🌊 Citizens pay the highest price for illiberal governments

Escalating rule of law crises in Poland and Hungary have led to calls for their expulsion from the European Union. Yet, argues Akudo McGee, such calls overlook the fact that the true losers of Polexit or Hungexit won’t be unruly governments

At an EU summit in June, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte suggested Hungary had ‘no business being in the European Union any more'. His remark was prompted by Hungary’s recently passed child protection law.

Critics recognise this law as a veiled attempt to further suppress minority rights in Hungary. It treats any portrayal of homosexuality as promoting sexual content, and it therefore problematises non-heteronormative identities. The law has already prompted legal action from the European Commission.

Rutte’s provocative words amplify existing sentiments across the EU. There is frustration over the inaction of the European Commission and Council in dealing with so-called rogue member states, like Poland and Hungary. Now many call for them to shape up or ship out.

However, the real losers of Polexit or Hungexit will be Poles and Hungarians. The tremendous efforts of citizens in these countries to defend EU values are often overshadowed.

The crises

In his recent article for The Loop, Luca Manucci explored how governments have been inching towards illiberalism as an affective form of governance. Unfortunately, some countries in the EU have been no exception.

Hungary, under the Fidesz party, has pioneered illiberal governance in the EU since 2010. Poland, under the Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość or PiS) party, has been following its lead since 2015. Both have partially seized independent media and civil society. They have espoused harmful narratives about minority groups, such as refugees and sexual minorities, for political gain. And they have orchestrated the systematic dismantling of checks and balances. According to this year's Nations in Transit Report, democracy scores for Poland and Hungary suffered 'the steepest decline ever recorded.'

This year's Nations in Transit Report shows democracy scores for Poland and Hungary suffered 'the steepest decline ever recorded'

These developments have attracted headlines for the better part of six years. However, the worsening state of democracy, rule of law, and human rights in Poland and Hungary cannot negate one phenomenon. Curiously, citizens in both countries report some of the highest levels of satisfaction with EU membership. Poles and Hungarians harbour increasingly liberal political views.

The defenders

EU interventions often prove too little too late. In response, Poles and Hungarians have themselves become the most robust defenders of democracy, human rights, and rule of law.

For every stranglehold on independent media or alarming constitutional change in Hungary, politicians and activists raise their voices and / or take to the streets. For every ‘LGBT-Ideology Free Zone’ and unconstitutionally composed ‘court’ in Poland, activists and independent judges fight to prevent the further erosion of liberal values.

Hungarian and Polish civil society have also been raising the alarm to prevent further norm breaches. 2015 saw the formation of the Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD) in Poland. KOD launched massive street protests after PiS’s first attacks on checks and balances. Similarly, Hungarian NGOs formed the Civilisation Coalition to preserve independent civil society after Fidesz’s attempts to control it. Even individuals, like Polish activist Bart Staszewski, find creative ways to draw attention to the dire reality of minorities in their country.

These brave efforts should not obscure serious concerns about events in Poland and Hungary. Rather, they should accentuate the commitment of millions of Poles and Hungarians who uphold the norms enshrined in EU treaties.

Citizens in these countries must contend not only with their governments’ assiduous attempts to dismember liberalism. They also face the reality that the EU is not responding with commensurate interventions.

On 20 December 2017, two years after PiS began demolishing the rule of law, the EU launched the Article 7 procedure against Poland. On 12 September 2018, eight years after Fidesz’s methodical disabling of institutional checks, it launched Article 7 against Hungary.

In theory, Article 7 could rein in rogue states by threatening their Council voting and other rights. Unfortunately, it requires a unanimous vote, the lack of which renders it toothless.

Too little, too late

In the meantime, EU institutions have issued stern warnings. The Commission produced its first ever Rule of Law report, and launched infringement actions. These interventions have yet to yield a significant outcome in either state. PiS recently dissolved its 'Disciplinary Chamber,' as a result of pressure from the European Court of Justice. Legal scholars, however, regard this as merely a cosmetic adjustment masquerading as systemic change.

The EU’s initial inaction paved the way for further unlawful behaviour

These weak remedies stem in part from EU institutions’ lethargic response to initial norm breaches. But another reason is that avenues for EU-level intervention are limited. We can liken the situation in Poland and Hungary to the end stages of a chronic disease. The first stages, if inadequately treated, enable the lumbering progression of the disease. Likewise, the EU’s initial inaction paved the way for further unlawful behaviour.

The biggest losers

Acquiescence or inaction to serial norm violations sets a dangerous precedent, especially in the context of the growing wave of illiberalism. The EU must demonstrate that this wave stops at its borders.

The values which form the bedrock of the European Project are worth fighting for. Poles and Hungarians, likewise, deserve the same rights in their home countries as they would have anywhere else in the Union. The EU must prove that the trust vested in it by its citizens to defend their inalienable rights is not misplaced.

The values which form the bedrock of the European Project are worth fighting for

The potential expulsion of Poland or Hungary from the EU would not only be functionally difficult (see: Brexit). It would also be an unforgivable betrayal of the Poles and Hungarians who never faltered in their defence of EU values.

The Union would lose more members, PiS and Fidesz would lose their patron, but the biggest losers of all would be the Poles and Hungarians who would have to watch as the rights for which they fought are shattered before their eyes.

Third in a Loop thread on the spread of illiberalism – the 'illiberal wave' 🌊 sweeping world politics

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Akudo McGee
Akudo McGee
PhD Candidate, Maastricht University

Akudo's research interests include illiberalism, EU integration, norm contestation, and the role of civil society under illiberal governments.

Her current research focuses on threats to liberal democracy in Poland since 2015 with a special focus on how civil space has been mobilised by threats to the rule of law and human rights in-country.

She holds a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Pittsburgh in German Language and Cultural Studies and a Master of Arts from the University of Amsterdam in European Studies: Identity and Integration.


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