Beyond Hungary and Poland, the continent’s issues extend to other problematic democracies. Both the United States and the European Union are fighting to preserve democracy and the rule of law. The conflict in the United States is more dramatic because the president of the United States is spearheading the drive to overthrow the political system. In Europe, on the other hand, the challenge comes primarily from the margins. Hungary and Poland are in the news because their governments are resisting attempts to link EU funds to rule of law compliance.
However, focusing solely on Hungarians and Poles minimizes the scope of Europe’s crisis. Recent corruption scandals and rule of law disputes in several other EU nations have raised major concerns about the health of their democratic institutions. Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia, Malta, and Cyprus are among them. Between one-quarter and one-third of the 27 governments seated around the EU summit table are from the unstable democracies. Because there is an ideological component to the disagreement, the Hungarian and Polish instances receive the most attention. Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, enjoys lecturing about “illiberal democracy.”
Laws limiting judicial independence have also been passed by Poles and Hungarians. Graft and corruption in other parts of the EU tend to be done the old-fashioned manner, under the radar and without accompanying anti-liberal statements. These controversies receive less attention in other countries. However, they have sparked large protests and political unrest in many of the countries involved. Thousands of Bulgarians have come to the streets to protest Prime Minister Boyko Borisov’s government since July. Stories about politicians and officials buying apartments for far less than market value enrage the crowds, as does a photo of Mr Borisov standing next to an open drawer full of €500 bills and gold ingots.
The photographs, according to the prime minister, are phony. Rumen Radev, Bulgaria’s president, has accused him of leading a “mafia government.” Romania, where anti-graft prosecutors have battled government ministers in recent years, has also been jolted by public protests. In May 2019, Liviu Dragnea, Romania’s former ringmaster, was sentenced to three and a half years in jail on corruption allegations. On November 13, Ivo Sanader, Croatia’s longest-serving prime minister since the country’s independence, was sentenced to eight years in prison for corruption.
Corruption scandals have been linked to murder in other parts of the EU. Journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée, Martina Kusnirova, were assassinated in Slovakia in 2018. Kuciak was looking into possible ties between the Italian mafia and authorities close to Prime Minister Robert Fico, who was forced to resign after the death of Kuciak. Daphne Caruana Galizia, a notable investigative journalist in Malta, was assassinated in 2017 after writing about alleged money laundering by key people and the prime minister’s wife’s business activities. The prime minister, Joseph Muscat, resigned as a result of the investigations and public demonstrations that followed her death, and his chief of staff, Keith Schembri, was arrested. Mr Schembri has been released on bail and has not been charged in connection with a police investigation into the sale of Maltese passports to non-EU citizens.
Cyprus’ passport sale has also been a source of controversy, with the government accused of issuing passports to foreign criminals and relatives of despots like Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and Cambodia’s Hun Sen. Some may claim that corruption and violence in small nations like Malta and Cyprus are inconsequential in the context of the EU’s 440 million people. Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, on the other hand, is facing charges of corruption and influence peddling. According to Transparency International’s corruption perception index, Italy’s corruption problem may be worse than Malta’s or Cyprus’. Corruption in any country, no matter how minor, has an impact on the European Union as a whole. Some key measures, such as the EU budget, are subject to veto by each country. Each country is also given the opportunity to chair the EU and set its agenda.
A passport from any EU country grants the right to live and work in any of the EU’s 27 member states. The EU’s ability to investigate and prosecute corruption in its member nations is restricted. The European Public Prosecutor’s Office, which was recently founded, can only take on cases involving misuse of EU funds or activities by its employees.
The EPPO is a voluntary organization. Hungary and Poland have chosen not to participate. Eurosceptics will use these shortcomings to claim that the EU is inherently flawed. Mr Borisov has undoubtedly benefited from more protection from EU politicians than he deserves. However, if the EU were to be dismantled, corruption in nations like Bulgaria would almost certainly worsen. The EU is a positive force when it acts.
The EU institutions backed Laura Codruta Kovesi, a Romanian anti-corruption prosecutor, after she was fired. Ms. Kovesi went on to become the head of the EU’s public prosecutor’s office, indicating that Brussels’ political culture is still shaped by countries that value the rule of law. Nonetheless, ill-governed countries plagued by corruption are well-represented at the EU table. At summits, European leaders take a “family photo,” in which they pose together. A number of shady uncles and relatives are seen smiling for the camera.