The E.U. is supposed to promote democracy. So why do anti-democratic politicians thrive within it?

Why does a political union that professes a deep commitment to democracy allow some member governments to backslide toward authoritarianism? The European Union claims it has a deep commitment to democracy. It requires applicant states to be democratic and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012, in part because of how it had helped advance democracy in Europe. However, in recent years, the E.U. has allowed some member governments to backslide toward authoritarianism. In 2019, one member state, Hungary, became the only E.U. member state ever to be downgraded by Freedom House, an organization that measures democracy, to the status of only a “partly free” country.

Viktor Orbán’s government likes to label itself an “illiberal democracy,” but leading scholars of comparative politics agree that Hungary is no longer a democracy at all. Instead, it is a “competitive authoritarian regime” or “pseudo-democracy” — a hybrid authoritarian regime that maintains formal democratic institutions but fails to meet the minimal standards for democracy.

It might seem surprising that the E.U. would allow the emergence of authoritarian member states. However, research in comparative politics shows the survival of authoritarian states within democratic unions is in fact common. In a forthcoming article, I draw on this literature to show how three mechanisms — party politics, money and migration — can help autocrats endure within the E.U.

European political parties can enable authoritarians

The first thing that helps Europe’s autocrats is that Europe has only a half-baked party system. The E.U., like other federal-type unions, creates incentives for federal parties to organize so as to win votes in the European Parliament. The E.U.’s version of federal parties is “Europarties” — Pan-European coalitions of national parties. Europarties have incentives to protect authoritarian state leaders who belong to their parties and deliver them votes and seats. Before the civil rights era, the Democratic Party in the United States protected one-party authoritarian regimes in the “Solid South” because Southern Democrats delivered them votes. In just the same way, Europarties protect national pet autocrats who deliver votes for them at the E.U. level.

If the European Union had a fully developed party system, voters might eventually punish mainstream parties for allying with authoritarians. But in the E.U., voters don’t really understand what Europarties are and often don’t even know they exist. This means that authoritarian enablers pay no real political price for supporting autocrats. Europarties don’t suffer brand damage, because they don’t have recognized brands.

For example, Angela Merkel is widely seen as a leading defender of Europe’s liberal democratic order, while Viktor Orbán is widely seen as an authoritarian populist seeking to disrupt that order. Very few voters know that the two of them belong to the same Europarty — the European People’s Party (EPP) — and that Merkel’s Christian Democrats have played a key role in protecting Orbán against E.U. penalties. Merkel’s Christian Democrats and other mainstream parties in the EPP benefit from their alliance with Orbán’s party while suffering almost no reputational damage for their association with him.

Europe subsidizes anti-democratic politicians

The E.U. also helps its autocrats by giving them money. Even as the E.U. spends large sums promoting democracy around the world, it hands billions of euros to member governments that are busy dismantling democracy. For instance, in the last E.U. budget, Hungary was the largest recipient of E.U. funds on a per capita basis, and Poland was the largest overall recipient. Backsliding governments can use their control over the distribution of generous E.U. subsidies to prop up their regimes.

While there is talk of making E.U. funding conditional on member states’ respect for rule-of-law norms, to date, the E.U. has not attached meaningful strings to its funding. A significant portion of the E.U. funding allocated to Hungary has found its way into the pockets of regime cronies. Member states that benefit from E.U. funds can opt out of the scrutiny of the new European Public Prosecutor’s Office, whose job it will be to combat fraud against the E.U. budget. Hungary and Poland are among the six member states that have decided to decline the office’s attentions.

Emigration provides a safety valve for autocrats

Finally, immigration helps autocrats stay in power in the E.U. The easier it is to emigrate from an autocracy, the more likely it is that dissatisfied citizens will choose “exit” instead of remaining and exercising their voices. Immigration provides a release valve, allowing the most dissatisfied citizens to move away, thereby eroding the potential base of the opposition. Freedom of movement in the E.U. means citizens in backsliding member states who oppose their regimes or are simply dissatisfied with conditions can easily immigrate to other member states. Hundreds of thousands of E.U. citizens have done just that. Strikingly, the increase in emigration from Hungary since Orbán came to power — up 186 percent — was more than double the increase in emigration from any other E.U. member state in that period. Moreover, unlike in fully developed federations, immigrants in the E.U. do not gain the right to vote in national elections in the states they move to, while autocratic regimes can make it very difficult for them to vote in elections back home, effectively disenfranchising them.

To be sure, if a member government tried to install a full-blown oppressive dictatorship, the E.U. would very likely take serious action in an effort to restore democracy. However, the E.U. can provide a surprisingly hospitable environment for softer forms of authoritarianism in its member states. There is little reason to believe this will change anytime soon, and the phenomenon seems to be spreading. Recent developments in member states including Poland, Bulgaria, Romania and Malta suggest aspiring autocrats across Europe may have noted the E.U. may tolerate democratic backsliding and are acting accordingly.

R. Daniel Kelemen (@rdanielkelemen) is a professor of political science and law and the Jean Monnet chair in European Union Politics at Rutgers University.

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