Chance for Christian Democrats to draw line against extremism
The New Year is approaching and there is some reason for hope. Probably in a year's time, Covid-19 will have become a managed health risk rather than the massive threat it is now.
It is much harder to predict how the EU will look like in a year.
The Polish-Hungarian veto of the EU's budget and recovery funds has exposed chasms that were long in the making. How should the EU go forward with this?
Clearly the two governments' positions are neither convincing nor acceptable.
They reject the planned rule-of-law mechanism, saying that courts, not member states, should rule on rule-of-law violations.
At the same time, they insist that only Article 7 of the EU Treaty should be used against rule-of-law violators. But Article 7 is also based on a vote by member states, its voting arrangements are just more favourable to violators.
During July's EU summit, Poland and Hungary agreed to a conditionality mechanism to protect the budget in the context of Article 2 of the EU Treaty, which mentions the rule of law, democracy and human rights.
Now they reject such a mechanism.
In essence they are telling the other 25 EU member states: "Even if all you are in favour and legally-entitled by the EU Treaty to adopt this mechanism, don't dare doing so, because we will then block the EU budget."
The rest of the EU is now witnessing the kind of legal-political brutalism that these two governments have been employing against their own judges, citizens, opposition and media for many years.
There are three thoughts of schools on this crisis.
The first, represented by the Hungarian and the Polish government, says that there is no rule-of-law problem and that the whole conflict has something to do with other countries trying to force different cultural values onto them.
As I have written here before, I don't think they themselves believe this.
Pretending that there is a civilisational conflict is a convenient smokescreen when what you really want to do is to concentrate power into your own hands.
Many governments in the EU adopt conservative policies, but they don't dismantle courts or turn public media into their mouthpieces.
One cannot revisit the many legal arguments in a column, but it is noteworthy that even generally conservative institutions of legal expertise, such as the Council of Europe's Venice Commission, have long explained in detail how the measures by these two governments violate norms of the rule of law and democracy.
The second school of thought sees itself as pragmatic. It understands full well that the two governments work against democracy and the rule of law in their countries.
But it suggests that it is in the interest of Europe's unity and ability to deal with many other problems to ignore these facts.
I don't consider this to be a pragmatic response, however, because internal democracy problems result in manyfold problems in external relations.
Extremists, not conservatives
The EU cannot be coherent and strong with member states whose governments portray the EU as the enemy. It cannot stabilise and support inclusive governance in other countries, when some of its members work towards the opposite goal.
Take one example: the Hungarian government appears to have put in place an operation to covertly fund media in North Macedonia with the objective of helping one party in the election.
The European Parliament recently discussed the case.
The EU cannot credibly demand democratic elections in a candidate country while some of its member states manipulate the electoral context in that same country.
The EU's stated aim is to strengthen a rule-based global order. It wants to fight back against the spreading anarchy in international relations, where might trumps right. But governments that favour might over right internally will not work in favour of rules at the international level.
The Polish and Hungarian governments' veto of the budget proves this point.
They play a destructive game of hardball with the EU's legal order for the same reason that they play hardball internally: they want to maintain as much power as possible for as long as possible.
The third school believes it is best for the other member states and EU bodies to stay the course.
It suggests that member states should now adopt the rule of law mechanism, inviting the Polish and Hungarian governments to bring the regulation to the European Court of Justice if they have legal concerns about its merits. This strikes me as the best and most pragmatic course of action.
Hungarians and Poles are deeply divided.
Only half of their respective electorates are favourable to their governments. Any compromise the EU makes is a betrayal of Hungarians and Poles who believe in democracy and the rule of law, and who expect the EU to defend it in each member state.
Ball in Berlin's court
The ball is in the court of the German government as the EU presidency to move on and to schedule a vote on the rule of law mechanism. The Commission too must do more to support the enforcement of decisions by the European Court of Justice.
Ultimately this remains a question of positioning by Germany's Christian Democrats (CDU) and the European People's Party. Both need to be firmer.
The CDU has drawn a strong line against Germany's extremist Alternative for Germany (AfD), but it has always accommodated Hungary's Fidesz.
With strong domestic resistance in Hungary and Poland and the election of Joe Biden there is a window of opportunity to make a decisive push against political extremism across the EU.
Hungary's Fidesz and Poland's Law & Justice (PiS) parties are not conservative. They are extremists. They have revived ghosts from the early 20th century, namely extreme nationalism and authoritarian government.
Christian Democracy was the answer to those experiences. The CDU and other Christian Democrats should use the opportunity and finally draw a firm line between themselves and extremism.