On November 1, it will be 30 years since the European Union’s founding text, the Maastricht Treaty, entered into force. The 12 original parties to this treaty had no hesitation in declaring their shared commitment to liberty, democracy, human rights and the rule of law.
All 12 countries were liberal democracies, albeit relatively recent ones in some cases. Little did they know, however, that the EU would spend the next three decades battling to defend its fundamental values at home and abroad. Poland’s recent general election shows that this battle isn’t lost, but it would be a mistake to believe it is over.
The news that Jarosław Kaczyński’s right-wing populist Law and Justice party has been voted out of office was cheered in Brussels. Since 2017, the European Commission has tried in vain to hold the Polish government to account for a series of judicial reforms which have, in effect, stripped the country’s Constitutional Tribunal of its independence. Presented by Law and Justice as a purge against “Communist-era judges”, these measures have seriously weakened the rule of law in Poland and put the Constitutional Tribunal at loggerheads with the EU’s Court of Justice. Now, former European Council president Donald Tusk is expected to form a coalition government which will try to reverse these reforms and restore Poland’s standing as a liberal democracy.
Although it has been emboldened by Polish voters’ desire for change, the EU still has its work cut out to defend its fundamental values. Robert Fico’s return as prime minister of Slovakia gives serious cause for concern in this regard.
Thirty years ago, Fico was a rising star on the centre-left before he reinvented himself as a left-wing populist to win power, championing the rights of workers while questioning those of migrants. His previous two terms as prime minister were marked by political controversy, culminating in his resignation in 2018 following mass protests over themurder of Ján Kuciak, a journalist who investigated allegations of corruption at the very highest level of Slovakian politics. In a sign of tensions to come, the Party of European Socialists recently suspended Fico’s party, SMER, over its stance on migration, the rule of law and LGBTIQ rights and for its refusal to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Fico will have a staunch ally in Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orbán, who skipped the recent virtual summit of EU leaders. Orbán could easily have found time to join the call, which sought to overcome the EU’s discordant response to the Israel-Hamas war. Instead, he travelled to Beijing for the Belt and Road Summit, where he presented himself as “China’s trusted friend and partner in the European Union”. Throwing further shade on Brussels, Orbán shook hands with a smiling Vladimir Putin at this gathering and spoke warmly about economic cooperation between their two countries.
Next year, it will be a decade since Orbán announced his intention “to build an illiberal nation state within the EU”. True to his word, the Hungarian PM has ushered in a new constitution which significantly weakened the powers of parliament and increased executive control over the court, the media and universities. As with Poland, the European Commission could have taken a tougher line against Hungary for such democratic backsliding. However, the buck stops with EU heads of state or government who have humoured Orbán for more than a decade.
As more right wing populists win power in Europe, the risk is that the EU will not only indulge these politicians but enable them. The growing influence of Italy’s right-wing populist prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, on EU migration policy suggests that this shift could already be underway.
Member states also intended the EU to be a force for peace, security and progress in the world. They soon discovered that the liberal international order was crumbling around them. Europeans’ naive belief in the transformative power of trade diluted criticism of Russia’s authoritarian turn under Vladimir Putin and eased China’s rise as an illiberal power under Xi Jinping.
Although it has shown global leadership on issues ranging from climate change to Iran’s nuclear programme, the EU did so, in part, because its traditional ally, the United States, turned inwards on these and other issues. If America’s commitment to international cooperation continues to falter and the Conservatives’ push to take the UK out of the European Convention on Human Rights succeeds, the EU could find itself as liberal democracy’s night-watchman.
Would the founding members of the EU have declared their commitment to liberty, democracy, human rights and the rule of law if they knew how contested these norms would become? The answer is almost certainly “yes”. The Amsterdam, Nice and Lisbon Treaties built on Maastricht’s declaration of political principles, culminating in the Charter of Fundamental Rights‘ entry into EU law in 2009. If it is to thrive, and not just survive, the EU’s remaining liberal democracies need to uphold their fundamental values and to do so fast.
Dermot Hodson is a professor of political economy at Loughborough University London and author of Circle of Stars: A History of the EU and the People Who Made It, which is published by Yale University Press.