Christian Caryl

Europe’s Big Freedom Fail

It's time for the European Union to get serious about enforcing democratic standards.

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The European Union doesn’t give a damn about democracy. Yeah, sure, they keep saying they do — and they’ve been saying it again in the wake of this week’s terrorist attack in Brussels. But their actions are sending a distinctly different message.

Exhibit A: the shameful deal that European officials concluded with Turkey last week. The EU wanted Ankara to help it stanch the flow of refugees, hundreds of thousands of whom have passed through Turkey on their way West. To make this happen, the Europeans promised Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan a lot of money and a renewed promise of future membership in the EU. The Turks were happy to oblige — for a very high price.

What was Ankara asking in return? Basically that Europe turn a blind eye to Erdogan’s systematic demolition of his country’s democratic institutions. Working hard to concentrate power in his own hands, he has purged the judiciary, the police, and the military, filling the vacated positions with his loyalists. He has cracked down on the media, sending dozens of journalists and critical academics to jail. And he has declared an all-out war on separatists, labeling anyone who disagrees with him a “terrorist.”

On March 3, European Council President Donald Tusk visited Ankara to discuss the planned refugee deal with the Turkish government. A few hours later, Turkish police stormed the headquarters of Zaman, the country’s largest circulation newspaper. That turned out to be the prelude to a full-blown government takeover. The Europeans barely made a peep. Erdogan knew that he had them where he wanted them.

Just in case Brussels didn’t get the message, the Turkish president gave a speech a few days later in which he denounced anyone who dared to challenge his course. The fight against terrorism, he said, dispelled any need to worry about pesky niceties such as “[d]emocracy, freedom, and the rule of law.” These principles, Erdogan declared, have “absolutely no value any longer.” And this is supposed to be a candidate for EU membership?

It’s bad enough that EU leaders were willing to compromise their democratic principles for the sake of shutting down their migrant problem (though there are good reasons to doubt that the agreement will even achieve that). Far worse is that the EU rewarded Turkey with a fresh promise of future membership despite Ankara’s open contempt for the democratic norms Europeans profess to hold so dear.

Some will object that Brussels has limited ability to affect Turkey’s internal affairs. Really? For many years, Europeans used the tantalizing prospect of future membership to urge the Turks toward democratic reforms — a strategy that also seemed to work wonders in Eastern Europe, where countries that dreamed of EU membership bent over backward to implement the sorts of changes that would make them more palatable to their new friends in the West. Turkey, too, made remarkable progress — at least until Erdogan began putting it into reverse gear a few years ago. Now, at a stroke, the EU has thrown this entire policy overboard.

Even worse, European leaders are sending this signal at a moment when democracy is looking increasingly shaky within the ranks of its own members.

Just take Hungary. Two years ago, Prime Minister Viktor Orban publicly declared that he wanted to transform his country into an “illiberal state,” holding up Erdogan’s Turkey and Vladimir Putin’s Russia as examples. And that’s pretty much what Orban has been doing since he took office in 2010.

He’s packed the civil service and the courts with his followers, changed election laws to help his party keep its hold on power, and cracked down on civil society organizations. Like his authoritarian idols in Russia and Turkey, he’s worked hard to hollow out freedom of the press. An authoritarian right-winger who calls loudly for the defense of Europe’s “Christian values” against migrants and Muslims, he’s virtually done away with any opposition. The only serious political competitor he has left, the Jobbik Party, is even farther to the right than he is. (The photo above shows Jobbik supporters demonstrating in Warsaw last November.)

Orban has now found an ally in the new Polish government, which took power in October of last year after a big win at the polls. Earlier this year, Orban met with Jaroslaw Kaczysnki, the leader of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party. Though the two men have their differences, they are united in their religious intolerance, their contempt for migrants, and their apparent scorn for democratic norms. Kaczynski and his party have followed Orban’s lead by tightening control over state-run media while aggressively intimidating journalists in the private sector. And, like Orban, Kaczynski has an ominous penchant for denouncing his critics as “traitors.”

To be sure, one European body recently issued a report chiding the current Polish government for eroding the rule of law. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been known to issue the occasional mild rebuke to Orban. But the EU mostly seems content to stand by and watch.

One of the problems, of course, is that the parties of Orban and Kaczynski got where they are by winning elections. These are authoritarians who enjoy the legitimacy of the ballot box, and are gleefully using their popular mandates to undermine their own democratic institutions. It’s a similar problem with the People’s Party in Slovakia, an actual fascist group that recently won enough votes to get seats in the national parliament. (Of course, it’s not as if Western Europe — where far-right parties have been making inroads in Sweden, Denmark, and France — is entirely immune to this problem, either.)

By criticizing such groups, Brussels of course runs the risk of further alienating the people who voted for them. Orban routinely scores points among his followers by posing as the plucky defender of Hungarian sovereignty against EU meddlers, whom he denounces as agents of “colonialism” or “moral imperialism.”

The more fundamental problem is that the EU has never gone to the trouble of creating mechanisms for enforcing democratic standards — even in those bygone days when it looked secure and stable. Today, of course, it’s struggling to cope with the aftermath of devastating financial crises even as it confronts migrant-fueled turmoil, terrorist attacks, and an increasingly threatening Russia. Summoning up the moral energy to defend democracy will be hard.

But the task is not going to get any easier, either. So it’s time for Europe’s leaders to openly acknowledge that their grand project — founded in the hope of a continent unified, peaceful, and free — is now endangered like never before. They should seize the opportunity to restate their commitment to democratic ideals — and they should show us that they mean it.

If EU leaders are really willing to send a message, they can start by telling Turkey that it will only move toward Europe if it cleans up its act. They should specify penalties for EU members who flaunt basic democratic standards. And they should tell Hungary, in particular, that EU membership is indeed conditional on adherence to democratic values and the rule of law. If Hungary continues on its illiberal path, they should move to expel it. If Orban is sincere in his belief that Brussels can’t defend the ideals he holds so dear, he should be prepared to go it alone.

This is the moment to show resolve. Across the continent, the chauvinists, the know-nothings, and the populist thugs have Europe on the defensive. It’s time for those who believe in the European idea to stand up and show why it’s worth fighting for.

Photo credit: JANEK SKARZYNSKI/AFP/Getty Images

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