How the European Parliament Entrenched the Region’s Autocrats

European parties were supposed to create a European democracy. Instead, they’ve given cover to bad actors.

Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban addresses a press conference at the end of a European People’s Party meeting at the European Parliament in Brussels on March 20, 2019.
Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban addresses a press conference at the end of a European People’s Party meeting at the European Parliament in Brussels on March 20, 2019. Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

Late last year, Donald Tusk, the president of the European People’s Party (EPP), a center-right grouping 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 leader of the EPP in the European Parliament, Manfred Weber, to the Gestapo, Fidesz seemed on the verge of finally being booted from the European Union’s largest political family—again.

The recurrent theater of almost expelling Orban’s party has gone on for the better part of the past decade, yet Fidesz remains a member of the EPP. True, since 2019 it has been “suspended,” effectively barred from taking part in the EPP’s collective decisions. Yet, Fidesz members in the European Parliament still have the right to speak in the plenary on behalf of the EPP group, and they continue to hold assignments on committees and other formal positions belonging to the group.

At this rate, it is far more likely that, rather than the EPP gathering the momentum to actually expel the party, Fidesz will simply walk away at a moment that will be convenient for itself, as Orban himself has suggested.

The EPP’s problem with Fidesz is part of the broader challenge the EU faces with its (now not-so) new member states that have experienced democratic backsliding, most prominently Hungary. It has been almost a decade since Orban, as a fresh prime minister, rewrote Hungary’s constitution and electoral law and defanged the country’s Constitutional Court.

In 2017, Fidesz passed new legislation to “sweep out,” as a party official put it, nongovernmental organizations funded by the Hungarian-born American billionaire George Soros, labeling them as “foreign agents.” In 2019, the prestigious Central European University, founded by Soros after the fall of communism, relocated from Budapest to Vienna after a specially tailored piece of legislation made it impossible for the institution to legally operate in Hungary. In November of last year, under a state of emergency declared due to the coronavirus pandemic, the government rushed through parliament a law that makes it essentially impossible for small opposition parties to run national lists of candidates in parliamentary elections

Through it all, the EPP’s reactions have rarely gone beyond raised eyebrows and the occasional huffing and puffing. Its behavior is illustrative of both the hollow nature of Europe’s transnational political groups and of the unintended consequences of trying to build a pan-European democracy.

Created in the early days of the European project to foster cooperation between ideologically likeminded political parties in different countries, the European Parliament’s transnational party infrastructure was meant to usher in an age of true European democracy, in which Europe-wide political institutions would continue to exercise an ever-growing role.

That has not happened. Throughout the various political, social, and economic crises of the past decade, European politics has remained predominantly 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, opportunities to network and exchange ideas, and other resources, largely financed by European taxpayers. However, the party secretariats in Brussels do not dictate the terms of national electoral manifestos nor vet the national candidates who run on their tickets. Nor do they seem to have much leverage over their unruly members; after all, the parties’ overall number of seats determine their say on parliamentary committees and in the leadership.

The drive to maximize the number of seats in the European Parliament has been made stronger by the so-called Spitzenkandidaten system, under which parties put forward candidates for the European Commission presidency prior to the European election. Whereas it had been previously understood that the commission’s president would be determined by a bargain between member states behind closed doors, the new system, introduced in 2014 to improve transparency, has raised the stakes of European elections by directly tying their results to the control of Europe’s top executive body. In turn, European parties are even more interested in their crude size, at the expense of all other considerations.

Orban’s Fidesz is by far the EPP’s greatest liability, but it’s not the only one. Before he started spouting conspiracy theories about the U.S. presidential election, Slovenia’s Prime Minister Janez Jansa had sought to tame public broadcasters and suspended parliamentary control over the state budget. Over the years, the EPP has also given a free pass to the grotesque kleptocracy of Bulgaria’s Prime Minister Boyko Borisov.

The problem goes beyond the EPP, too. Before suspending (although not expelling) Romania’s Social Democratic Party, the S&D coddled the party even as its successive governments undermined the integrity of courts and stifled anti-corruption efforts. Under the watch of Robert Fico’s Direction-Social Democracy party in Slovakia, also an S&D member, a young journalist and his fiancee were killed by mobsters with ties to the highest level of the police and the judiciary. The Czech Republic’s oligarch-turned-populist-prime-minister Andrej Babis, meanwhile, remains a member in good standing of French President Emmanuel Macron’s Renew Europe—in spite of his conflicts of interest and a criminal investigation into his misuse of EU subsidies.

In principle, there ought to be a political price to pay for European political parties when their members abandon basic democratic principles. Yet, because European politics remains overwhelmingly national, few voters are even aware of the existence of EU-level political parties. Even fewer are willing to punish their national politicians for their associations with autocrats in other EU countries. Furthermore, with every European party sharing some blame, whataboutism and accusations of hypocrisy are rife.

Yet as long as the EU’s mainstream parties welcome undemocratic national figures into their ranks, they will continue to confer international validation to these figures. That provides otherwise corrupt and sometimes authoritarian leaders with an undeserved source of legitimacy, which they are keen to use to deflect domestic criticisms. This is the opposite of what the EU’s political parties were supposed to do. By absorbing the young political parties from the East, the hope went, the West would help cultivate and institutionalize the kind of standard party systems that underpin parliamentary democracy. Yet, just like with the EU enlargement overall, the results have been decidedly mixed.

In Hungary’s case in particular, continual appeasement of Orban has been disastrous. A recent compromise brokered by German Chancellor Angela Merkel over the EU budget provides Orban with open-ended assurance that his domestic practices will have no bearing on EU largesse. It is also telling that shortly after the compromise was reached, the German automaker Daimler announced an investment worth 100 million euros (over $120 million) into its plant in Hungary, drawing on substantial state aid from the Hungarian government.

The repercussions for the EU’s credibility are stark. Political leaders in the Western Balkans or Ukraine, for instance, can draw only one lesson: Post-communist kleptocrats and aspiring authoritarians are largely tolerated by the EU’s mainstream political families.

Unfortunately, this ship is unlikely to right itself on its own. Previous attempts at creating a pan-European culture of democratic parliamentarianism have provided cover to rogue political actors. And without a major cleanup in its political parties, Europe’s self-professed interest in defending democracy and the rule of law is unlikely to go beyond just rhetoric.

Dalibor Rohac is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Twitter: @DaliborRohac

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