Conversations on the future of Europe tend to be dominated by the ‘Franco-German engine’, be it Emmanuel Macron’s vision or Angela Merkel’s pragmatism. Yet is this realistic, or fair, when most of Europeans are neither French nor German? We sat down with Rui Tavares, co-founder of Portuguese left-green party LIVRE, and Erzsébet Schmuck, vice-chair of Hungarian Green political group Politics Can Be Different, to discuss what the future of Europe, from democracy to the rule of law, looks like from Southern and Eastern Europe.
Green European Journal: The future of Europe debate never goes away. Where are we today and what are the main challenges facing Europe?
Rui Tavares: In the last couple of years there has been a lot of talk about the ‘end of Europe’, but today the tectonic plates have started to shift the other way. The EU will continue to exist. When did that change? Around the time Marine Le Pen tried to explain her vision for Europe in the second round of the French elections? After the Brexit referendum, when many Eurosceptics were waiting for a domino effect that never came? People are realising that the European project may well endure, and when that happens, you know things are about to change because we naturally project ourselves in the future. Time, energy, and political will are always invested in relation to the future and whether something will last or not. To make a comparison, look at the United States or Brazil, when progressives suffer a big defeat such as Trump in the presidency or Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment, they keep on fighting because they know that the US and Brazil will be there in 20 or 30 years’ time.
Until one or two years ago, people would not have bet that the EU would always be there. But it hasn’t collapsed and we should say to all progressives across the continent that they have a very clear choice about how and where to apply their energy. Are they ambitious for a European minimum wage, European universities, a real budget to fight climate change, or will they imitate the Eurosceptics and just wait and see? If we use the first strategy, we have a chance of transforming Europe. All the second strategy will achieve is that the current powers in Europe will retain power for the foreseeable future. But now at least we can say to our fellow citizens, “Look, if you do nothing, it’s guaranteed that Europe will stay as bad as it is because it’s not going anywhere, it will not collapse.”
Erzsébet Schmuck: The most urgent task in my opinion is the analysis and understanding of the internal and external challenges that Europe faces. We clearly have to realise where the EU has a role to play and that it must adapt to a changing global environment. Beyond the obvious threats of climate change and overall ecological crisis, we’ve seen over the last two decades that globalisation’s effects are not just positive and that many countries have been torn apart. Both between and inside countries, the problem of inequality and injustice is growing. Before going any further in talking about more Europe, we have to see the causes of these trends and in what areas the EU could act to solve them.
Within the EU, the difference in situations facing countries, both independently and in relation to one another, is a real question. As can be seen in Central and Eastern Europe, the immediate socioeconomic issues are not necessarily the same and the levels of democracy vary across different EU countries. Time and gradual adaptation are needed.
Then, the EU itself has real problems. The functioning of the EU is opaque and undemocratic. There is no direct connection between the decision-making level and the EU citizens. Sustainable development deserves an approach spanning all EU policy areas but instead short-term economic interests prevail. On the environmental front, I would argue that the EU was in a much better position in the 2000s than it is today. EU environmental standards are getting weaker and weaker, and are consistently losing out to the protection of economic interests. Economic, environmental, and social issues must be coherent and properly integrated in EU policy-making.
Next year, there will be European elections. Most proposals for EU reform that get to mainstream media come from ‘Western’ European countries, if not just France and Germany. What does the future of Europe debate look like from the ‘South’ and the ‘East’ of Europe?
Rui Tavares: Scholar Yascha Mounk makes a distinction between undemocratic liberalism and illiberal democracy. Undemocratic liberalism argues that everything will turn out fine and that, even if you can’t see it in your everyday life, free markets and globalisation benefit everybody. Illiberal democracies claim that all ills come from outside and offer to shield the nation against them. Both approaches fail to credibly address actual problems and the majority of people know that. People see that if the problems are global, then they will not be solved simply at the national level. But what do we need in times of elections? We should not deny globalisation’s difficulties or other contemporary challenges. On the contrary, Greens and progressives should be the first to say: “If what has happened in the last 10 years unsettles you, get ready, because the rhythm of change is going to increase more and more.” To globalisation, you can add automation, ecological crisis, human rights crises, and global geopolitical instability risking conflict and displacement. We must not deny these difficulties, as neoliberals would, but we must not fall into the trap of defending the same ‘back to the 1950s’ vision of the world as national populists. We should say, “It is difficult, but manageable.” How? Democratically. Undemocratic liberals and illiberal democrats are allies in one regard. They do not want democratic tools beyond the nation-state. Undemocratic liberals don’t think they need it, they rely on the market, and the illiberal democrats just don’t want to share sovereignty. Instead, where problems surpass the frontiers of the nation-state, we must have democratic tools that extend beyond them too.
Only the creation of a European democracy where I count as much as a German, a French person, a Pole, and a Hungarian will allow individuals to change things
From the geographic periphery of Europe, such as Portugal, when you see the European debate centered around Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel (though they may have good, pro-European intentions), you cannot help but feel that they are looking to reform Europe in a very narrow-minded way led by national governments. That way, I, as a citizen of Portugal, will never count for anything in Europe. I will not get a fair shot at effecting change. That undermines the legitimacy of Europe for me. As it will undermine it for Hungarians and Poles too. Only the creation of a European democracy where I count as much as a German, a French person, a Pole, and a Hungarian will allow individuals to change things, including regarding globalisation. By the tools of purely Portuguese – or Hungarian or Polish, for that matter – politics, I could never get there. Having the Franco-German engine driving the European debate is not only unrealistic, but completely unsatisfactory for us.
Instead of complaining, we must create a pan-European debate that is rich and that gives ideas from all over Europe – not only the old Western Europe – the chance to count for something and become politically central. In a way, this is happening with Portugal and – somewhat paradoxically – Hungary. Portugal, with its left-wing, pluralistic government, has become a special case where social-democratic parties are in government but not in crisis, and that is trying to turn the page on austerity within the euro and in the EU. In other words: a different model. Hungary has a huge political centrality too, relative to the size of the country. Orbán is one of the big players in European politics. We need to hear those countries and ideas in a pan-European debate which engages and includes the citizens too.
Erzsébet Schmuck: For Greens (Politics Can Be Different, LMP) in Hungary, it will be very difficult for the European elections to even debate Europe, its democracy, and its added value. Orbán has really managed to build up the EU as an enemy. Orbán presents the EU as having failed to tackle migration. And when people hear that the EU is an important source of funding, they associate that money with corruption and rarely see the benefit themselves. For the elections, we will need to connect Europe to very concrete questions to stand a chance of our arguments being heard. Climate change is one topic where the EU’s value is obvious and cannot be contested. Orbán erected a fence [along the border with Serbia and Croatia] that allegedly would save the country from migration, from the outsiders supposedly changing our culture and taking our jobs, but he hasn’t paid any attention to the fact that worsening climate crises will provoke huge migratory flows. What will we do when that happens? We can explain to people that the danger is real but that Hungary cannot address it alone. We need concrete messages for this campaign.
Do not forget that people, at least in some Eastern European countries such as Hungary, are very disappointed with politicians and politics. Political elites in the last 20-25 years have promised something good for the people, be it higher standards of living or democracy. But with no real results and high levels of corruption, the trust towards politics is at a low point. Hungarian politicians promised that salaries would rise and that investments would be made once foreign capital entered the economy. The blatant failure of this promise is driving people away from real politics and serious policy proposals. People want to hear something concrete about their material well-being and their immediate environment. If we go into the election campaign with projects of stronger EU and political unification, they will not listen. But at LMP we want to change things, so the question becomes how we will do that concretely… and I fear it won’t be through the European angle.
Is the defence of democracy a central point for the campaign?
Erzsébet Schmuck: Be it climate change or another campaign topic, all of it requires democracy. You cannot have imported democracy not grounded in the people themselves. Defending the rule of law in Hungary is first and foremost the job of Hungarians. If two thirds of people vote Orbán then no one from the outside is going to change that. You need support from outside the country but only geared at helping Hungarians to change the situation for themselves. Having said that, the Hungarian media situation is such that Orbán’s party, Fidesz, has bought almost 60 per cent of media outlets. Outside of the capital you can almost only hear or watch government propaganda.
Messages about rule of law and democracy are important but cannot only be handed down from the European level.
We have huge problems with corruption and that is why our party LMP provides weekly news bulletins on corruption. But it is not listened to enough. Corruption is a key point where I feel the EU is not playing its role. Some countries are net supporters to the EU budget but, once the money goes to countries like Hungary, no one really cares how this money is spent. It is a real political problem and the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) will not be able to solve this problem by itself, however the European Public Prosecutor’s Office (EPPO) could, and that’s why the LMP supports joining the EPPO. Messages about democracy during the European elections campaign should be twofold: common messages which apply to all EU Member States and which are important for Greens, but also messages adapted to each national electorate. Messages about rule of law and democracy are important but cannot only be handed down from the European level.
Rui Tavares: We on the progressive side are frequently caught in a tactical mode of thinking and often think “I cannot say this in my country”. Of course you can. If you are a politician and it’s a democracy, say it! If you lose, you lose, and if you win, you win. One thing we can learn from the populists is that, while they might not be sincere, they do come across as authentic. The lesson for progressives is that you are not always going to win. If you are in favour of immigration, as I am, people will say: “This guy is crazy”, but at least I am not afraid to say it. Then we can have a debate. I am very frustrated with the populists saying what they want and progressives afraid to say anything at all. Even if you are in a minority in your country, say what you have to say. For example, I believe in European democracy. Would you rather have a united democratic Europe that speaks with one voice with the people behind it or do you want 27 countries vetoing each other? I’m sure that most Europeans want to have a strong democratic Europe. If they don’t, I accept defeat, I’m in the minority. But if you say what you believe in, majorities might come sooner than you expect.
Do you think the EU should apply Article 7 and its sanctions to Hungary?
Rui Tavares: The EU system is very dysfunctional in that regard: either you do nothing or you apply Article 7 and revoke Member State voting rights. Then the government back home will claim that the EU is trying to silence Hungary. However, we are not in 2013 anymore, when I was the European Parliament’s rapporteur on Fundamental Rights in Hungary, and the Hungarian government continues to deviate from EU norms and standards. Dutch Green MEP Judith Sargentini is correct when she says that we have to consider our remaining options towards Orbán, including Article 7. Of course Orbán will manipulate it and will blame the EU. But for the rest of Europe, doing nothing is not an option. People say comparisons to the interwar period in Italy and Portugal are exaggerations, but to me they seem sensible. If one country strays from the rule of law and fundamental rights, then others will do the same. We see this already across the Visegrad countries.
Sanctions and cutting Hungary off from funding will not necessarily bring about political change in the country and that is a big risk
Erzsébet Schmuck: There is no LMP official position on the matter. We believe that the Hungarian political problems first of all should be solved within the country’s political and economical framework. But, importantly, regardless of whether Judith Sargentini’s report captures the situation accurately, the question remains whether imposing sanctions will have any effect. Orbán will anyway turn this into a fight against an external power imposing its ‘diktat’ on Hungary and will present himself as the defender of the Hungarians. Manipulation of information and propaganda already filter any news regarding the EU in Hungary. Sanctions and cutting Hungary off from funding will not necessarily bring about political change in the country and that is a big risk.
Rui Tavares: I completely agree on corruption. The EU must insure the integrity of its budget. It’s basic accountability to taxpayers and OLAF is clearly not enough. Ensuring the integrity of the European budget calls for a European judicial system capable of following the money, which is the goal of EPPO. Misuse of the European budget must be an EU legal violation, a crime, just as the misuse of the national budget is a crime nationally. In the future, I think that we will evolve towards a system where countries unwilling to participate in the oversight of spending are going to get less money, which is only natural. The EPPO is ‘strengthened cooperation’, so only governments that are willing to take part do so, which is fair enough. But if they are not willing to guarantee the money will be spent properly, then probably in the future they will have less money.
Are you suggesting cutting the flow of money to countries that don’t comply with EU Treaties?
Rui Tavares: That does not solve the question of fundamental rights. It is not healthy to tie fundamental rights to funding. What about the Netherlands, Denmark, Austria, or France that are all net contributors to the European budget but have all been near to having illiberal governments? Withdrawing funds from a net contributor, how will that work? Budget is one thing and fundamental rights are another. What we need to do there is to abolish the Lisbon Treaty article that limits the application of the Charter of Fundamental Rights and thereby give every European citizen the right to go to court on the basis of the Charter.
A concern that has emerged in recent years, certainly with the recent Hungarian elections, is electoral integrity. In Hungary, the election may have been free, but it was not fair. In the future we may have fraudulent elections in Europe. Without regulation at the EU level, it will be a huge problem when a government blocking EU foreign policy, for instance sanctions on Russia, is an undemocratic one.
 Article 7 of the Lisbon Treaty states that if an EU Member State is unanimously found to be in breach of the founding values of the European Union, certain sanctions such as revoking a country’s voting rights in the European Council may be applied.