The finalization of Brexit and the 2019 elections for the European Parliament will lead to a re-alignment of the alliances among national parties at the European level (for more insights check the results of our surveys on the matter: What will happen in 2019 and Who will lead the EU after 2019). This ‘reshuffle’ is going to provide some national political forces with a great opportunity to gain broader access to European political networks, increase their leverage on EU policy-making and obtain further protection from the hostile attacks of their opponents. The increasing importance of transnational political networks is also the result of the push for an increased supranational scrutiny of national judicial systems, showcased by the recent MFF proposal of the European Commission to link the allocation of EU funds to the functioning of rule of law mechanism in the recipient country.
However, debates on the rule of law can turn out to be more political than normative. While non-political bodies are likely to adopt specific criteria in determining what can be considered as violating the rule of law, political bodies are less consistent in their evaluations. As shown by our previous report on the positions of EP political groups on the relations with different Middle East countries, by looking at whom the accused is (in our case which governments) we can predict the behavior of political networks (families) during the debate, ie. who will be more critical and who will be more conciliatory towards a particular government.
This report shows the different approaches of political groups to the debate on the rule of law in EU countries: while the EPP has adopted a hard-line approach against the reforms implemented by the Conservative Law and Justice in Poland (ECR), the group has been much more conciliatory when it came to Hungary, which is governed by one of its member parties, Fidesz (EPP).
Conversely, the Socialist and Democrats group has been very vocal in its criticism of the Hungarian and Polish governments’ actions, while the S&D group has adopted a softer approach when the Maltese and Romanian (social democratic) governments faced similar accusation. After observing all of these debates in the European Parliament, one could argue that the strength of the European network of the party in government plays an important role in predicting the level of criticism/isolation that it risks.
It is worth mentioning that the behavior of the European political networks is not necessarily an overly orchestrated operation, as in some cases it can simply be a political reflex: when in a debate (such as the one on rule of law) humans (and especially politicians) tend to give higher weight to arguments (and evidence) presented by friends/allies and disregard those expressed by political foes. Thus, the perception itself of whether there are violations or not is influenced by who presents the accusations and who is on the defense.
Political forces that have serious ambitions of playing a role in reforming the current system should keep an eye on the window of opportunity that will open next year, when the formal alliances for the following 5 years will be formed.
*Key players such as Macron’s Movement and the Italian 5 Star Movement are considering different options for their European affiliation in 2019. Big changes are also expected across the whole political spectrum. Stay tuned to discover our simulations and predictions for the next European elections. For more information, contact us at [email protected]
Hungary’s Fidesz is well-protected by the EPP group
Under the leadership of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, Hungary was the first country among the above-mentioned four Member States to be accused of undertaking measures that risk undermining EU fundamental values. After obtaining an outright majority of seats in the Hungarian national parliament, Orbán’s party Fidesz introduced a controversial constitutional reform in 2011, which aimed at centralizing and enhancing the power of legislative and executive branch. Viktor Orbán’s reforms, coupled with his praise of “illiberal democracy”, has raised great concerns from some of his European partners and fellow EU leaders.
However, despite warnings to start the “Rule of law framework”, which might lead to the activation of Article 7 of the Treaty on the European Union (the so-called “nuclear option”), so far the European Commission has not taken any formal measures against Hungary.
With regards to the European Parliament, MEPs voted several times on this specific issue, with a majority of them ultimately calling on the Commission to activate Article 7 of the TEU against Hungary.
During December 2015’s EP plenary session, a call on the Commission to activate the rule of law framework and Article 7 of the TEU was rejected by a margin of only 3 votes! The majority against it included the EPP, ECR and the ENF groups. On the other hand, the center-left parties plus the centrists of ALDE supported the initiative.
However, a bit less than 2 years later, a similar call eventually passed through the plenary by a slightly bigger margin (for a complete analysis of these two votes, please check our previous reports: EP fails to reach consensus to request activation of rule of law clause and Hungary: votes show nuanced positions among countries and political families).
In both cases, the Parliament was clearly divided between a Leftists/ALDE coalition and a Conservatives/Eurosceptic coalition, with a few outliers. However, over time the support for action against Orbán has increased both inside the EPP and among the undecided members of ALDE and S&D. These changes contributed to swing the balance of power in the EP in favour of the political forces that oppose the actions of the Hungarian government .
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However, the narrow support for activating Article 7 against Hungary has been not strong enough to convince the European Commission to take action. Despite a few defections, most members of the EPP, the strongest political network at the European level, are standing by their EPP member Fidesz, shielding it from the attacks of its opponents.
Poland: arguably similar domestic situation, different outcome at the European level
Following Hungary’s path, the ruling party in Poland, Law and Justice Party (PiS), also introduced a series of measures starting from the end of 2015 that have been accused of undermining the independence of its judicial system and freedom of media. Yet, unlike their Hungarian counterparts, the Polish government is facing stronger criticism and even much stronger actions taken by European institutions.
Last November, a large majority of the Members of the European Parliament (67%) called on the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs to start the process aiming at sanctioning Poland for breaches of the fundamental values of the EU (for complete analysis of the vote check our report from the dedicated plenary session). Notably, while the centre-right EPP group opposed a similar proposal that targeted Hungary, the EPP backed the call of starting an infringement procedure against Poland.
Ultimately, the Commission took an unprecedented step last December by triggering Article 7 of the TEU, a legal process that could end up depriving this Member State of its voting rights in the Council (although this scenario is unlikely to materialize, as all the other Member States would have to agree on the sanctions). Recently, the Parliament once again passed a resolution that backs the Commission’s action, with almost 70 percent of the vote in favor.
One of the main reasons in the different nuances between the treatment that Hungary and Poland are receiving from the Commission and the Parliament seems to have to do with the fact that the European political network of Poland’s governing party is much smaller (which is also the result of the fact that its values are shared by fewer other actors in the EU).
PiS sits with the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group, the third largest political group in the Parliament. With 71 members, the ECR group was easily outnumbered by a majority built by the centre-right, the centre-left, and the liberal groups in the Parliament.
Even worse for the situation of PiS is that, before Brexit, the governing British Conservative Party, an equally influential member of the ECR group, was keen on cooperating with PiS to push forward a common anti-federalist EU reform. However, with the unfolding of Brexit, the British Conservative Party has become a less reliable EU ally for PiS, also considering that the two parties have different views on how the future EU-UK relations should look like after Brexit.
This means that the Polish governing party is (very) short of allies at the EU level and, while enjoying some degree of support from Orbán’s Fidesz, the Hungarian government fell short of supporting some PiS initiatives (such as the Polish government’s bid to challenge the re-election of Tusk as European Council’s President). For more information, check out our previous report on Polish influence at the EU level.
Malta and Romania: under the wing of S&D?
Being a small EU Member State with only 6 MEPs, Malta rarely gets the attention of other EU partners, except when it is its turn to hold the EU Council presidency. But after Daphne Caruana Galizia, a respected Maltese investigative journalist, was murdered last October in a car explosion, the island was put under the spotlight with regards to its rule of law conditions.
Shocked by this brutal attack on media freedom, a majority of Members of the European Parliament backed a resolution last November that called for an independent international investigation into the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia. However, the resolution also took aim at the Maltese ruling party, by requesting the Commission to establish a dialogue with Valletta on the rule of law in Malta and to ensure respect for European values on the island.
Although this resolution was backed by most of the political groups in the Parliament (with the exception of a few Eurosceptic members), a great majority of S&D group members, to which the island’s ruling Labour Party belongs, decided to abstain. While usually very vocal on issues concerning the respect for the rule of law, S&D has carefully avoided endorsing any call on European institutions to take corrective action against Malta.
Another national ruling party in the S&D, the Romanian Social Democratic Party (PSD), has been subject to criticism for its reforms of Romanian legal system and its anti-corruption legislation. However, for the time being, there have been no serious actions taken by any EU institution. The Commission President Juncker and First Vice President Frans Timmermans only issued a statement in which they “expressed concerns” about the latest developments in Romania “regarding the independence of Romania’s judicial system and its capacity to fight corruption.”
There has been no vote in the European Parliament yet, only a debate on the matter in which emerging nuances among the political families could be felt. It will be interesting to see how the S&D group would respond should a dedicated resolution being put to a vote in the near future.
Given the increasing activism of the European institutions in monitoring the respect of the rule of law across the continent, the most recent example being the bold Commission’s proposal to introduce a conditionality mechanism linking EU funds to the rule of law, governing parties will try to make the most out of the political opportunities arising next year in order to strengthen their networks and shield themselves from hostile attacks.
Stay tuned to VoteWatch Europe to get further insights on the upcoming political developments. For any questions or doubts, feel free to contact us at [email protected]