Commentary

What can the EU do with member states that walk back on freedom?

There are two design flaws in the foundation of the European Union that need to be addressed before crafting a solution.

The European Union is not an ATM, quipped Manfred Weber, the German CSU politician who is known in Hungary for having burnt himself, time and again, trying to compel Orbán to at least pay lip service to the European Union’s core values in exchange for his generous endowment. Weber’s European People’s Party (EPP) is in no position to preach values though, clinging to their majority in the European Parliament more than they cling to said values.

The European project has been about values at first, redistributionism has only entered the equation later on. And with the next seven-year plan budget in the making, it became a focal point in Brussels trying to re-link rewards with good behavior.

Indeed, for the next seven-year EU budget, EC President von der Leyen’s suggested to make the disbursements dependent on the state of the rule of law in the recipient countries.

But how can it be achieved?

Two design “flaws” of the EU

I.

I am writing about flaws, but only one of them is an actual flaw. And it is the implicit assumption that collective entities, such as countries, can have opinions (i.e. values) and once that opinion is pro-democracy, it will never change.

These are clearly nonsensical assumptions when one says them out loud – and yet, these are the unspoken assumptions upon which the process of accession rests. The rest follows.

In reality, individuals have values – and even those can change with time.* And just as democracy can suffer from its core design flaw of being identified with majority voting, so can the EU from its core assumptions that majorities are the same things as countries, and if those majorities have democratic values, they will stay that way.

But liberating the individual could provide a solution. (More about this is the suggestions.)

II.

The second design characteristic lies at the foundation of civilized politics and it is not a flaw as such: that the EU has only carrots, but no sticks to use for persuasion and influence. Carrots (positive sum, mutual benefits) are the modus operandi of civilized cooperation. Sticks (blackmail, intimidation and threats) are the tools of bullies – that is to say autocrats, dictators and pre-democratic international cooperation.

The problem is not that the EU doesn’t speak the language of threats. It should not. The problem is that autocracies do – and that is the only language they speak. Bullies don’t stop until they are punchedbut they do stop when they meet a stronger power. By this logic, autocracies cannot be appeased, cannot be contained, and cannot be kept relatively tame or ‘stabilized’ at a lower level of freedom by ‘keeping them at the table’ (or any other excuse politicians use when they don’t want to confront them).

The lack of sticks is best illustrated in international negotiations – when the EU brings the money but can’t get much for it, its only ‘stick’ being that it can walk away with the money. But then it has zero influence over what happens next.

The carrot of accession into the EU during negotiating with aspiring members is another example of the carrot-only fallacy. Membership is the carrot – but if the candidate misbehaves all the EU can do is withdrawing the carrot. But then it has no say in the matter anymore and the candidate country has no reason to play nice any longer.

But the most spectacular example of how the carrot-only approach can backfire is the issue of EU structural funds. Not having it linked to the EU’s core values by more than a few promises before the money is payed out means that the recipient countries’ leaders can, in fact, use the EU as an ATM and use the cash to cement themselves into power.

At any rate, a good stick must also be designed with the first design flaw in mind: it must apply to individuals (not groups or countries), it must hurt the demagogue (not the moderates) – and if they are to design a punishment for the misspending of structural funds, it must target the thieves, not their countries’ taxpayers. (More about this is the suggestions.)

Redistributionism vs Core values

The EU started as a community of shared values – redistributionism only became part of the story later. Whether throwing money at poverty and expecting it to turn into affluence is a good idea is one thing. (It is not.) But once we decide that money should be given, administering it in a way that creates local warlords and strongmen is a political sin.

Yet, that is exactly what happens inside the EU.

Once the issue of structural and regional development comes up, there will be voices reminding us (correctly) that Brussels doesn’t know how the money is best spent. But neither do prime ministers. Nor do their hand-picked, loyalist tender winners. So if we are to ignore the catastrophically poor allocation of breathtaking amount of resources, we must still address the vast corruption because

that money doesn’t just enrich uninhibited strongmen – it creates them in the first place.

And that’s a political issue. Strongmen in these quarters don’t build their autocracies at gunpoint. These autocracies are based on economic tools. The single most important principle is that those who are not with us, must not eat. Everyone’s livelihood must depend on the strongman and his system – either positively or negatively. (See the foreign agent laws listing anyone who receives money from abroad. It is not a coincidence that autocrats are so touchy about citizens having a livelihood independent from them.) But those who align with the powerful get all the access to public money. Taxpayer money and the EU development resources.

During the last budget negotiations Orbán somehow secured a deal that he, and only he, can be the sole distributor of EU money in Hungary. Even the money that was meant for NGOs and civil society must go through him, which makes no sense at all.

Since economic clientelism is the very logic of authoritarianism, this deal must be cancelled if any change is ever to be expected.

It is also incomprehensible that the carrot of EU funds can be transferred without even a symbolic oversight of its spending by European prosecution and anti-fraud investigators. Luckily, they are at least trying to strong-arm recipients to let the inspectors is.

Based on the above principles there are a few suggestions on what might work to re-link values with funds. Read more…

 

 

*… This seemingly tiny detail is at the core of both the current state of democratic values in the EU and the immigration debate as individuals aspiring to immigrate into another country have values that are not necessarily the same as their sending countries’. Indeed that might be the reason they are escaping those countries.

 

 

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