August 19, 2012
In Romania, attempts are made to limit the powers of the constitutional court. In Hungary the government tightens its grip on the media, the courts and cultural activities. And in Serbia a new government is stamping its authority over the once independent central bank. Each of these developments on its own is cause for concern. Taken together they suggest that a blight on democratic progress may be spreading over the south-eastern edge of the EU.
If a democracy is defined merely as a state where governments can be removed without violence there would be little to criticise. Elections in the former communist EU member states and in those hoping to join are generally free and fair. But democracy is about more than the ballot box. It is about the independent institutions that guarantee a government’s accountability to its citizens. In Romania and Hungary, already members of the EU, and in Serbia, which aspires to membership, these are being compromised. Each case has its own unique characteristics. Post-Soviet struggles for power are being played out in different ways. The democratic culture has not yet taken deep root. But it is also clear that the economic crisis has had an effect. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development has identified a worrying deterioration in attitudes towards democracy and the market economy in these countries after years of hardship. This should be an issue of urgent concern to Europe. The risk of contagion is real, with austerity in countries such as Greece already fuelling dissatisfaction.
Brussels must do more to avert the rise of anti-democratic practices in these states. It has tried to rein in the worst excesses in existing members, but its powers are feeble. EU member states should be prepared to use available sanctions such as suspending a country’s voting rights, rather than considering this a “nuclear” option that can only be threatened but never implemented. Other tools should be considered.