BY: M. STEVEN OSBORNE
The peoples of Europe have affirmed a desire for an “ever closer union” on numerous occasions through treaties ratified by their governments. The Treaty on the European Union, Article 7, reflects this desire for the political unity of the European Union (EU) by creating a mechanism for the enforcement of common values. While Article 7 can be read broadly to cover essential areas such as human rights and the rule of law, some in the EU capital of Brussels have a more specific reading of the Article i.e. that it is designed to identify liberalism as the de facto ideology of the EU. This has created a rift among the nations of Europe, some of whom have a more traditional view of “European values” rooted in the continent’s Catholic and traditional Christian past.
Article 7 is an enforcement mechanism for Article 2 of the same Treaty. Article 2 states the political values of the European Union are as follows:
Respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. These values are common to the Member States in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail.
Procedurally, under Article 7, the EU may find that a member state is either at clear risk of a serious breach or currently in a serious and persistent breach, and the member state is subject to sanction. The first procedure is aimed at warning and providing recommendations to member states on the impending breach. It may be raised by the European Parliament, the European Commission, or one-third of the member states. The Council of Ministers, containing government ministers from each of the member states, determines whether a breach is imminent and then makes recommendations. The second procedure is considered upon recommendation of the European Commission or one-third of member states to the European Council, consisting of heads of member states. Should the European Council unanimously agree and receive the consent of the European Parliament, then the procedure may be implemented and the member state can be declared in breach. Should a determination be made under the second procedure, the member state found to be in breach is subject to severe sanctions. The member state could be stripped of its voting rights, subjecting it to European Union rules without it exercising any representation in shaping those rules. This severe sanction has not been employed; therefore, a finding under Article 7 is currently seen as largely symbolic.
The European Commission identified Poland as being at clear risk of a breach in December of 2017. The matter has now been referred to the European Court of Justice. Hungary was likewise found to be at risk of breach by the European Parliament in September 2018. This new-found use of Article 7 is raising questions about the purpose of this enforcement mechanism. Particularly, it is putting a strain on an already tense political situation by raising questions as to whether there is room in the EU for non-liberal points of view.
The ideological divide in Europe is easy to misidentify. It is often assumed that nations such as Poland and Hungary are separatist and nationalist in nature, thus inherently opposed to European integration. In fact, the opposite is true. According to European Social Survey around 86% of Poles support membership in the European Union, while a majority of Hungarians support participation in the Union as well.
The Brexit phenomenon may be more pronounced in Western Europe than in Eastern Europe. Central and Eastern European nations are less averse to regional integration, as demonstrated by the historical Holy Roman Empire and Austro-Hungarian Empire. Several Central and Eastern European nations formed a loose association called the Visegrad Group to mutually support members’ shared interests. This regional grouping is significant enough within the European Union that earlier this year the European Commission used the budget as a wedge to divide Central European Visegrad members from Poland and Hungary.
The key distinction between rising nations such as Poland and the more established powers holding sway in Brussels is the definition of European values. For the majority of Poles, European values are tied to a traditional Catholic and general Christian heritage that most European nations share. This heritage produced the medieval university system and early human rights doctrines, and promoted the idea that human beings were created in the image of God.
While Poland is often portrayed as being insular and hostile to immigration, it has in fact taken in many refugees from the War in Ukraine with 1.45 million Ukrainians legally working in Poland in 2017. Despite ethnic and religious differences, Poles are willing to incorporate these refugees into their society. Likewise, Hungary has been proactive in providing aid and support to persecuted Christians in the Middle East, and is the only country in the world to have a government ministry dedicated to that purpose. While Viktor Orban has been centralizing power to his office, his government arrested American ethno-nationalist Richard Spencer and later barred him from entering Hungary. Also, Orban’s government sent the first Roma to represent Hungary in the European Parliament. Outside of immigration, the key sticking point with Brussels, for both Poland and Hungary, is their determination to position their democracy outside of liberalism.
While there are real differences between the Eastern European and Western European approaches to addressing human rights issues, there are probably more underlying assumptions on which both sides agree than either would admit. The difference is ideological. Western Europe and the administrative infrastructure of the European Union are largely controlled by liberal figures. The Eastern European populations are trending towards tradition. In the midst of this divide, Article 7 becomes a potential wedge that can further divide the continent.
The reason for invoking Article 7 against Poland and Hungary are violations of the rule of law and promotion of “illiberal democracy” respectively. Officials in Brussels are disturbed by Polish efforts to replace members of its judiciary, many of whom are ideologically aligned with those same officials. Likewise, Brussels is opposed to Hungarian leader Viktor Orban centralizing power and his policies regarding migration. Article 7 aims to bring them into compliance with liberal ideology.
To the extent that Brussels uses centralized processes such as Article 7 to enforce ideological conformity in countries like Poland, it opens the entire Union to internal dissenters, who may also seek conformity to their version of European values. If “ever closer union” means a centralization of political values, then that influence can flow both directions. Currently, non-liberal politicians are on the rise across the continent. It is possible the European Union will not disintegrate, but instead unify around a post-liberal set of values.
As long as Europe is divided between East and West, there is greater opportunity for outside actors to exercise influence on internal EU deliberations. This publication has covered the efforts of China to increase its investment in the Balkans. These investments have frustrated efforts in Brussels to create a united front when it comes to trade with China. Meanwhile, Russia is working to influence political parties across the continent, and still maintains a powerful influence due to the steady flow of energy it provides.
Also, Poland and Hungary are not powerless to impact important EU initiatives. Poland recently broke with Brussels over the Brexit negotiations. While Brussels has been taking a characteristically hard line toward the United Kingdom, Poland urged a more conciliatory approach. The United Kingdom may find allies among Eastern European states who feel beset upon by the central government in Brussels.
Whether the EU succeeds in building an ever closer union as a political project will depend largely upon its ability to maintain unity among its members. Not all EU members share the liberal commitments that have long held sway in Brussels. The EU will need to find ways to adapt to this new reality. There is no question that the EU acting in concert is a force to be reckoned with on the global stage. While the EU views Article 7 as essential to maintaining its values and universalizing its political ideology, strategically the unity of the Union should be of paramount concern for those who aim for an ever closer union. Wedge issues that divide the East from the West may imperil that goal, therefore liberals on the continent will likely need to find some form of accommodation with their non-liberal fellow Europeans.
Steven Osborne is an attorney with Adams and Fisk, PLC. He holds a Juris Doctorate from Liberty University School of Law and a Bachelor’s Degree in Politics and Policy from Liberty University. In addition to his legal practice, he is involved in foreign policy analysis and advocacy with a focus on domestic and international politics, economic opportunity, and human rights.
Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.