Foreign Policy

How the European Parliament anchored the area’s autocrats

At the end of last year, Donald Tusk, President of the European People’s Party (EPP), a center-right political group in the European Parliament, tweeted a criticism of Fidesz, the party of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. After Tamas Deutsch, a prominent Fidesz politician, compared the chairman of the EPP in the European Parliament, Manfred Weber, with the Gestapo, Fidesz appeared to be on the verge of finally being released from the largest political family in the European Union.

The recurring drama of almost ousting Orban’s party has lasted for most of the last decade, but Fidesz remains a member of the EPP. It has been “suspended” since 2019 and effectively excluded from participating in the collective decisions of the EPP. However, Fidesz Members in the European Parliament still have the right to speak on behalf of the EPP Group in plenary and they continue to exercise roles in committees and other formal positions in the Group.

At this rate, instead of the EPP gaining the momentum to actually exclude the party, it is far more likely that Fidesz will simply walk away at a moment that is favorable to itself, as Orban himself suggested.

The EPP’s problem with Fidesz is part of the broader challenge facing the EU with its (no longer so) new Member States that have seen a democratic relapse, especially Hungary. It has been almost a decade since Orban, as the new Prime Minister, rewritten the Hungarian constitution and electoral law and defaced the country’s constitutional court.

In 2017, Fidesz passed a new law to, as one party official put it, “wipe out” non-governmental organizations funded by Hungarian-born American billionaire George Soros, calling them “foreign agents”. In 2019, the prestigious Central European university that Soros founded after the fall of communism moved from Budapest to Vienna after a specially tailored law made it impossible for the institution to operate legally in Hungary. In November of last year, in a state of emergency due to the coronavirus pandemic, the government passed a law that makes it essentially impossible for small opposition parties to keep national lists of candidates in candidate elections

The EPP’s reactions rarely went beyond raised eyebrows and the occasional ups and downs. His behavior shows both the hollowness of the transnational political groups in Europe and the unintended consequences of the attempt to build a pan-European democracy.

The transnational party infrastructure of the European Parliament was created in the early days of the European project to promote cooperation between ideologically like-minded political parties in different countries and was intended to usher in an age of true European democracy in which pan-European political institutions continued to play an ever-increasing role.

That didn’t happen. During the various political, social and economic crises of the past decade, European politics has remained largely national. The EU’s transnational parties – the EPP, the Socialists and Democrats (S&D), the liberal Renew Europe and others – provide their members with training, networking and ideas sharing opportunities, and other resources, largely funded by European taxpayers . The party secretariats in Brussels, however, neither prescribe the terms of the national election manifestos, nor do they examine the national candidates running on their tickets. They don’t seem to have much influence over their recalcitrant members either. Ultimately, the total number of seats of the parties determines the floor in the parliamentary committees and in the leadership.

The endeavor to maximize the number of seats in the European Parliament has been reinforced by the so-called Spitzenkandidaten system, in which the parties propose candidates for the presidency of the European Commission before the European elections. While it was previously clear that the President of the Commission would be determined by an agreement between member states behind closed doors, the new system to improve transparency introduced in 2014 has increased the use of European elections by tying their results directly to the scrutiny of Europe’s highest executive body . In turn, the European parties are even more interested in their crude oil size at the expense of all other considerations.

Orban’s Fidesz is by far the EPP’s greatest liability, but not the only one. Before he started spreading conspiracy theories about the US presidential election, Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa tried to tame public broadcasters and suspended parliamentary control over the state budget. Over the years, the EPP has also given free entry to Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov’s grotesque kleptocracy.

The problem also extends beyond the EPP. Before Romania’s Social Democratic Party was suspended (though not expelled), the S&D pampered the party despite successive governments undermining the integrity of the courts and suppressing anti-corruption efforts. Under the supervision of Robert Fico’s Direction-Social Democracy Party in Slovakia, an S&D member, a young journalist and his fiancée were also killed by gangsters with ties to the highest levels of the police and judiciary. The oligarch who became the populist Prime Minister of the Czech Republic, Andrej Babis, remains a respected member of French President Emmanuel Macron’s Renew Europe despite his conflicts of interest and a criminal investigation into his abuse of EU subsidies.

In principle, there should be a political price to be paid for European political parties if their members give up fundamental democratic principles. However, as European politics remains largely national, few voters are aware of the existence of political parties at the EU level. Even fewer are willing to punish their national politicians for their ties to autocrats in other EU countries. With every European party to blame, whataboutism and accusations of hypocrisy are widespread.

As long as the mainstream EU parties add undemocratic national figures to their ranks, they will continue to give these numbers international validation. This gives otherwise corrupt and sometimes authoritarian leaders an undeserved source of legitimacy that they would like to use to deflect domestic criticism. This is the opposite of what the EU political parties should be doing. By accepting the fledgling political parties from the East, it was hoped that the West would help cultivate and institutionalize the kind of standard party systems that underpin parliamentary democracy. But just like with EU enlargement as a whole, the results are decidedly mixed.

In Hungary in particular, Orban’s continued appeasement was disastrous. A recent compromise on the EU budget by Chancellor Angela Merkel gives Orban an indefinite assurance that his domestic practices will not affect the size of the EU. It is also telling that shortly after the compromise was reached, German automaker Daimler announced a € 100 million investment in its plant in Hungary, based on significant state aid from the Hungarian government.

The impact on the EU’s credibility is strong. Political leaders in the Western Balkans or Ukraine, for example, can only learn one lesson: post-communist kleptocrats and emerging authoritarians are largely tolerated by the main political families in the EU.

Unfortunately, this ship is unlikely to become self-employed. Previous attempts to create a Europe-wide culture of democratic parliamentarism have offered protection to rogue political actors. And without a major purge of political parties, Europe’s avowed interest in defending democracy and the rule of law is unlikely to go beyond rhetoric.

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