Over the past six weeks, we have witnessed massive street protests by women against an anti-abortion decision in Warsaw, as well as a Hungarian politician fleeing a gay orgy in Brussels – a rally banned by anti-abortion rules. COVID. This is the same man who proclaims himself the father of the new Hungarian constitution, who declares that marriage is between a man and a woman. Meanwhile, Polish and Hungarian politicians accused the European Union of using “Gestapo tactics”, of trying to flood the continent with 35 million migrants, of behaving like “a colonial empire” – and, more importantly, they threatened to veto a massive and laboriously constructed seven-year budget for Europe worth more than C $ 2.5 trillion.
All of this contributes to a crisis in the European Union which reached its climax at the meeting of the leaders of European governments on December 10.
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At the heart of it is the principle of the rule of law, a principle which the European Commission claims Poland and Hungary are abusing. The two countries have just lost cases against the EU in the European Court of Justice.
The first, against Poland, concerned “court staging”, that is, forcing judges to take early retirement and replacing them with loyalists from the ruling party.
The second, against Hungary, condemned her for forcing the University of Central Europe to leave Hungary because she was based in the United States. The university was founded and funded by billionaire philanthropist George Soros , and Michael Ignatieff, the author and former leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, is its president and rector. The Orban government was wary of Soros’ push for more liberal and democratic values.
In retaliation for the decisions, Poland and Hungary invoked EU rules and vetoed the new budget. For good measure, their leaders hurled insults at colonialism and Gestapo tactics at the European Commission in Brussels.
Massive rescue fund
The EU budget determines which countries will receive the money from Brussels for the next seven years. In the EU system, unanimity of the 27 countries is required to approve the budget.
This contains a first – a massive $ 1.15 trillion rescue fund, of which nearly $ 600 billion will come from grants to European countries worst affected by the coronavirus.
Subsidies are essential. They are the equivalent of Canada’s federal equalization payments to the poorest provinces. But over the past 20 years, Germany in particular has resisted a European subsidy system. She and other northern European countries such as the Netherlands and the Scandinavians insisted on loans, which would be repaid.
No more. With the coronavirus crisis, German Chancellor Angela Merkel made a historic U-turn and helped push through the new subsidy system – only for Poland and Hungary to block the whole package in November.
Great European leaders, especially those of France and Germany, are furious. They launch a plan to approve the budget and save money for 25 countries, leaving Poland and Hungary in deep trouble.
The rule of law dispute has a direct link with the mass protests by women in Poland, which began in late October and continued for weeks. Their protest was against a Supreme Court ruling banning all abortions except when the mother’s life could be in danger.
WATCH | Polish women protest against court ruling banning abortion:
The protests were so big that the Polish government froze the judgment. But the authorities have also initiated legal proceedings against some demonstrators for “insulting Catholic faithful” in front of a church.
Brussels says that despite the European Court’s decision to dismiss the lawsuits, this crisis was proof that the Polish government has little intention of changing its approach.
Misappropriation of EU grants
Infringements of the rule of law in Hungary also involve fraud. The eastern European country is the largest recipient of EU subsidies relative to the population. They got over $ 7.5 billion in 2019, which was almost 5% of its GDP.
But Hungary is also No. 1 in the EU for alleged misappropriation of these subsidies. The European Anti-Fraud Office unearthed 43 cases in Hungary, accounting for almost 4 percent of the total amount paid to Hungary from 2015 to 2019, 10 times the European average.
Prime Minister and strongman of Hungary Viktor Orban is at the center of a network of family members and associates who have benefited greatly from EU money. He has also defeated the Hungarian courts and the country’s media. His maneuvers are so blatant that in early December French President Emmanuel Macron publicly called Hungary an “authoritarian regime”.
The government, however, was shaken at the end of November by the news that Jozsef Szajer, a Hungarian member of the European Parliament and close collaborator of Orban, was seen outside a gay orgy in Brussels. Szajer is so close to Orban that he personally rewrote the Hungarian constitution in 2011, with its clause on marriage between a man and a woman.
Szajer was caught trying to squeeze through a drainage pipe and questioned about breaking the rigid Belgian rules that only allowed small groups inside during the pandemic.
The news quickly broke and he became a laughing stock. The next day he resigned his post as a Member of the European Parliament.
The home-trained Hungarian media bypassed Szajer’s resignation, even though an opposition MP came to the Hungarian parliament and gave a mocking speech while wielding a drain hose.
To deflect attention from the embarrassment, Orban and his associates retaliated with further attacks on the EU, accusing it of wanting to open the floodgates to let in 35 million migrants. This, to put it politely, is fiction. Another word for this is “lie”.
There has also been a new round of thinly veiled anti-Semitic attacks on Soros, a Hungarian Jew who escaped the Nazi death camps during WWII by going into hiding and who criticized the Orban regime.
For good measure, government officials also attacked George Clooney, accusing the actor of being “a Soros puppet.” Clooney had called Orban an example of “hate and anger”.
Behind all this noise and fury lies a fundamental east-west strain.
Hungary and Poland are at the center of the conflict, but other eastern members, notably Slovenia, have offered public support. The leaders of the Czech Republic are also on their side. (Andrej Babis, the Czech Prime Minister, is a billionaire. He too is accused of fraud involving EU subsidies to his companies.)
As Czech political analyst Jiri Pehe puts it, all of these countries “just see the EU as a ‘cash cow’, where the subsidies are there to be spent as we wish.”
This attitude stems from the belief that after more than 40 years of communist oppression that ended in 1990, these countries are still victims and owe the sympathy, leeway and money of the rich countries of the EU.
But there is a setback in Poland and Hungary. Three former Polish prime ministers and the mayors of Warsaw and Budapest have all denounced the last minute veto on the EU budget. But these critics are all opposition figures in highly polarized countries.
Despite all their rhetoric, Poland and Hungary are unlikely to maintain their veto. Poland has already expressed its willingness to compromise. There is too much money at stake. Both countries have been promised billions in new COVID subsidies.
In addition, a recent poll showed that over 80 percent of Poles love the EU and its subsidies. But in Poland, we also talk about something called “Polexit”. It wouldn’t involve slamming the door, like Britain; on the contrary, Poland and others might try to treat the EU like a buffet, subscribing to policies they like and rejecting others.
Several of these countries did just that during the migrant crisis five years ago. They categorically refused to take Syrian refugees – and Brussels has done virtually nothing about it.
But the buffet or Polexit approach would undermine the foundations of the EU. Sooner or later, Brussels will probably try to stop the rot.