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Towards an Imperfect Union: A Conservative Case for the EU
In his New York Times column, Ross Douthat offers some wise advice for the EU’s leaders. For one, they should not be surprised that smaller Central and Eastern European countries feel ambivalent about ceding sovereignty over important matters, most prominently immigration, to common European institutions within which they will have necessarily less say than large European nations — particularly Germany.
And the problems that have pitted populists against Berlin and Brussels — a common currency that remains misbegotten even though the fiscal crunch has eased, a demographic-economic imbalance between Europe and neighboring regions that promises migration crises without end, a democratic deficit in how the European Union is governed — cannot be resolved by simply appealing to an abstract liberal project.
Douthat’s suggestion to stop portraying “the tensions between the center and the periphery in Europe as just a choice for liberal values or against them” is eminently reasonable. However, his account leaves out two important elements of the story.
The Visegrád nations greatly benefit from EU membership
Firstly, although European integration involves difficult trade-offs and ceding of control over important areas of public policy to Brussels, for EU members, especially for those in Central and Eastern Europe, benefits of membership vastly exceed costs.
The issue is not just fiscal transfers, which have oftentimes lined the pockets of special interests and the politically connected. Membership in the single market and freedom of movement are far more important. At least 80 percent of Visegrád countries’ exports are bought by customers elsewhere in the EU. The ability to live and work freely within the EU carries deep symbolism for nations which spent 40 years on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain. Voters of Fidesz in Hungary and those of Law & Justice in Poland understand it too: 58 percent of Hungarians and 54 percent of Poles do not believe that their countries “could face a better future outside of the EU” (compared to only 33 and 34 percent, respectively, who do).
Such figures are no reason for complacency. But taken together with the fact a handful of countries outside of the EU are actively lobbying to join the bloc, they are a necessary caveat to any account aspiring to depict the EU as a German imperium suffocating their members’ national aspirations.
The EU cannot ignore its member nations’ values
Secondly, and more fundamentally, in one important sense the EU’s current problem is about values. The democratic decline in places such as Hungary and Poland — and to some extent Greece — is not a figment of imagination of cosmopolitan progressives in Berlin and Brussels. The clearly unconstitutional takeover of Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal, effectively abrogating judicial review of legislation in the country, did happen — as did myriad other policy changes that brought Polish courts under political control of the ruling party. Hungary’s government is indeed intent on sweeping out a whole segment of foreign-funded civil society organizations from the country, along with the best research university in the country. And Greece’s Syriza has attempted, albeit with limited success, to shut down opposition media.
While none of the three countries falls in the same category as Turkey or Russia, in the cases of Poland and Hungary the direction of travel is unmistakable. That raises a question that Douthat leaves unaddressed: namely how the EU should react to rising domestic authoritarianism in its own ranks, if at all. (As an aside, NATO faces a similar — if anything more pronounced — problem with Turkey.)
My own view is that EU (or NATO) membership should not work as a one-way ratchet. Prior to joining the Union, Central European countries were held to high standards, and rightly so. Once in the club, that scrutiny — of rule of law, corruption, and democratic accountability — disappeared altogether, as did the progress that many of the Visegrád countries had seen prior to joining.
As a result, it is not at all unreasonable for membership in organizations such as the EU or NATO to come with a system of graduated sanctions, culminating with expulsion. And trying to create such a system, however belatedly and clumsily, does not amount to imperial overreach but basic diligence.
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