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22 June, 2018  ▪  The Economist

The Economist: Political colleagues

Hungary and Poland are challenging the EU’s commitment to liberal democracy

A bit of Polish doggerel from the 18th century, when Polish and Hungarian nobles fought together against the Russian empire, maintains that Poles and Hungarians are “brothers, both of the sword and of the [wine] glass”. The Hungarians have a similar rhyme. Lately this friendship has experienced a revival that goes beyond a common interest in ghting and drinking. The two countries’ ruling parties, Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) and Hungary’s Fidesz, both disdain liberal- ism, disregard the independence of the judiciary and reject the European Union’s plans for resettling refugees from the Middle East. They also protect each other in Brussels, where their policies have drawn the ire of the European Commission. 

On May 14th Viktor Orban, Hungary’s prime minister, visited Warsaw on his rst foreign trip since winning re-election in April. It was a triumphal visit for Mr Orban, whom PiS has long admired. In 2011 Jaroslaw Kaczynski, PiS’s chairman and Poland’s de facto leader, said he was “convinced that the day will come when we will have Budapest in Warsaw”. Since coming to power in 2015, PiS has led Poland in the illiberal direction charted by Fidesz. It has packed the supreme court and turned the public media into a government propaganda channel, echoing earlier changes in Hungary. 

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Mr Orban has gone further down the road to autocracy. On May 15th the Open Society Foundations, a liberal philanthropic group, an- nounced that Hungary’s “repressive political and legal environment” had grown so bad that it would shift its Budapest operations to Ber- lin. (The group’s billionaire founder, George Soros, was targeted by Fidesz in a xenophobic campaign during the election.) Yet the Poles are moving in the same direction. On May 11th police in the town of Pobierowo raided an academic conference on Karl Marx to check whether it “propagates totalitarian content”. The interior minister later apologised.

For the EU, the two governments’ actions are a headache. The European Commission has instituted so-called Article 7 proceedings against Poland over its changes to the legal system, which give the executive and legislative branches authority to appoint and remove judges. The proceedings could lead to sanctions if Poland does not back down. But Mr Orban has vowed to block such sanctions. Now the commission is trying a new approach: in its upcoming seven-year budget, it plans to cut EU funding to countries where the rule of law is at risk. Hungary and Poland, both among the largest net recipients of EU funds, are most likely to be affected. During Mr Orban’s visit, the Poles and Hungarians agreed to try to block any such move towards conditionality in EU funding. Mr Orban has threatened to veto the budget. 

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Both governments are here to stay. Mr Orban’s victory in April was a landslide. “We have replaced a shipwrecked liberal democracy with a 21st-century Christian democracy,” he said on May 10th. (The EU, he added, must give up its “delusional nightmares of a United States of Europe”.) PiS, too, leads in the polls. The commission has given the Polish government until June 26th to come up with satis- factory changes to its judge-nobbling rules. But with his political posi- tion secure, and the support of his Hungarian brother, it is hard to see why Mr Kaczynski would retreat. 

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