Donald Trump is set to become president of the United States thanks to a democratically enabled rebellion against the established order. This is the unexpected backdrop to the commemoration of 25 years of the Maastricht Treaty. Without doubt, it forces the EU to take better account of the grievances of some of its citizens. But the EU has other vulnerabilities too, such as the erosion of democracy in some Eastern European countries and increasing corruption in Southern Europe.
For starters, recent changes in Poland mean the composition of its Supreme Court is now determined by the sitting government. This puts paid to the independence of the judiciary and paves the way for a brand of justice that serves the interests of the government. As a member of the opposition (or a foreign investor) you can forget it – you’ll be no match for the (elected) powers that be. With this move, Poland is following the path carved out earlier by Hungary and is at odds with the agreements made for accession to the EU. Accession was conditional on the establishment of good governance, including a free press, a fair and independent judiciary and effective anti-corruption measures. The promise of ‘Europe’, in the form of the EU, was to increase prosperity and security. This was underpinned by far-reaching economic cooperation, but also by joint efforts to improve governance in the member states.
The EU’s economic track record, certainly until the crisis broke out in 2008, was excellent. It ensured peace and prosperity, and brought about economic convergence for the countries of Southern, Central and Eastern Europe. The eastward expansion saw important steps being taken in governance too. Having wrested themselves from under the control of Communist dictators, the Central and Eastern European countries had to sort out their governments in order to join the club. This was, in turn, important for economic development: better governance goes hand in hand with a more appealing investment climate and economic growth.
For these countries accession was a boon, not only because of increased trade, but also thanks to the financial support provided by the EU. Poland will receive a total of 78 billion euros from the EU between 2014 and 2020, while Hungary, Romania and the Czech Republic will all enjoy some 20 billion. But in terms of good governance, the last five years have seen a relapse. Corruption is on the rise in Italy and Greece. The independence of the judiciary in Hungary and Poland has taken a nosedive. Freedom of the press remains non-existent in Romania. All this is putting EU cooperation to the test. Why should the wealthier EU countries continue to fund the poorer members if they wilfully ignore the agreements on good governance? It’s high time the EU member states find a way to raise the level of governance across the board.
The Maastricht Treaty paid little attention to the prospect of countries failing to comply with the agreements. Only later was an article adopted, in the Treaty of Amsterdam of 1999, that sets out penalties for countries flouting the rules (Article 7 ). But this article is all but unworkable. It has been invoked once: the EU imposed mild sanctions on Austria when the party of the right-wing populist Jörg Haider joined the government. The sanctions were deemed counterproductive, however, and rapidly lifted. In short, the EU lacks an effective instrument to nudge its member states in the direction of good governance.
Many people in Hungary and Poland are deeply disturbed by the disappearance of the free press and the erosion of legal protection. In response, the Hungarian opposition has come up with a bright idea for a simple means of promoting good governance: offer EU citizens the opportunity to seek out a European court in cases where the judiciary is compromised through political interference. Of course, all member states will first need to agree to this.