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[BSC] Illiberal regimes in the EU threaten its values and credibility

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BELGRADE —  Countries like Hungary and Poland are challenging the European values, such as the rule of law, fundamental rights and democracy, at the same time jeopardizing EU’s credibility to promote these values to its external partners, it was concluded during the panel “The EU’s Own Illiberal Challenge: Authoritarians in the House and the Backyard”, at Belgrade Security Conference (BSC). 

According to panelists, the last few years weren’t the best for democracy globally, and the EU wasn’t able to resist this negative trend either. It discussed the defining features of today’s “illiberal democracies” and the set of tools the EU has at its disposal to respond to these challenges.

Vice-President of the European Commission for Values and Transparency, Věra Jourová, opened the panel with a speech emphasizing the importance of the rule of law, fundamental rights, and democracy for the European Union. She warned that defending these values is more important than ever in times when certain authoritarian regimes do not refrain from using force.

  “We can only preach to others on the rule of law, if we keep our own house in order. And indeed, the rule of law is central to the proper functioning of the EU, be it its area of freedom, security and justice or our internal market. Threats to the rule of law challenge the legal political and economic basis of the EU. Deficiencies in one member state will have an impact on other member states and on the EU as a whole. And so none of us should ever become complacent. We can never take democracy or the rule of law for granted,” Jourová said.

She pointed our areas of the fight against corruption and organized crime as very important for the countries in the region, but she also called upon EU’s Western Balkans partners to “ensure coherent and consistent efforts to contain and effectively address elements of state capture

Zsuzsanna Szelényi, Director CEU Democracy Institute Leadership Academy, provided a perspective from “the big, scary country of Hungary,” as moderator Una Hajdari described it. Szelényi explained that the Hungarian type of illiberal democracy is different than a dictatorship because it doesn’t resort to violence.

“This is the most spectacular part of it. A bunch of people captured power without violence and it’s very difficult to notice. This is also a step by step process so you don’t really see it from the beginning. For example, most Europeans believe that illiberalism is in Hungary since 2014 when Orbán declared it as an illiberal state, but we actually saw it much earlier,” Szelényi stated.

 She added that she doesn’t believe the situation in Hungary can change without a major breakout, because autocrats like Orbán “are elected democratically and they maintain the state of democracy, there are elections.” Hungary is not the only example — Szelényi warned that “there is a rising network of illiberal regimes.”

Milica Delević, Director for Competitiveness, Governance and Political Affairs at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, pointed out that with challenges such as migration, energy crisis and new geopolitical circumstances, “the agenda becomes a little bit crowded” for countries to proprely address them.

 She also warned about the negative trend of global decline in democracy, according to Freedom House reports, and questioned the EU’s ability to “project its values in external relations” while facing its own challenges regarding democracy.

“What existed as a power to shame leaders and societies who do not accept the same values, that is eroding,” Delević stated.

Fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, Selim Koru, talked about the situation in Turkey. He explained that unlike in the 2000s, when the EU has “an amazing magnetism,” from 2010s there was a “pushback against what’s coming from the outside,” the outside being the EU and international organizations.

“If the EU was more confident in its principles and the way it handles its problems, I think the outside world would also have a lot more respect for the EU and it would have at least some of its magnetism,” as Koru said in reference to the way EU responds to authoritarianism in the house.

Responding to Una Hajdari’s question about the connection between migration and authoritarianism in Turkey, Koru explained that Erdogan is in favor of migration because he sees the world in terms of civilization and wants Turkey to be more conservative and traditional, but that majority of Turkish citizens aren’t on the same page with him regarding that issue.

 Natacha Kazatchkine, Head of the EU internal policy team for the Open Society Europe and Eurasia Program, added that we should include Poland in the conversation about illiberal regimes as well, because it has made a clear break from the values that were discussed. She pointed out that countries outside of the EU are looking at it as an example of democracy, but that the EU has a “very serious problem that might eat it from inside.”

Kazatchkine also criticized the “non response” by the EU institutions at times when European values are under threat.

 “They have tools and this is the message we have to get to the EU leaders. They do have tools to stop what’s happening and if I want to mention one that is going on right now, it’s the conditionality [of the EU budget allocation],” Kazatchkine concluded.

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