How to protect democratic values in Europe

Katarzyna Pelczynska-Nalecz

A few years ago the EU appeared to be a democratic monolith. Today it is going through a serious values crisis. And, as Jean-Claude Juncker underlined in his State of the Union speech, values underpinning the EU democracy are not granted.

A few years ago the EU appeared to be a democratic monolith. Today it is going through a serious values crisis. And, as Jean-Claude Juncker underlined in his State of the Union speech, values underpinning the EU democracy are not granted, they require engagement. For the first time in history the European Commission is considering triggering Article 7 of the EU Treaty against one of its Member States – Poland. The same measure is also under consideration as regards Hungary. 
However, this crisis reaches beyond these two countries. In fact it is a global trend, which today's EU is not equipped to deal with. This phenomenon should be considered as an immediate priority for the EU – on an equal footing with migration or security related challenges. One symptom is the growing popularity enjoyed by political groupings disavowing the fundamental values of liberal democracy; they were on the verge of electoral success in France, the Netherlands and Austria.
It is worth noting that the strongest negative opinions regarding European values is observed among the union's younger citizens. For example, 42% of Polish and French - and 45% of Italian - citizens aged 16-26 do not believe that democracy is the best form of government. This does not bode well for the future.
The values crisis calls into question all the elements of European integration. The example of Poland and Hungary prove that a country which undermines European values loses its ability to communicate with the rest of the union, not only in normative issues but also in other areas of cooperation. This is why it is necessary to treat the problem of shared values very seriously and to take appropriate measures as quickly as possible.
The EU's values policy has for years been – and this remains the case – focused on exporting European norms. Little attention has been paid to strengthening and firmly rooting these values within the Union itself. An active policy based on firm conditionality which promotes EU values ends, in principle,  the moment a country joins the Union. In this area the EU has at its disposal only Article 7 of the TFEU. Following a complicated procedure requiring, at a certain stage, consensus from the Member States, this allows sanctions to be imposed.
It cannot be assumed that citizens will increasingly identify with EU values and actively propagate them on a purely voluntary basis. All social attitudes and values require well organised promotion, which in turn requires large financial outlays. The EU's external opponents and the internal opponents of democracy are fully aware of this and are investing very large sums in promoting their message. In the case of Hungary and Poland it is no accident that the governments' violations of the rule of law go hand in hand with cuts to public funding for civic initiatives which share EU values and stand guard over the rule of law. 
The EU financial mechanisms aimed at supporting pro-democratic civic initiatives which currently exist are almost exclusively geared towards third countries. Funds for activities within the EU are much smaller and deal with values issues and the rule of law selectively and indirectly. As part of work on its new budget, the EU should seriously consider the creation of new financial mechanisms to support civic initiatives aimed at promoting and strengthening European, democratic values in Member States. This would call for the reform and better coordination of existing instruments and/or the creation of new, tailor-made ones.
The author is an European Council on Foreign Relations member. The article was originally published by the ECFR.

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