EU rules on democratic governance need updating
By Sylvana Habdank-Kolaczkowska and Zselyke Csaky
The question of how or whether the European Union as a whole can respond to violations of liberal democratic norms among its members has come up frequently in discussions about Hungary since Viktor Orban and his Fidesz party came to power in 2010.
Over the past three years, the government has taken a number of steps that resulted in the erosion of checks and balances and the rule of law, eliciting widespread criticism from the international community and triggering declines in most Freedom House governance surveys.
However, seemingly hamstrung by its limited competencies in this area and preoccupied by the economic crisis, Brussels has been hesitant in its reaction to apparent democratic backsliding. Sooner or later the EU will be forced to take a firmer stance on the protection of democratic institutions within its member states.
Since the suspension of diplomatic relations with Austria in 2000, Brussels has never used its powers to punish a member state. Having failed to prove that the Austrian government was committing a “serious and persistent” breach of the principles upon which the Union is based European leaders moved to create a firmer legal basis for preventative action in cases of democratic backsliding.
Recent cases have demonstrated, however, that this prevention and punishment mechanism - defined under Article 7 of the Treaty of the European Union - is considered to be too harsh and too politicised.
Member states intent on protecting their sovereignty have been unwilling to resort to the mechanism, often dubbed the “nuclear option,” and are more inclined to curb the EU’s authority to interfere in domestic matters than to hold fellow member states accountable for the commitment to democratic values they agreed upon in writing just a few years ago.
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Freedom House is an independent watchdog organization that supports democratic change, monitors the status of freedom around the world, and advocates for democracy and human rights.