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A two-day European Union summit started Thursday in Brussels with a breakthrough. The bloc’s 27 leaders are expected to sign off on a mammoth $2.2 trillion package of funds and emergency pandemic aid that officials hope may define the continent’s political and economic evolution in the years to come. But that agreement was only possible after a standoff with two obstreperous nations — Hungary and Poland — which threatened to veto the funds over E.U. attempts to exercise oversight of their governments through a “rule of law” mechanism that would censure Warsaw and Budapest for years of democratic backsliding.
Ultimately, a compromise was found by the continent’s compromiser-in-chief, German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Since July, Merkel’s Germany has held the bloc’s rotating presidency. In the twilight of her political career, Merkel appeared eager to herald a step forward at a time when the continent is buffeted both by the rolling drama of Brexit and the economic turmoil unleashed by the pandemic.
“Germany, and also me personally and my team, have worked very intensely to overcome the differences which we have had and to find a solution for the concerns of Hungary and Poland,” Merkel told reporters in Brussels on Thursday.
The compromise “will still tie the funding to adherence to rule-of-law standards,” noted the New York Times. “But the legally binding measure will be watered down: Any country that disagrees with the terms tying E.U. funding to rule-of-law conditions will be able to challenge the entire agreement in the European Court of Justice, which could postpone any real enforcement by months, if not years.”
“The confrontation between Hungary and Poland and the rest of the European Union has been brewing for years,” my colleagues Loveday Morris and Michael Birnbaum explained. “Both governments have taken step after step to weaken the independence of the judiciary, undermine political opponents and entrench their own power and views, which include laws aimed at blocking refugees and erosion of press freedoms.”
They added: “E.U. money has helped fuel the takeover of the systems in both countries — with Poland the biggest net recipient of E.U. funding in recent years and Hungary not far behind.”
Video: EU unveils back-up plans to avoid ‘no-deal’ Brexit chaos (Reuters)
The buildup to this week’s summit was framed as the continent’s landmark chance for a reset. With a more Brussels-friendly administration set to take office in the White House next month, European leaders intend to embrace a new chapter in transatlantic relations and build major cooperation on policy issues ranging from climate to China.
But there are more pressing, even existential concerns closer to home. Shadowing the meetings are negotiations over a final Brexit deal with Britain, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson dabbling once more in a risky game of brinkmanship. On Thursday, he said there was a “strong possibility” that Britain would fail to strike a post-Brexit trade deal with the European Union. That not only raises all sorts of economic and logistical concerns for Britons, but would also leave a new direct competitor on Europe’s borders, unshackled from the E.U.’s rules and regulations.
Both Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron see Britain’s departure from the bloc as an opportunity to drive greater integration among the countries that remain. But the democratic erosion and cronyism seen in Hungary and Poland jeopardize the liberal values upon which the E.U. is ostensibly built. As details of Merkel’s compromise emerged, critics expressed disappointment with what seemed a far too lenient approach to the illiberal governments in question, given that neither country may now face any sanctions until 2022.
“Europe under the leadership of Angela Merkel, due to retire in less than a year, had a Faustian choice to make,” wrote Bloomberg Opinion columnist Andreas Kluth. “It could stand up for its values, even at the cost of delaying a necessary infusion of money, or it could get the cash flowing, but at the price of selling its soul. Unfortunately, the E.U. failed the test.”
“The reprieve would give [Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor] Orbán’s Fidesz party ample time to change Hungarian laws and constitutional provisions, and allow Orbán to continue redefining what constitutes ‘public funds’ in Hungary in ways that enable him to channel ill-gotten loot from public bodies into private ‘foundations’ controlled by his cronies,” wrote George Soros, the American financier whose philanthropic support of liberal civil society organizations has made him a frequent target of Orban and his allies. “The primary victims of the deal that Merkel has reportedly struck with Orbán will be the people of Hungary.”
Jan-Werner Müller, a prominent German political philosopher, praised Merkel for her opposition to President Trump’s assault on liberal institutions and values, as well as her willingness to champion a form of debt mutualization on a continent constantly reckoning with looming fiscal crises.
“But when Merkel steps down next year, she will have left behind no coherent framework to support either the eurozone or Europe’s aspirations of becoming a global ‘normative power’ capable of promoting democracy and the rule of law,” he wrote. “Its advocacy of such values will ring hollow as long as it tolerates member states that no longer meet democratic criteria.”