This fall, the European Parliament hit on the solution of linking funding in the bloc’s new $2.1 trillion budget to respect for the rule of law. The two Central European countries have responded by blocking the budget’s adoption, which requires a unanimous vote — and thereby threatening critical funding not only for themselves but also for other nations hard-hit by the covid-19 pandemic.
A continued impasse could exacerbate what is already a serious economic crisis within the European Union. But if the blackmail by Hungary and Poland succeeds, Europe’s commitment to democracy will be fatally compromised. Whatever the cost, it is essential that E.U. leaders not give in.
The trouble in the two former Soviet-bloc countries centers on their governments’ efforts to strip the judiciary of its independence, eliminate opposition media and, in Hungary’s case, corruptly divert E.U. funds to relatives and cronies of Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Both governments also have refused to accept refugees from Muslim countries, targeted the LGBTQ community with discriminatory measures and flirted with anti-Semitism.
The European Commission, the E.U. governing body, launched investigations of both countries under a treaty article that allows for the suspension of their voting rights. But the commission has been unable to sanction them because of the requirement of a unanimous vote by member governments — the two proto-autocracies protect each other.
The budget blockade, however, will be harder for Poland and Hungary to sustain. Hungary receives E.U. aid equal to 5 percent of its economy, while the figure for Poland is 3.4 percent. The two are due to receive $213 billion in funding from the new seven-year budget and accompanying coronavirus recovery fund. And if the new budget is not approved, the previous one will be applied in January — with the rule-of-law conditions in effect.
That should give European states, led by Germany, the leverage to push through the provision in the new budget. Compromises are being floated, such as a pledge by Brussels not to use the rule-of-law provisions to target certain countries and to establish firm criteria for applying them. Mr. Orban is suggesting he is open to a deal. That’s fine, provided Brussels is left with a workable mechanism for sanctioning states that strip courts of independence and silence critical media.
A victory for Europe’s democrats would also be a win for the incoming Biden administration, which has pledged to rally allied governments in support for democracy and human rights around the world. The first step is to ensure that free elections and the rule of law are protected in the United States and Europe. Pro-democracy forces appear to be turning back Mr. Trump’s attack on U.S. democracy; the Europeans must now follow suit.