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Poland and Hungary enjoy a physics lesson courtesy of the EU

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Nov 26th 2020INERTIA IS ISAAC NEWTON’S first law of motion. “Every body perseveres in its state of rest, or of uniform motion in a right line unless it is compelled to change that state by forces impressed thereon,” wrote Newton in 1687. It is the first law of the EU, too: things stay as they are, until a big enough force shoves them to change. The covid-19 pandemic and the ensuing recession gave the bloc an almighty push. Over the summer EU leaders agreed to issue collective debt at scale for the first time, to the tune of €750bn (0bn). After five days of talks, all 27 heads of government agreed that anyone spending EU money would have to abide by some form of “rule of law” stipulations.Hungary and Poland are learning the hard way about introductory physics: once things get going, they

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INERTIA IS ISAAC NEWTON’S first law of motion. “Every body perseveres in its state of rest, or of uniform motion in a right line unless it is compelled to change that state by forces impressed thereon,” wrote Newton in 1687. It is the first law of the EU, too: things stay as they are, until a big enough force shoves them to change. The covid-19 pandemic and the ensuing recession gave the bloc an almighty push. Over the summer EU leaders agreed to issue collective debt at scale for the first time, to the tune of €750bn ($890bn). After five days of talks, all 27 heads of government agreed that anyone spending EU money would have to abide by some form of “rule of law” stipulations.

Hungary and Poland are learning the hard way about introductory physics: once things get going, they are hard to stop. The two countries have belatedly teamed up to try and scupper the scheme, arguing that the rule-of-law mechanism goes too far. They have reason to fear a crackdown. Both governments have trampled on democratic norms in recent years, nobbling judges, thwarting journalists and using the state to hobble rivals. There is little Hungary and Poland can do to stop the new rules coming in, since they can be approved by a qualified majority. Instead, they have vetoed other policies. Both have refused to sign off the EU’s budget, which is worth about €1trn of spending over seven years, and withheld permission for the EU to push on with disbursing the €750bn recovery fund, until the rule-of-law scheme is watered down.

Leverage is the stuff of politics as well as physics. At first glance, holding €1.8trn of funding hostage seems a strong lever to pull. Economies in southern Europe are gasping for the cash. But it is a kamikaze attack. EU funds to Hungary and Poland were worth 4.5% and 3% of those countries’ GDP respectively in 2019. It is their own economies they are most in danger of damaging for the sake of a law they cannot stop from being introduced. Some are interpreting the move as a warning shot. If Hungary and Poland are trampled over, a bureaucratic dirty war will commence, with both countries blocking everything they can.

But Newton’s third law also has a role in EU politics: every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Other countries have vetoes over the budget process. Some like the Netherlands, which has a reputation for being a stickler for rules, could block the process if any compromise goes too far. The rule-of-law legislation is narrowly defined. Some countries wanted a far more wide-ranging tool, which would hit governments in their wallets if they trampled on the rights of minorities or gay people.

A nuclear option being discussed in a stage whisper by diplomats (and bellowed by MEPs) would involve other countries simply bypassing the two countries and issuing the debt without them. This would banish Hungary and Poland to an outer circle of the continent. Such strategies have been used before. David Cameron, then the British prime minister, found himself outwitted in 2011 when he refused to sign off on a treaty change without regulatory guarantees for the City of London. His fellow leaders went around him. Mr Cameron’s failure offers a lesson in how not to deal with Brussels, which Warsaw and Budapest would do well to heed if they want to guarantee their place in the bloc. Oddly enough, voters in both countries are strongly Europhile, despite electing governments that enjoy fighting EU institutions.

Once the EU’s rule-of-law tool has come into force, inertia may become the friend of Hungary and Poland, rather than their foe. Any punishment for trampling on the rule of law would have to be approved by a qualified majority of member states. On paper, this improves on the current system. At the moment, a country can be fined and/or stripped of its voting rights for violating the rule of law only if all 26 other governments agree. Since Hungary and Poland have each other’s backs, such a move is impossible. In practice, the new measures may still struggle to be invoked. Hungary and Poland are far from the only countries nervous about EU budget payments being linked to good behaviour. Corruption allegations swirl in Bulgaria. High-profile murders of investigative journalists in Malta and Slovakia have shaken both countries in recent years. Cyprus sells passports. Croatian authorities are accused of beating up refugees at the border. It is not just a case of honour among thieves. EU leaders are reluctant to interfere in the domestic affairs of others for the simple reason that they fear they could be next. In such circumstances, abstention is appealing.

Unlike rules of physics, rules of politics can be bent. The danger is that the new mechanism will become another Stability and Growth Pact, the bloc’s oft-maligned but usually ignored rules on government spending. According to the pact, EU countries are expected to keep their deficits below 3% of GDP in any given year and their debts below 60% of GDP. Even in good times, these targets were missed, but consequences were few. Technically countries could be fined. None ever was. To critics, the rule-of-law mechanism is a very European compromise: strict rules (to placate supporters) which are never enforced (to placate opponents).

Errors are not in the art but in the artificers

Procedures for reining in misbehaving member states will do little if no one has the guts to use them. Fundamentally, dealing with rogue EU governments is a question of political courage. Big countries, such as Germany, have allowed political alliances to trump principles. Over the past decade, the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orban, has reshaped the Hungarian state from within the comfort of the European People’s Party, in which Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats also sit. Belated action on Poland—a far more important country for the future of Europe—came only after its government had already stacked its constitutional court. The bloc’s failure to act has had consequences. Other countries are sliding in a similar direction and will not stop unless some force impresses thereon. Inertia, after all, is a mighty thing.

This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the headline "Newtonian Europe"

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