Safeguarding Democracy inside the EU: Brussels and the Future of Liberal Order
Recent illiberal turns in Hungary and Romania have prompted the question what, if anything, the EU could and should do to protect liberal democracy within member states. This paper discusses four principled concerns about democracy-saving EU interventions in member states: that an institution that is itself largely undemocratic cannot credibly protect democracy; that there are in fact no common European standards that could be used to determine whether a member state is departing from a shared European understanding of democracy; that interventions are per se illiberal; and, finally, that only small states will be subject to intervention, a form of EU hypocrisy that delegitimizes Brussels both in the states concerned and possibly across the EU as a whole. This paper counters all these concerns and argues that, ultimately, the problem with intervention is not to be found on a theoretical normative level, but on a practical plane. As of now, the EU lacks a tool-kit to intervene effectively in member states; whatever it has recently used by way of sticks and carrots can seem arbitrary or opportunistic. This paper concludes by making a number of modest proposals as to how this situation might be remedied. In particular, it suggests the creation of an expert body, tentatively called the “Copenhagen Commission,” which continuously assesses democracy and the rule of law within member states. Such an institution ought to be authorized to conduct its own investigations, to raise the alarm about turns to illiberalism — and to impose a very limited range of sanctions. The existing mechanisms should stay in place, but ideally would be complemented with the possibility of entirely excluding a state from the EU.