Learning from Hungary: the Importance of Preventing Copenhagen Backsliding

A direct contact among the University students from the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and Moldova inspired students to thought-sharing. Short essay bellow shows what the students have to say on the topic of European Integration and Reform Experience of the Visegrad countries and how it relates to Moldova’s European path.

Title: Learning from Hungary: the Importance of Preventing Copenhagen Backsliding
Author: Péter Márton
University: Central European University (CEU), The Department of International Relations and European Studies (IRES)

The Visegrád Four countries have been EU members for over 10 years. Aspiring members such as Moldova may learn valuable lessons by looking at their experiences. The effects of market liberalization on post COMECON economies, the benefits/drawbacks of entering the Eurozone, the challenges of Schengen membership may all be worthwhile topics of discussion. Indeed, these policy issues are thoroughly debated by economists, academics, experts with rational arguments being presented along various lines reasoning. The more politicized debates among European leaders are less concise and messier.

I would like to highlight some of the possible lessons and consequences of one such debate: Hungary’s backsliding on the democratic norms as set out by the Copenhagen Criteria.

Learning from Hungary

The importance of checks and balances cannot be overrated. In Hungary the 2010 elections marked the first time that a single political party gained a two-thirds constitutional majority in Parliament. While the elections where undoubtedly fare and free, the post-communist constitutional system was ill equipped to deal with the new political realities. The new majority was enough to: curtail the powers of the Constitutional Court, to install two rubber stamp Presidents, and to make clearly partisan appointments across all supposed guardian institutions of democratic control (like Supreme Judge & State Prosecutor). These changes gave a green light for the government to guzzle up the private pension fund savings of the previous two decades, to pass a very controversial media law in 2011 etc…. And although there were no material consequences on behalf of the EU for all these policies (Hungary kept receiving EU funds), Hungary lost credibility and influence as a consequence. We can mention the various embarrassing moments during the lifespan of the 2012/2013 Tavares report, or the recent charade around the suitability of Mr. Tibor Navracsics for European Commissioner based on a lack of credible commitment to European values, as instances when Hungary was in the negative spotlight.

No room for Naiveté

Perhaps the lack of strong enough checks and balances in the pre-2012 constitutional order can also be interpreted as naïveté on the part of the first elected government in 1990. However, it has to be noted that the European Commission has no means to practice a “second level” control function over such deficiencies: i.e.: it cannot protect a country from its self (in terms of Copenhagen backsliding). This of course is attributable to the nature of European Integration: it is an economic based union. Political sovereignty is only sacrificed to the Community level by members when it serves the better functioning of the common market (like negotiating international trade, or providing a common competition policy) or when it is absolutely necessary (like in the case of the European Semester where it was necessary to maintain the credibility of fiscal stringency). The traditional norm of “no interference” is still very much alive. This means that besides the nuclear option (article 7 of the TEU) the EU has no means of remedying democratic deficit. This however does not mean that the EU – which is a value based community as well – does not expect its members to have stable and functioning democratic systems. Owing to the actions of Mr. Orbán over the past 5 years the Union has begun thinking about new policies to remedy the lack of post accession accountability in the form of a “Copenhagen Semester” based on a “Justice Scoreboard” – although the political impetus has slowed down in the past years.


Whether or not the Juncker Commission will pick up on the “Copenhagen Semester” remains to be seen. None the less, general thinking on the issue will likely continue and although – even in the best case scenario – Moldova won’t be joining the EU for the next 5 years, Moldovan politicians and influencers of policy should learn from Hungary by strengthening their system of checks and balances, in accordance with the expert advice of, for example the Venice Commission. Pre-empting the possibility of backsliding by learning from the deficiencies of the post 1990 Hungarian constitution is a must, for both the EU and would be EU members. If the EU heads this advice it will not let Moldova progress further down the path of accession until truly credible solutions are provided to the checks and balances deficits – as mentioned in the Commission’s 2013 Country Progress Report[1]. Moldova needs to understand, that such an approach would serve their best interests, as the outcome – in their political system – would decrease the likelihood that a future EU member Moldova would have to endure the same kind of embarrassing limelight – and possibly sanctions – that Hungary has had to endure in the past years all because of an inadequate system of checks and balances.

[1]See online: http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_MEMO-14-229_en.htm accessed: 2014.10.23