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Euroviews. The US isn't close to becoming another Poland or Hungary - yet | View

The US isn't close to becoming another Poland or Hungary - yet | View
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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent in any way the editorial position of Euronews.

Professor Krugman is right to be concerned given President Trump's ongoing attacks on democratic norms in the US and the Republican party's complicity in those attacks, but I don't agree that we are close to becoming another Poland or Hungary.


Professor R. Daniel Kelemen from Rutgers University answers Euronews' questions on the rule of law in Europe and in the USA.

In a recent Op-Ed article, Paul Krugman wrote that the United States is “close to becoming another Poland or Hungary” with regard to the rise of illiberalism. Do you share his warning?

Professor Krugman is right to be concerned given President Trump's ongoing attacks on democratic norms in the US and the Republican party's complicity in those attacks, but I don't agree that we are close to becoming another Poland or Hungary. In Hungary, the Orbán regime has dismantled democracy - eliminating checks on government power, undermining judicial independence, limiting media freedom, restricting the activities of civil society organizations, distorting electoral rules so much that while elections remain nominally free, they are so unfair as to practically ensure victory for the ruling party. The corrupt Fidesz party-state has also captured significant sections of the economy. Clearly, Orbán has replaced democracy in Hungary with a system political scientists would label "competitive authoritarianism". In Poland, the PiS (Law and Justice) government is moving quickly to replicate the Orbán model, but the battle is still ongoing and there is still a chance democracy could be saved before PiS extinguishes it. While Trump might be eager to install a similar regime, it is much harder to do in the US context. Given the fragmentation of power programmed in to US political institutions (above all because of federalism) and given the sheer size of our country and economy, it is simply far harder in the US to concentrate power in one leader's (or one party's) hands to the extent that has occurred in Hungary and Poland.

The democratic institutions in Hungary and Poland seem to be falling one after another into the hands of the ruling party. Do you think the counterpart institutions in the USA are solid enough to protect democracy, should US democracy be in danger?

I do not trust the separation of powers to protect US democracy: Congressional Republicans have shown they put partisan interests above their sworn duty to "support and defend" the US constitution. They have engaged in a disgraceful dereliction of their duty to act as a check on abuse of power by the president. Instead, they continue to shield Trump from oversight and to enable his attacks on the rule of law and democratic norms. The judiciary has thus far done a better job in standing up to Trump, with many federal courts defending constitutional values that have been attacked by the Trump administration. But there is one institution I do trust to protect American democracy: federalism. There is quite an irony here. For much of our history, federalism helped local "authoritarian enclaves" in Southern states survive. In other words, the decentralization of our political system helped explain how autocratic regimes - single party states (run by Democrats) which denied voting rights and other constitutional rights to African Americans - could persist at the state level for decades within what was more generally a democratic country. But today, that same federal system which diminished our democracy in the past helps guarantee its survival. Quite simply, I don't see how Trump could achieve the kind of autocratic takeover Orbán achieved in Hungary so long as democracy remains vibrant - and the opposition continues to control government - in many powerful states in the Union (such as California and New York).

What about the human side of the process? Is Donald Trump somehow fascinated by European illiberal leaders such as Orbán or Kaczyński? Or rather are they fascinated by the US President and do they imitate his methods?

I don't want to delve too much into Trump's inner obsessions. I leave that sordid subject to forensic psychologists. But clearly, Trump is drawn to autocrats and "strong-man" leaders - people like Orbán, Erdogan, Duterte, Xi - and above all Putin. He of course wishes he was not hemmed in by things like an independent judiciary, and could simply rule by fiat. He aspires to be an autocrat like Putin, but American institutions make that difficult for him and in any case he seems to lack the acumen for it. I am not so sure that other strong-man leaders actually admire Trump, but they certainly benefit from his presidency. Trump's dismissal of liberal democratic values and his praise for autocratic rulers helps legitimate their rule. Trump has tarnished American democracy as a model that others might emulate, and certainly under his administration, the US will not exert pressure on countries to democratize.

The USA is a stand-alone super power while Hungary and Poland belong to something larger, that is to say to the European Union with its values and rules. But is the EU effective in preventing authoritarian regimes from consolidating power in their countries?

Over the long term, the EU has certainly been a major force in promoting democracy in Europe. Democracy was made a condition for membership, and the goal of EU membership helped lock in the commitment to democracy in many countries - first in Southern Europe and later in Eastern Europe - as they emerged from authoritarian forms of government. However, in developments since 2010, the EU has proven itself ineffective in preventing the erosion of democracy in countries once they are members of the Union. In Hungary, the Orbán regime has been dismantling democracy step by step since it was elected in 2010. Though the EU took some small steps to counter certain moves by the Hungarian government, broadly speaking it did very little to defend democratic values in Hungary. In Poland, where the PiS government has been attacking democracy since it was elected in 2015, the EU has been a bit more active in defending the rule of law and democracy - but so far it has proven ineffective. Why has the EU been more active in Poland than Hungary? Could it do more in both cases? Party politics has played a key role in the EU's response. Until just this week, the center right European People's Party (to which Orbán's Fidesz belongs) has shielded Orbán's government from censure out of partisan loyalty (and because his party delivers useful seats to the EPP in the European Parliament). Finally, this week, much of the EPP and its leader Manfred Weber - who hopes to become the next Commission President - who were being criticized more and more for protecting Orbán, finally voted to initiative a sanctions procedure (Article 7) against his government for violating the EU's core values. Poland's PiS was not a member of the EPP, but instead the smaller, weaker nationalist party - the ECR. In part, the EU's more aggressive actions vis-a-vis the Polish government can be explained by the fact that it had less political allies at the EU level. On top of that, the PiS government has simply been far more brazen in its defiance of EU norms and of its own constitution than was the Fidesz government, which always pursued autocratic rule in a very "legalistic" way.

In the end, my key message would be that the EU could do more to prevent authoritarian regimes from taking hold at the national level in member countries. It has many tools at its disposal. So far though, the key missing ingredient has been the political will of European leaders to take action to defend democracy.

Is it the role of the EU to try to influence the decisions of voters in member countries? If in a country the majority of voters choose an authoritarian leader to take care of them, why not simply let them?

EU member states have all committed to be democracies. They all signed on to Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union which states, "The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. These values are common to the Member States in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail." Of course, if voters want to elect an autocrat and allow him to dismantle democracy, they can do that, but then they should leave the European Union. As Brexit makes clear, member states remain sovereign and are free to leave. But the EU is a club with rules - rules which include democracy and the rule of law - and so long as they remain members they should adhere to the rules. Of course these elected autocrats will claim the EU is defying the "will of the people" - and interfering in national democracy. But then, they would say that wouldn't they? In truth, the EU must stand up for its fundamental values. The EU has no police and no army. It does not wield coercion. It is a voluntary union, and it is a union based on the rule of law. The EU legal system - in a sense the EU as a whole - cannot function if national courts cannot be counted on to be independent, and to enforce EU law. Therefore, autocratic member states that violate rule of law norms present an existential threat to the union. Some people might think that with all its other current challenges, the EU can't afford to take on big political battles with member governments like those in Hungary and Poland. I'd say it cannot afford not to.

R. Daniel Kelemen is Professor of Political Science and Law, and Jean Monnet Chair in European Union Politics, Rutgers University, USA

Opinions expressed in View articles do not reflect those of euronews.

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