Twelve countries have joined the EU since 2004, with Croatia’s accession expected in 2013. Tamas Dezso Czigler argues that while the Eurozone’s economic problems are currently dominating attention, the EU is also facing a growing crisis in the new accession countries, with a number of Eastern European states exhibiting anti-democratic tendencies. The article warns that problems in Eastern Europe also threaten to derail wider reform processes within the EU.

Recent developments in the Eurozone crisis seem to have led to increasingly hysterical commentaries (especially from Anglo-Saxon authors) about the future of the Euro, with several authors now predicting the dissolution of the Eurozone. However, the view that “the Euro is not in crisis, but the people are” is closer to the truth. The Euro will survive, but with some important consequences for the continent. Firstly, the Eurozone’s citizens will pay a high price for keeping the Euro afloat, and will also have to pay the price for their insecure governments and weaker banks – a largely unfair outcome of the crisis as far as they are concerned. Secondly, it is clear that the European Union needs reform; many commentators (including on EUROPP) have written that the systems and institutions of the EU are in need of renewal.

If we follow the efforts of the European Federalist Party, listen to Angela Merkel, or read, for example, the latest book by Jürgen Habermas, the path of the future seems clear: we need more democracy in the EU. But, on the other hand (paradoxically) we will also have to create a more centralised system with closer co-operation among the member states – and with a core of states moving forward. Moreover, as Alexander Lámfalussy, the “father of the Euro” explained in an interview; there is no system of policy coordination behind the Euro yet; now we have to build one. It was obvious even when the Euro was created, that without sole institutions the system would be hard to maintain. Now, we need less populist national politicians and a stronger, more transparent Europe to develop. This need is now all the greater in some Eastern European countries, given recent developments in their internal politics, and in their relationships with the EU.

In Eastern Europe, we can see two main tendencies. Firstly, some countries are moving in a heavily anti-democratic direction. I have previously written a great deal about Hungary; the latest development is that the government has changed the election rules once more, and introduced the anti-democratic pre-registration of voters, which further heavily distorts the election system. The government also continues to fire judges, even though the act which made this available was annulled by the Constitutional Court. In Romania, the problems are similar and obvious – the government simply does not respect democratic institutions like the Constitutional Court or the President.

Both Hungary and Slovakia have seen the possibly racially motivated murders of Roma in recent years (including children). In addition, Slovakia has introduced a heavily anti-democratic language act, which bans Hungarians from speaking Hungarian in government offices, even if the client and the officer both belong to the Hungarian minority. Moreover, the Slovak government recently decreed that Slovak citizens who gain Hungarian citizenship would lose their Slovak citizenship. While this policy may conform to the letter of the law, it is still essentially the government’s betrayal of its own citizens. There are also fears as to whether Croatia will be able to stay stable, since it has had an even darker history compared to the others. And we hear news about extreme corruption in Bulgaria every day.

The little more than twenty years that have passed since the fall of Communism has not been enough for these countries to establish well functioning, stable democracies which are respected by the political elite, while, in contrast (and very simplistically), the western world had a hundred years to build the fundamentals of democracy: the free market, the welfare state and the creation of political forces which do not destroy the framework of the system. In its relationship with Eastern Europe, the EU has pulled back in its fight for human rights, evidently not being able to handle the aggressive Eastern European authoritarian style. The EU has stood by as human rights have been breached, not to mention the fact that Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán is still the Vice-President of the European Peoples Party, which is strange for a party that defends conservative values.

Secondly, and at the moment this is even more problematic for the EU’s core, is that 28 states are very hard to cope with, especially, if some of the governments of these countries have disputes with European institutions and are turning against the European system. These governments talk about a “freedom fight”, but in fact this is a fight for power – not for their states, but for themselves. Turning back to our main point, even supporting some of the Lisbon Treaty’s small changes has caused problems in this region (we have seen this in the example of the Czech President Václav Klaus, who was the last EU leader to sign the Lisbon Treaty). In this region rational solutions and arguments are regularly put aside, and countries have not learned to co-operate with each other – the chances of making developments and progress in this system are lower than in other countries.

Germany has recently proposed a new system of fiscal control that would be validated by the European Court of Justice. Given that some Western European countries protested against this system, do we really think that Eastern European leaders such as Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán would ever support such an idea? And would he support the German idea to introduce stricter enforcement of human rights in member states? Would these countries’ governments ever give the EU a weapon which could be used against them?

Now it is clear: it was naive to allow so many states to enter the EU system, without them firstly adopting deep reforms and conforming with EU institutions which force them to respect the main rules of the EU such as human rights at the domestic level, and more high profile co-operation, with the associated reduced sovereignty of member states at the EU level.

Up to and during the Eurozone crisis, the EU-centre had difficulty enough with the UK’s opting out of many new measures and some states’ resistance to the Lisbon Treaty; now the EU has 12 new countries, which function like a time-bomb: we have no way of knowing which of them will explode in the next negotiations. Anti-democratic governments do not like to give any sovereignty over to others. The fact that right now the EU’s system lacks a transparent democratic architecture is in this regard less relevant – because even if we would bring the system closer to the citizens they would hardly support cutting their own power.

In sum, it was naive not to account for historical traditions, which show that this region has never had freedom and democracy in the tradition of many Western European countries. Here, the pure aggressive power-politicians are respected. And this may cause headaches for the EU in the future, as they won’t stop at simply breaching human rights; one of them will surely block the next set of reforms, and prohibit the system from moving on to the next level.

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Note:  This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.

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About the Author

Tamas Dezso Czigler Institute for Legal Studies of the Centre for Social Sciences, Hungarian Academy of Sciences
Tamas Dezso Czigler is a research fellow at the Institute for Legal Studies of the Centre for Social Sciences at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Furthermore, he is an assistant professor at National University of Public Service. He is particularly interested in European commercial law, private international law and comparative contract law.

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