“The rule of law is not just about ‘EU values,’ but who can interpret their meaning and whether this can be used as a political cudgel? And this is what should worry not only Warsaw and Budapest, because what is to stop EU leaders from using the same maneuver against other countries in the future?,” says Jorge González-Gallarza, the Spanish expert of the Fundación Civismo. In an interview with tvp.info, he indicates that Brussels’ liberal-federalist bureaucracy has gotten out of control, bashing Poland’s unpopular government at the national opposition’s call. Can all arguments be smacked with the “Russian strategy card of weakening the Union?”
The tvp.info portal: The tension in the EU is high because allegedly nobody wanted a budget impasse. You say otherwise. You say that it is “a stick, which is to bend Poland and Hungary once and for all.” What about countries like Slovenia or southern Europe that do not want a conflict over money and escalating tensions?
Jorge González-Gallarza: This is a fundamental point to start with. The so-called “rule of law mechanism” linked to the EU budget agreement is by no means the result of any unanimous agreement between the 27 Member States. On the contrary, it is a small fraction of countries (mainly Germany and the Netherlands – although their strategy in the European Council has broad support among liberal MEPs, the EPP and S&D, as well as among the bureaucrats of the European Commission) that take the entire negotiated budget agreement hostage. All Europeans’ financial security depends on the agreement, which has taken a vast and prolonged effort to produce.
They strive to achieve a guerrilla victory over two member states while hoping that no other country stuck inside this conflict will dare to side with the Poles and Hungarians.
This opaque, last-minute gambling should not only focus on Poland’s and Hungary’s governments but also on all Member States. As I tried to explain in my article, those who have acted in this way would like us to believe that the “rule of law” is itself an explicit criterion. The governments of Poland and Hungary have consciously decided to cross this non-negotiable line. Nothing like that happened.
On the contrary: what started as a biased argument over the threshold of legitimacy for the appointment of new judges of the Constitutional Tribunal between the Polish government and the opposition quickly turned into an EU-wide crusade in which bureaucrats from the European Commission and their allies in the European Parliament defended their partisan rhetoric of the “rule of law,” aimed at discrediting the PiS government.
As for the rule of law itself, could this mechanism be used in the future and become a kind of a precedent?
Any sober-minded Pole or other European interested in the facts in this liberal crusade can see the exaggeration of this strategy. The “rule of law” understood by republican governments based on clearly defined constitutional norms and the possibility of challenging arbitrary decisions, is not seriously threatened – neither in Hungary nor in Poland.
In return, the coalition of the liberal minority in Poland and its allies in Brussels use this vague concept to undermine a conservative government elected through democratic elections.
As Europeans, we all believe in the rule of law, but we do not want unelected leaders interpreting the concept for us. Perhaps that is why this idea is not explicitly codified in the EU treaties. As argued recently by prof. Zdzisław Krasnodębski, at the European Parliament’s plenary session, it is not about “EU values” but about who can interpret their meaning and whether they can be used as a political stick.
And this is what should worry, not only Warsaw and Budapest. What is to stop EU leaders from using the same maneuver against others in the future? A precedent has been set for using the “rule of law” to pursue an agenda with little to do with the “rule of law.” This means that other governments that may cross the line set by Brussels – in everything from social issues to migration – may face a barrage of criticism in the future.
Will linking the rule of law mechanism with EU funds not create a “snowball” effect? The liberal majority – or any other in the future – could punish some for arbitrarily understood “rule of law,” others for strict abortion laws, for example, Malta, and others for another reason.
There is a real risk of a “snowball” effect on the coercive mechanism to be used against governments that – to choose just a few examples – decide, for example, to restrict access to abortion or to act to protect their borders.
Today it is Poland and Hungary, and tomorrow it could be Spain, Italy or France.
I will give an example from Spain to emphasize how far this guerrilla maneuver turned out to be from any neutral definition of the “rule of law”. My own country’s government, the coalition of the Social Democratic PSOE and the far-left Podemos, is campaigning openly to reshape the Spanish judiciary, in particular by changing the way judges are elected to the panel that oversees our entire judiciary – the so-called Consejo General del Poder Judicial (General Council Judiciary, appointing judges of the Supreme Court – editor’s note).
Unlike Poland, where your conflicts arise from dilettante brawls and the left’s inability to accept failure in the elections, the Spanish government hopes to take full legal control over its policies and has never tried to involve the opposition in judicial reform. Again, anyone with a genuinely neutral interest in protecting the “rule of law” should be concerned about these moves, but why do we not see Spain’s condemnation from the EU? Because the “rule of law” only matters if the governments in question have a particular political belief.
Poland and Hungary were in the spotlight only because they dared to oppose the EU consensus on border security, uncontrolled migration, and social hyper-liberalism.
Maybe it is the short-sightedness of EU liberals? Imagine – a hypothetical situation – that one day the left-wing in the EU loses power, and the rule of law is used to threaten it.
This is absolutely correct. Do not do to others what you do not want to be done to you should be a guiding principle in any collaborative institution such as the European Union. Except that one of the things that this crisis has revealed – if further evidence was still needed – is that the EU is no longer a cooperative institution based on a voluntary agreement of the Member States and their mutual interest.
The breaking of the federal out-of-control bureaucracy in Brussels, along with the expansion of the liberal-federalist ideology – which is both its cause and effect – make the European Union closer to an empire ready to dictate universal political solutions to all subordinate states.
In this sense, I certainly agree with the premise that one-day, liberals’ reckless use of EU funds and the “rhetoric of the rule of law” as clubs against governments they do not like may turn against them. However, I sadly believe that the willingness to cooperate is decreasing. Therefore, a profound reform of the EU’s decision-making processes towards greater emphasis on intergovernmentalism is even more necessary.
Can we read the attack on the unpopular conservative government in Warsaw as open aid to the country’s Polish opposition?
I think there is a lot of truth to this. It should also interest Europeans as a whole that factional minorities in the member states can somehow circumvent national democratic mechanisms by involving in internal guerrilla disputes with the help of EU bureaucrats, heads of other states, or coalition group MEPs.
But in a different sense, it is also an invitation for conservative Poles to build a stronger coalition and counteract the influx of propaganda and disinformation that Polish liberals unleash against them, which was a great motivation for my Newsweek article.
Brussels officials are roaring that Hungary and Poland’s veto threatens to destabilize the entire EU and could cause a long-lasting confusion similar to Brexit. Are they right about that?
I see these kinds of poorly hidden threats as another desperate attempt to bend the government that these people view with suspicion. This is no longer a threat against Poland and Hungary, but an increasingly intentional tactic that the liberal-federalist camp likes to discuss among themselves.
Prof. Tom Theuns from the University of Leiden in the Netherlands recently argued to EUobserver.com that the EU should “build the Community anew without Hungary and Poland.” Even more disturbing, he simply echoed a remark made a few days earlier in the Dutch Parliament by his Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who had become the standard-bearer of the hunting season against Poland and Hungary.
We have heard for years about the idea of a “two-tier Europe.” Until now, it was only about the economic aspect, calling for, for example, a separate budget for the euro group. Are we not currently dealing with a return to this idea, but politically?
With the collapse of the USSR, the European Union took on an entirely new dimension: from being a select group of countries in Western Europe and Scandinavia, which was based primarily on economic unity, to a coherent geopolitical bloc with a unanimous voice – for example in international affairs.
This was especially important as it involved the absorption of several former Soviet republics. And if the EU proves unable to adapt to these countries’ specific historical experiences and sensitivities – their traumatized memory of communism, which sparked a deep reluctance to submit to centralized power from abroad – then the entire post-Cold War European experiment falls apart.
Why would the Western Balkans, for example, be tempted to join a union that is doing this?
Opponents of Poland and Hungary and the liberal-left-wing media argue that the EU’s polarization is part of the Russian strategy of breaking up the EU. With such an argument, almost any criticism can be beaten, but does it mean that European leaders are infallible?
These are perhaps the most insulting, insidious arguments that can be put forward against Poland and Hungary. If anything, these governments are a bastion against Russian interference and disinformation, which, unfortunately, finds too mild an opponent in a Europe led by Germany.
It is said that “the European Union will be German or it will not be at all.”
Isn’t it ironic when EU liberals accuse us of being Russia’s pawns when Angela Merkel’s Germany has not yet canceled Nord Stream II over an attempt to poison Alexei Navalny? If the only argument left by the liberal federalists against Poland is to accuse it of warming relations with Moscow, they are very lost in their perception of this country.
Jorge González-Gallarza (@JorgeGGallarza) is the co-host of the Uncommon Decency podcast on European topics (@UnDecencyPod) and the research associate of the Fundación Civismo in Madrid.
The interview was translated from Polish.