Let the money talk!

Frankly Speaking

Picture of Cecilia Malmström
Cecilia Malmström

Visiting Professor at Göteborg University, Former Commissioner for Trade and Trustee of Friends of Europe

It has been a terrible year with death, hospitalisations, anxiousness, unemployment, crushed dreams and many restrictions. We have all made sacrifices in our social and cultural lives. As we hopefully move into a post-COVID world, a lot of focus will be on economic recovery. That is indeed essential. But we must also look at our democracies. Democracy has taken a hard blow globally during the pandemic. Over 100 countries have imposed some kind of restrictions to fundamental rights during the COVID-19 crisis. Some of them have been legitimate and occasional to limit the virus spread, but in some cases, restrictions have been used to reinforce an already existing trend of eroding democratic rights.

This has been the case in China with the new security law that has wiped out existing democracy in Hong Kong and the increased oppression of the Uighur minority in the Xinjiang province. Similarly, we have the coup in Myanmar and the killing of peaceful protestors, including children. The treatment of Navalny and his followers in Russia is yet another example, as well as the refusal by Lukashenko to accept the election result in Belarus and the jailing and torturing of the opposition. The list of despots or autocrats hoping the world would look away is long.

But also, within our own European Union, we have seen how the independence of the judiciary is under severe threat in Poland and Hungary. The state has interfered in the independence of academic institutions in Hungary. According to World Press Freedom, press freedom ranks low in Hungary, Bulgaria, Malta, Croatia and Greece. There are worrying signals as well from Slovenia.

If political statements are not enough, money must talk

International think tanks such as Annual Freedom House and Varieties of Democracy have shown that democracy has faced recession the last 20 years. For the first time since 2001 there are more people living in autocracies than in democracies. Both think tanks list Hungary and Poland as countries where politics are becoming increasingly autocrat. Hungary has been downgraded to a country only partly free, the only one in the European Union with such a label.

This development has been going on for a while but has worsened during the pandemic. The European Commission has taken some of the decisions in Poland and Hungary to the European Court of Justice, often successfully but leading only to cosmetic changes in the countries concerned. The Commission and the European Parliament have asked for the activation of Article 7 for Poland and Hungary, which can result in a warning and suspension of certain rights of a member country and ultimately exclusion, but the Council has not managed to come to an agreement on how to proceed.

So, what must we do? The problem will not disappear. There are examples of LGBT people from Poland seeking asylum in other European countries. Some member states refuse to send suspected Polish citizens back to Poland by suspending the European Arrest Warrant, claiming that the judiciary is not independent. Hungary has just passed a constitutional law that will further increase political and governmental influence over academia.

The Commission must continue taking countries to court when they violate rights that are enshrined in the Treaty. The EP should continue to issue statements and reports. But that is not enough. Political leaders need to speak out more clearly. Peer pressure can still work. But if political statements are not enough, money must talk. We cannot ask our European citizens to fund increasingly authoritarian states.

Europe has no credibility unless we put our own house in order

The conditionality clause in the recovery fund must be used. We need to establish a clear and transparent mechanism to withhold financial support as a last resort when there is serious and persistent breach of the founding values as expressed in Article 2 of the Treaty.

The Commission has started to issue regular publications assessing the rule of law in all member countries. That is excellent and we have seen that several member states have started to take action to address the recommendations. But the reports should be done by independent actors outside the EU institutions, for example by the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe and OECD. And there needs to be consequences of the breaches – economic consequences.

Europe wants to be seen as a geopolitical player. In the joint declaration on the conference of the future of Europe, it says “… Europe needs to be more assertive, taking a leading role in promoting its values and standards in a world increasingly in turmoil”. So true, but Europe has no credibility unless we put our own house in order.

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