Poland is the latest Eastern European country to veer away from the rule of law—and the core of Europe. The European Union has been too busy to take sufficient notice of the new Polish government's proposed legislation to severely curb media freedom.
In established European democracies, media freedom, central bank independence, and the work of agencies that regulate market forces are immune from political interventions by incoming governments. Since the eurozone crisis, however, several countries in Eastern Europe have shown institutional fragility and sometimes an outright disregard for the rule of law. With Schengen border-free travel rescinded in several EU countries, and the United Kingdom questioning its willingness to be part of united Europe, can the European Union discipline governments that put basic freedoms under pressure?
After repeated violations in Hungary, Poland is the latest showcase of a new government trampling on the rule of law.1 Since 2010, when Viktor Orbán came back to power as prime minister of Hungary, EU officials have voiced concerns about the rule of law in Eastern European countries. In 2016 these warnings have intensified. EU Parliament's President Martin Schulz compared recent actions of the Polish government with a "coup"; former German foreign minister Joschka Fischer called Poland's ruling party "quasi-authoritarian"; and Austria's prime minister Werner Faymann likened Hungary's approach toward refugees to "scenes from the darkest pages of our history."
Some European politicians have admitted that the earlier approach had failed. One month ago, former Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt wrote that the European Union "must not repeat the mistakes it made with Hungary or earlier in the case of Austria and Jörg Haider. This time its reaction must be commensurate with the gravity of the measures and the speed with which they are being taken." In 2000, Haider's far-right nationalist party joined the Austrian government, and several EU members cut diplomatic ties with Austria. Union-wide sanctions never materialized, however.
Those who expect sanctions against Poland now emphasize that the trend of trampling on the rule of law in Eastern Europe must be stopped. The EU commissioner for the digital economy, Guenther Oettinger, has warned that if Poland changes its media law (making public radio and television controlled by the government), Poland could lose its European Council vote. Given that the European Union developed a framework for "addressing systemic threats to the rule of law in any of the EU's 28 Member States" in 2014, such a sanction has legal grounds.
But with Eastern Europe overlooked in recent years over problems in the eurozone, the Greek default, and the current immigration crisis, anti-European forces have gathered support beyond Poland and Hungary. According to the latest Gallup survey, 94 percent of Czechs say corruption is widespread in government—an attitude that explains why antiestablishment parties were so successful in the last parliamentary elections, simply for promising to be different from the sitting politicians. Graft appears to have reached the prime-ministerial level in Romania, where snap elections have been called. And in Bulgaria, repeated efforts to free public life from members of the communist-era secret police have failed, igniting public outrage.
The entry of Eastern Europe into the European Union has been an economic success. The region's standard of living has increased considerably in the past decade, and economic convergence is taking place. However, the difficulties that the eurozone crisis imposed on some countries have fueled anti-European sentiment. European institutions should pay closer attention.