WARSAW – Back in the 1990s, in the early days of Central Europe's post-communist transition, Poland's current de facto ruler Jarosław Kaczyński inelegantly exclaimed, "It's our fucking turn" (Teraz kurwa my). More recently, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán's commissioner for culture, Imre Kerényi, himself a communist before 1989, said much the same thing: "It's our turn."
Polish Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Culture Piotr Gliński has just removed the internationally renowned artist Jan Klata as director of Kraków's Teatr Stary, one of Poland's preeminent cultural institutions. In Klata's place, he has installed Marek Mikos, a former theater critic with no experience managing a theater or directing plays. More than 80 directors, including such luminaries as Krzysztof Warlikowski, Krystian Lupa, and Mariusz Treliński, have already united to boycott working with the theater's new leadership and, more broadly, to protest the government's cultural policy.
In Hungary, the government has long had complete control over theaters and public universities. But it is now setting its sights on a private institution: Central European University.
On May 17, the European Parliament adopted a resolution criticizing legislation in Hungary that would force CEU to shut down. But that is scant comfort to Orbán's critics, because the resolution does not sanction Orbán himself. By failing to impose effective penalties on countries that violate its laws and values, the European Union is merely exposing its impotence, and encouraging ever more egregious behavior from the likes of Orbán and Kaczyński.
Article 7 of the Treaty of Lisbon provides for the suspension of a rogue EU member state's voting rights. But, because this "nuclear option" requires a unanimous vote by all EU member states, everyone knows that it will never be used. In fact, Article 7 is such an ineffective deterrent that it serves rule-breakers' interests, by all but guaranteeing that they will not be punished.
Orbán has been scamming the EU for years and encouraging other populists to pursue their own authoritarian goals – and with EU funds to boot. But the weakening of the rule of law is not just a domestic matter in Hungary or Poland.
Because member states must recognize each other's court judgments, the populist takeover of the Polish and Hungarian judiciaries undermines the entire EU's legal order. Violations of democracy in Hungary and Poland are thus violations of European democracy itself. If there is no free press in Hungary, how can we even know if the country's representatives in the European Parliament have been democratically elected and are acting in good faith?
The fact that we have to ask shows that the current mechanisms for defending liberal democracy are ineffective, and that sanctions will never enter into force. Ultimately, everything depends on individual member states' political will.
There is no hope that Orbán and his Fidesz party will leave office anytime soon. Orbán, a much more capable politician than Kaczyński, has such a tight grip on power that Hungarians will have to wait for external pressure to be brought to bear. And yet even Germany, the only country that can exert significant influence, has failed to stop Orbán from shuttering CEU.
Four factors have so far played to Orbán's advantage. The first is loyalty within the European People's Party (EPP), a faction of center-right national political parties in the European Parliament. Though this connection has lost some importance, the fact is that, of 199 EPP members who voted, 107 voted opposed the May 17 resolution, and 40 abstained, leaving just 67 voting in favor.
The political winds in Europe are not blowing left. Indeed, the EPP retains a significant 27-seat advantage over the Socialist Party in the European Parliament. Why, then, does the EPP continue to act as Orban's hostage?
Second, unlike Kaczynski's Law and Justice Party (PiS), Fidesz has an even more extreme party to its right – Jobbik – which enjoys significant support. Orbán can keep Germany and others at bay by holding out the grim prospect of a Jobbik-led government coming to power in his stead. But this threat is quickly losing its salience, as Jobbik increasingly moves toward the center, while Fidesz drifts to the right.
Third, Orbán's alliance with Horst Seehofer, the president of Germany's Christian Social Union in Bavaria (CSU), affords him further political protection. Seehofer shares Orbán's stance on refugees and treats Hungary much like Germany treats Turkey. "Today, Bavaria's borders are being defended by Hungary," Orbán said at a joint press conference with Seehofer in September 2015, before calling himself "the captain of one of the Bavarian minister-president's border fortresses." The EU pays Turkey in euros, while Seehofer pays Orbán by tolerating policies that no German politician should.
The fourth factor is, of course, German business interests. German companies make a lot of money in the so-called Visegrád Four – the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia – which together amount to Germany's largest trade partner. But, here, the Hungarian tail is wagging the German dog.
On its own, Hungary is Germany's 14th-largest trade partner in terms of both exports and imports. For comparison, Poland is Germany's eighth-largest partner in exports and sixth in imports. But Germany is Hungary's largest economic partner, accounting for more than 30% of exports and more than half of foreign direct investment. One of every three Hungarian jobs is created by a German company. In short, Germany could exert significant pressure on Hungary.
Continuing a policy of appeasement towards Orbán makes no sense. If CEU is forced to close, German Chancellor Angela Merkel's government will bear considerable responsibility.
Sławomir Sierakowski, founder of the Krytyka Polityczna movement, is Director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Warsaw.
© Project Syndicate 1995–2017