Should the European Union sanction illiberal members?4 May 2018 | 14:27 | The New York Times
Not surprisingly, as Steven Erlanger reports in The Times, this has led to talk in the European Commission, the European Union’s bureaucracy, of linking aid in the next seven-year budget, which takes effect in 2021, to the status of the courts in member nations. The idea is that focusing on an independent judiciary as a prerequisite for sound financial management would avoid the impression of Brussels imposing its values on independent states.
It’s a tempting notion. The bloc’s funding is important to Central European countries. It accounts for 61 percent of infrastructure spending in Poland and 55 percent in Hungary; European Union-fueled economic growth has been a major factor in the popularity of Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban.
But it’s not a very good idea. Financial sanctions have a poor track record in altering regime behavior. Russia has been under ever tighter sanctions since March 2014, but Vladimir Putin hasn’t changed his behavior one whit.
And however the sanctions are advertised, they would inevitably reinforce the sense among many in the former Soviet bloc countries of being second-class citizens in the union. Poland’s Jaroslaw Kaczynski and Hungary’s Mr. Orban both thrive on claiming that their history, identity and traditional values are under attack from a liberal, dissolute and know-it-all West — and, more specifically, from a faceless Brussels bureaucracy. They would no doubt use any sanctions as evidence to further entrench their rule. Any attempt to determine which judicial systems are inadequate would quickly turn into a political tussle over differing standards and definitions.
None of this means that leaders in Central Europe or anywhere else are free to do as they will. The European Union is obligated and within its rights to demand that all member countries adhere to its democratic standards, no matter their history.
But that must be done by persuading citizens of the new members that their rights, dignity and status as full-fledged fellow Europeans are being trampled when populist demagogues curtail their freedoms or the rule of law. The existing European Union mechanism for punishing countries that stray too far from the fold may lack real teeth, but the European Parliament’s vote in November to trigger the process against Poland offered support for opponents of Mr. Kaczynski’s illiberal policies. The European bloc has also had some success with a cooperation and verification mechanism created to monitor and support efforts in Bulgaria and Romania to battle endemic corruption. Such efforts need to be expanded and strengthened.
The transfer of wealth from rich to poor in the union was never meant as charity or reward, but as a way of raising the economic level of new members for the benefit of the entire bloc. Setting political conditions on aid would risk achieving the opposite — slowing development, alienating people, entrenching populist rulers and further deepening the fissures in the union.
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