Föhrenbergkreis Finanzwirtschaft

Unkonventionelle Lösungen für eine zukunftsfähige Gesellschaft

The EU’s New Fault Line Runs Along the Danube

Posted by hkarner - 30. Mai 2017

Date: 29-05-2017
Source: The Wall Street Journal

East of the Danube, the rule of law is being undermined by corruption and political assaults on the institutions that underpin it

The Chain Bridge was floodlit in blue lights as it crosses the Danube River in Budapest, Hungary, in April of this year.

According to the conventional wisdom, the fate of Europe is determined by what happens either side of the Rhine. That has been the case throughout the postwar era. The push for European integration has been driven by France and Germany, for whom the river forms part of their common border; five of the six founding members of the European Union lie in the Rhineland basin. And now, following the election in France of Emmanuel Macron, the Franco-German engine appears ready to drive a new phase of European integration.

Yet, the next phase of EU evolution may not follow the previous pattern. A new fault line has emerged in European politics since the last time major questions about the structure of the EU were being discussed. This new fault line runs along Europe’s other great transnational river: the Danube.

Until recently, the Danube represented the EU’s eastern border. The decision to allow the former Communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe to join the EU in 2004 and 2007 was taken largely for strategic reasons—to lock those countries into the Western sphere of influence. Yet, the full consequences are only starting to become clear as the EU contemplates how best to strengthen the EU’s common currency, its borders and its internal market.

That’s because the EU is first and foremost a legal rather than political or economic construction whose legitimacy above all hinges on respect for the rule of law. But many believe respect for the rule of law east of the Danube is weak, undermined by corruption and political assaults on the institutions that underpin it.

The current primary focus of these concerns is Hungary. The latest in a series of clashes between the Hungarian government led by Prime Minister Viktor Orban and the European Commission concerns Budapest’s passing of a new law last month that critics say was aimed at destroying the independence of Central European University, a Budapest-based American university founded by George Soros in 1991. Budapest insists it acted after an investigation found that 27 out of the 28 foreign universities offering degrees in Hungary were in breach of aspects of Hungarian law. The way in which Budapest has acted has cost it the benefit of the doubt: CEU wasn’t warned it was under investigation and was only told about the new law on the day that it was tabled; the law was subsequently passed by parliament and signed by the president in just two weeks.

For many, this alleged attack on a respected academic institution raises fresh questions about Budapest’s commitment to the rule of law and democratic values. Budapest and Brussels are already at loggerheads over the Hungarian government’s refusal to abide by a new EU law requiring all members of the EU’s passport-free Schengen travel zone to resettle a share of the refugees arriving in Greece and Italy while their asylum applications are processed. At the same time, Mr. Orban is running an aggressive “Stop Brussels” campaign via the Hungarian media that accuses the EU of encroaching on Hungarian sovereignty and which Brussels says is based on lies. The European parliament this month called on EU leaders to suspend Hungary’s membership privileges, though this won’t happen since any such move would be blocked by Poland.

The EU faces similar challenges further down the Danube. In Romania and Bulgaria, the risks to the rule of law from corruption and organized crime are so serious that the EU insisted on intensive monitoring of its reform efforts as a condition of membership and made access to EU funds partly conditional on compliance with its recommendations. Earlier this year, Bucharest’s attempts to undermine the country’s anticorruption watchdog led to mass protests.

Then there is Serbia, which is on the Danube but outside the EU. The strategic reasons for bringing Belgrade and the Western Balkans into the EU are every bit as compelling as those underpinning previous enlargements, not least the risk of creating a vacuum in the region that might be otherwise filled by Russia and Turkey. Yet the rule of law is arguably weaker in this region than in previous accession countries.

How will this tension between the countries of the Rhine and those beyond the Danube be resolved? Will the Franco-German axis prioritize the unity of the EU as it pursues deeper integration, pragmatically overlooking concerns about the rule of law?

Or will the Rhineland countries and their Western allies try to restrict the next phase of EU integration to core members of the eurozone whose commitment to the rule of law is not in doubt, even if that risks turning Central and Eastern European countries into second class citizens? And how far are they prepared to pursue countries such as Hungary that they believe persistently flout core European values? Can the EU afford to take any more risks to its unity when it is already faced with Brexit? These are the questions that will shape the fate of the EU.

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