest EU supporters in the bloc. Pursuing a possible suspension which could leave Poland, Hungary, or any other member that fails to fulfill its obligations to the core values, in a position similar to Turkey’s might be an effective way to change their behavior.

The European Union has arrived at a critical juncture where it must decide what it stands for, and if the degree of individual sovereignty granted to member states is hindering its mission. If the EU wants to become a more powerful actor in the international arena, the European Commission first needs to strengthen its authority over its own members. The Commission must get tougher and leverage the benefits that membership provides to force its member states to reform themselves in the image of the core values that they all agreed to promote. The forthcoming inquiries into the performance of individual countries is a step towards creating greater accountability in upholding the standards expected of EU member states. However, going forward, any disciplinary actions that may be pursued against misbehaving members must not leave behind the vulnerable citizens of those countries. If funding is withheld for these governments, there should be an effort to redirect some of that money into the hands of trusted NGOs and citizen’s organizations so that the most at-risk citizens, such as the journalists, opposition leaders and LGBTQ communities of Poland and Hungary, are not abandoned.

When speaking in October 2020 about the status of Polish-EU relations, PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński asserted, “we’re on the right side of history, and those who want to take away our sovereignty based on their own whims are headed for a fall.” Now that Poland and Hungary have exercised their veto power to stop the approval of the new budget, the lines have officially been drawn. The key issue that lies at the heart of the EU and its functioning is being tested again: will the strength of national sovereignty be the downfall of the EU as we know it? Or will the union take a stand and recommit to defending freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law, and human rights?

Nicholas Pellett is a Master’s student at the department of Political Science and International Relations of Saint Louis University – Madrid Campus.

To quote this article, please use the following reference: Nicholas Pellett (2020),“Will national sovereignty unravel European integration?”. https://crisesobservatory.es/will-national-sovereignty-unravel-european-integration/

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