Commentary

EU passport, EU subsidy lottery, targeted sanctions – What can the EU do with emerging autocracies?

Based on the principles outlined in the previous post – here are a few outlandish ideas on how the EU can stop being populists’ cash cow and become more than its parts in the process.

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There are obvious things that should happen if the European Union wants to stop the corruption and the populism that emerged from the no-strings-attached allocation of structural and regional development money.

One should be conditions that go with the money, another is regulatory oversight of its spending, making membership in the European Public Prosecutor’s Office mandatory. But those are obvious – and the issue of political backroom deals.

Here are a few things that come to mind once we give some serious thought to the fundamental flaws and opportunities that lie in the foundation of the EU.

1. Credible threat of expelling a country

Exit from the EU is what 90% of Hungarians fear – but it must be said. If there are conditions to accession, there must be a credible threat of expulsion if those conditions are no longer met. How that can be done with the current decision making mechanism is a mystery though.

What can be done, however, is an offer to European-minded citizens to keep their privileges if their country chooses to drift away. And that is a real threat.

2. Hong Kong-style offer to citizens

The British government had one spirited idea: offering passports to Hong Kong citizens who wish (and are able to) escape Chinese expansion.

Naturally, that is not a solution that is fair to everyone. It is a tough choice to leave one’s land and it is seriously not for everyone. But as a threat to governments that might contemplate leaving, the prospect of losing a substantial share of their most agile citizens is a real issue. It is enough to see the havoc intra-EU migration wreaked on Eastern European countries’ demography.

3. EU passport

Individuals have values, not countries. Forgetting this seemingly obvious fact cost dearly to the EU so far. But embracing the idea of European citizenship might kill two populist hobby horses with one stone. It might solve the issue of rebellious countries – as well as immigration from outside the EU. (And yes, offer it to escapees from Hong Kong.)

I have always found it odd that an individual who explicitly hates everything the EU stands for can become an EU citizen by merit of his country joining the EU – and benefit from its privileges while angrily attacking them. Conversely, it is heartbreaking that individuals who would embrace European and civilizatory values are locked out because of the accident of birth. Naturally, asking every immigrant about his or her values and/or making them to take an oath on European values is a bit of a stretch – only countries do such a thing today.

International law might be hostile to the idea. But a European travel document that is chosen voluntarily by individuals might be the first step to establish the credible threat of expelling a country – while not hurting its citizens (too much). It can come with health insurance or social insurance, even on top of its national counterpart. There would be takers.

Most importantly, it can be revoked from someone who is stealing from the public purse.

4. Magnitsky Act for unruly oligarchs?

The novel approach of targeted sanctions against those who can be accused of wrongdoing – as opposed to dumb, blanket sanctions that hit entire countries and all their hapless citizens – is all the rage these days. And it makes sense.

In 2012, the US Congress passed a bill to punish Russian officials responsible for the death of Sergei Magnitsky in a Moscow prison in 2009 while granting permanent normal trade relations status to Russia. In other words, to hit only the wrongdoers, not the innocents. According to Wikipedia the bill, which applies globally, authorizes the US government to sanction those who it sees as human rights offenders, freeze their assets, and ban them from entering the US since 2016.

It fulfills all the criteria of a logical threat that is applied to individuals (even if it can also be abused and used for petty score settling, but which rule can not). No one wants to end up on their list, and if the reaction of Hungarian officials who were banned from the US for alleged, widespread corruption is anything to go by, it hurts and offends them terribly. There is an actual list of individuals that are banned from the US and it is public.

If European politicians are not afraid of cleaning house, such a list would be a godsend for creating a European public opinion as well as to fight corruption and the resulting authoritarianism.

5. Make lies expensive

At this point, lying to Brussels is not only cheap – it pays off. In cash.

Worse, European politicians appear completely unprepared to handle lies – and those who lie to them as a lifestyle. Like Eastern European politicians.

The choreography is this:

  1. There is a scandal that can no longer be swept under the carpet.
  2. Some EU politician meets a local strongman.
  3. Local strongman promises whatever you want to hear – and probably believes the lie. Conmen pass lie detector tests because they really believe their own lies.
  4. Press conference and handshake. Photos taken.
  5. European politician tells everyone that local strongman just didn’t know the rules but will now comply. Goes home and tells the story to his voters.
  6. Strongman turns around and keeps doing whatever he was doing in the first place. Only stronger and harder. He now gained time, maybe infinitely, because the fooled European politician is now interested in hiding that the scandal is still happening. His reputation is at stake.

Just ask Manfred Weber about his “fruitful” negotiations with Viktor Orbán – and how his career turned out as a result.

But flouting a court ruling is also common – and comes without consequences. Remember, the logic of autocracy is the logic of bullying. The bully doesn’t stop unless he meets consequences. But then he stops. He obeys his own logic and once the hierarchy of who is stronger is established, the bully obeys it. I’ve learned it the hard way. The EU doesn’t have to.

6. Why can’t I get EU money for my little enterprise?

For most of the EU population, that unthinkable avalanche of development money is a distant, abstract thing. Indeed, when I hear about yet another million-digit sum spent by the EU, I only think of the corruption it fed. It never occurred to me that I could ever see a cent from it.

And I am not alone. And I am not wrong.

Even if we disregard that the sole function of EU funds today is rewarding political loyalism, there is the sad fact that it is not transparent to begin with. (Where is its website? How many does it have? Is there a dictionary for its jargon for those who only come of age in 2020?)

And it has an unfortunate inclination to finance big, white elephant projects. We have a billion stadiums that check the boxes of “sport” and “health” – even though they do neither – and big, public buildings are renovated from it. But that’s the playground of the politically favored ones – and you can’t become one of them, even if you support them. It is an invitation-only, boys’ club.

Yes, Brussels doesn’t know where that money it is best spent. But neither does the prime minister, his cronies, his family members, and their fronts and family. The fifty-thousandth wellness hotel won’t increase village tourism hundredfold – the same way 11 lookout towers (at 80 thousand a pop) don’t make the village of Tyukod a tourism hotspot.

Surely, spending some of the money on a lottery would not decrease its efficiency. It simply cannot.

So why not introducing a micro-funding lottery?

It would cost a sliver of the public money bonfire called cohesion funds – but it would have so much more impact. In publicity AND fundamentally.

Let bureaucrats (not local ones!) establish whether there is any reason a particular idea should be excluded from funding (criminal record, history of fraud, being an oligarch), and then just put the remaining ideas in a hat and let a pretty, young model draw the winners. Maybe once a week.

I guarantee that it will glue half of Europe to the screens.

And even their projects would make more sense than making a few poor gypsy kids jump up and down for a 2-minute video and calling it a public health initiative for 3000 euros a day. Indeed, the efficiency of funding can only get better than it is today.

Just take academia. Independent-minded academics would benefit tremendously as their project might accidentally get funded. At the present a researcher who doesn’t think like his elders and doesn’t research the topic his elders find important has near zero chance to get his research tolerated, let alone funded. Paradigm-challenging findings never come along this way.

You know what? You can have Ursula von der Leyen draw the names. She would become famous and popular, at once.

Or take cities. Liberal-minded cities are getting increasingly at odds with nationalistic governments wishing to return to feudalistic systems of fiefdoms given by the kings as rewards of loyalty. It is, indeed, difficult to see why no one is protesting that cities and countries should be glued together, one subsidizing the other. These cities are now starved and strangled by their governments as a punishment for disagreeing – their tax revenues taken away, their tasks multiplying by law. It is no surprise that they are clamoring for a chance to get their projects directly funded from Brussels.

And it makes even more sense than letting central governments monopolize funding decisions. Because if we accept the principle of subsidiarity, the unquestioned belief that locals know best, who would dare to argue that municipalities are even more local than national governments? They should be able to submit their projects for a direct funding lottery – at least some opposition-led cities would get a chance to get things done, lessening the grip of emerging autocracies.

It would also serve as helicopter money if we insist that the economy must be boosted from above. If we let governments decide, only their cronies will get a boost.

 

 

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