Orban on Orbán: Cease and Desist, Your Position Is Untenable

Source bigstock / Emerging Europe

Prime Minister: Ludovic Orban. Source bigstock / Emerging Europe

Europe’s other ‘Orban’ sounds much more reasonable than the vociferous original one. Prime Minister Ludovic Orban of Romania yesterday chastised his Hungarian namesake for refusing to respect the founding principles of the European Union: “Saying that you don’t agree to the connection between rule of law and European funds is not supportable, because all EU countries should respect the rule of law.”

Prime Minister Orban – the ‘nice’ one – also reminded his Hungarian and Polish counterparts that the obstructionist attitude harms both Europe and the interests of their own citizens. Since taking office late last year, Orban has overturned a number of controversial judicial reforms introduced by the previous government, including the decriminalisation of corruption which led to the early release of around 22,000 convicted white collar felons.

Orban also closed an office charged with investigating the personal lives of unbending judges. The bureau had been created by Liviu Dragnea, a former leader of the Social Democrat Party (PSD) who in May received his second corruption-related prison sentence.

The PSD has ruled Romania for 20 of the 30 years since the collapse of communism. The party, still a power to be reckoned with in parliament, has been tainted by numerous scandals involving its leaders. It also cooked the books, overestimating state revenues by as much as €4 billion for the current fiscal year.

The uncovering of the PSD’s relaxed attitude to fiscal accounting standards prompted Standard & Poor’s to attach a negative outlook to the country’s BBB– sovereign credit rating, presaging a descent into non-investment grade territory.

EU Largesse

Since 2007, Romania stands under close scrutiny of the European Commission and the Council of Europe for its dubious and intermittent adherence to the rule of law. However Prime Minister Orban has vowed to implement all of the EU’s recommendations before long and has received both praise and encouragement from Brussels for his determination in addressing long-standing concerns.

Orban’s dedication to the rule of law has already paid off handsomely. The country is in line to receive up to €80 billion in grants and loans from the union’s post-corona recovery funds, underwriting the government’s National Resilience Plan and potentially pushing GDP growth to 6% or higher by 2024.

“Never before has such financial support been offered to Romania. We appreciate that very much,” said Orban, explaining that at least €6 billion is earmarked for investment in public healthcare which has been struggling to cope with the pandemic.

Meanwhile, the European Parliament seems in no mood to compromise on the setting of rule of law benchmarks. German MEP Manfred Weber of the European People’s Party (Christian Democrat) called the link between the allocation of EU funds and the recipients’ respect for rule of law a ‘red line’ and warned that no money can be spent where fundamental principles such as judicial independence and press freedom are under siege. Weber reminded that all EU disbursements needs parliamentary approval.

MEP Rasmus Andresen of the European Greens accused Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán of holding Europe ‘hostage’ to his domestic policies: “The resistance of Orbán and the Polish government is irresponsible. Orbán is afraid that the new rule of law mechanism will harm his autocratic regime.”

Potentates United

MEPs from across the political spectrum have called on German Chancellor Angela Merkel to defuse the crisis without giving in to the demands of prime ministers Orbán and Morawiecki.

Orbán is particularly irked by the suggested mechanism to gauge a member state’s observance of shared values. Sanctions against rogue EU countries may be invoked after a simple majority of member states agree.

The new procedure differs substantially from the one stipulated in Article 7 of the EU Treaty which cab suspend an offending member state’s voting rights but requires unanimity. Both Hungary and Poland have indicated that they would protect each other should an Article-7 procedure be initiated against them. Successive attempts to steer both countries back into the fold via Article 7 failed after Hungary and Poland made common cause against Brussels.

According to EU officials, the rule of law mechanism seeks to increase accountability over the use of EU funds. Commission Vice-President for Values Vera Jourova called the procedure the ‘bare minimum’ to ensure that taxpayer money does not end up where the rule of law is ‘under threat’.

Working behind the scenes in Brussels, EU diplomats are preparing a ‘nuclear option’ in case Hungary and Poland refuse to budge. The €750 billion post-corona recovery fund may simply be relabelled an ‘intragovernmental treaty’ between all EU members states – of course sans the two recalcitrant ones.

Though considered a last resort, the solution enjoys broad support as most agree that countries hard hit by the pandemic must be able to tap emergency funds and cannot be expected to wait for Hungary and Poland to pull back from the brink.

Remarkably, the Brexit epic now closing in on its climax has offered the EU a masterclass in dealing with member states intend on deriving advantages from national idiosyncrasies or presumed exceptionalism. The lessons were, however, painful and not easily absorbed.

Insular Peculiarities

After decades of catering to British demands for deference to the insular peculiarities of both the land and its people, the EU lost patience and finally put its institutional foot down in 2015 after Prime Minister David Cameron requested an opt-out from one of the four foundational freedoms (of movement of goods, capital, services, and people).

Astonishingly, Cameron wished the UK to be excused from taking part in the EU’s institutional endeavour to ‘create an ever-closer union among the peoples of Europe’ – a task it had been charged with since its foundation and one that features prominently in the preamble of the 1957 Treaty of Rome the document that constitutes the union’s legal bedrock.

At the time, Prime Minister Cameron’s demand for an opt-out on the freedom of movement of people caused considerable consternation in Brussels. The British request showed a staggering and corrosive level of ignorance about the EU’s entire raison d’être, including its mission, scope, workings, and philosophy.

In what since has become known as ‘cakeism’, some member states are treating the EU as an à la carte menu from which they can take the choosiest bits and discard the inconvenient filling. Today, the prime ministers of Hungary and Poland are re-enacting Cameron’s profoundly misguided attitude and approach. In 2016, Cameron unwittingly burst a bespoke UK bubble, just as Messrs Orbán and Morawiecki are dead set on repaying EU generosity, protection, and hospitality with demands for deference to their totalitarian inclinations. It that is where they truly wish their nations to go, the future lies to the east.

Baldrick’s Revenge

Over the course of its 47-year-long membership, the UK has been wildly successful at exploiting divisions within the union to its own benefit, securing a number of sizeable rebates and a string of opt-outs from legislation deemed harmful to its national interest.

Amongst the more memorable opt-outs secured by London are the 1992 Maastricht Treaty (establishing the euro), the 1997 Schengen Acquis (creating a passport free travel area), the 2000 Charter of Fundamental Rights (enshrining the political, social, and economic rights of EU citizens), and a blanket permission (granted in 1997) to ignore most EU legislation pertaining to security and justice.

Cunningly – or cynically – the UK also arranged for a staggering number of opt-ins from opt-outs. For example, though the country flatly refused to join the Schengen free travel area, the UK did manage to secure direct access to the Schengen Information System containing details on people and property and, moreover, succeeded in being accepted as a full member of Schengen Chapter III, the framework which regulates and facilitates security and judicial cooperation between participating states.

Thanks to Prime Minister Cameron and his rather equally hapless successors, the European Union has now institutionalised its response to obstructionist members. Though shrouded in the flowery and inoffensive language that diplomatic etiquette requires, and accompanied by rich offerings of fig leaves, Brussels’ message is clear: Get Lost. In the EU’s many fora, Members are free to raise and debate any and every topic imaginable – and expect to be rewarded with the reasoned compromise that is the inevitable outcome in a collective of 27 diverse nations. However, there is no compromising on the few core values that bind the old and formerly warring world together. What changed is that before the taboo was unspoken. Now, it is being cried from Brussels’ rooftops.


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