Israeli elections: what kind of Israel will we be witnessing?

By Niclolai Santianello

In April 2019 Israel will be holding general elections for its legislative body, the Knesset. There are of course different parties and coalitions standing for a range of political views, but what is not immediately obvious is how the resulting winner might have an influence on EU-Israel relations and the occupation of the West Bank.

The incumbent is prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, running for his right-wing party Likud even though he is accused of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust, and the country’s attorney general plans on charging him for these counts [1]. Regarding relations with European countries, Netanyahu has developed close relations to a number of populist, right-wing parties which have had success in legislative elections all over Europe. Some examples of this growing relation are Netanyahu’s political friendliness with Italy’s Deputy PM, the Austrian chancellor, the Hungarian PM, who are exponents of Europe’s Euro-skeptic far-right [2]. Even though Likud is currently behind the Blue & White coalition, Netanyahu’s re-election is far from ruled out, and this occurrence would mean growing support and closeness between the Israeli PM and European right-wing parties.

Even though Netanyahu is a very successful politician and statesman he now has to deal with a new force in Israeli politics, the Blue and White coalition headed by ex-army colonel Benny Gantz and the political figure Yair Lapid [3]. This center party is characterized by a liberal ideology both in social and economic terms and takes a softer stance on the occupation than their right-wing counterparts [4], but still consider the settlements in the West Bank as a part of the State of Israel. This political alliance has the potential to change the direction that Israeli politics has taken with Netanyahu’s four terms in office as PM, and could also establish closer ties with the moderate political forces in Europe which have so far been on opposing ideological sides to Netanyahu.

On the more left side of the political spectrum there are parties which currently have little chances at governing the country. Amongst these are the Labor party [5] which is a social democratic party and observer member of the Party of European Socialists and Meretz, pushing for secularism, egalitarianism, and environmental awareness. These parties are also focused on a two state solution for the Israeli Palestinian conflict and respectively control 19 and 5 seats in Knesset (out of 120). Other than these “Jewish” parties, there is also Hadash which is headed by an Arab Israeli and follows a borderline communist ideology, and currently holding 6 seats in coalition with Ta’al.

After mentioning relatively smaller parties on the left of the spectrum we should also take a look at the right-wing (or far right) parties, who could potentially shift the election results because of their coalition potential. There are for example Shas and United Torah Judaism which are both right-wing ultra-orthodox parties and currently control respectively 6 and 7 seats. There are then the New Right party and Yisrael Beitenu which are both nationalist parties, with the first opposing judicial activism and supporting a one-state solution, and the second supporting secularism and widely appealing to the Russian population. They respectively control 3 and 5 seats in Knesset possess some coalition potential with other right-wing parties [6].

Depending on the elections which are scheduled for April 9th 2019 Israel could have a very different political leadership. The main competitors for this are Likud and Blue & White coalition, neither of whom will probably be able to win a majority at these elections and might have to rely on parties which have potential to form a coalition, of which there are likely to be a few on each side of the political spectrum. If Netanyahu wins again he will in all likelihood increase his friendship with the rising European populist right. In case of a victory of the center coalition White & Blue we would probably see a shift in Israel’s international ties away from the European right, even though it is not sure who they would befriend in Europe’s political context.

Sources used in this article

  1. Yolande Knell, “Is Netanyahu in More Trouble Now Than Ever Before?,” BBC News, last modified March 1, 2019
  2. Anshel Pfeffer, “Netanyahu is Risking Israel’s Interests by Riding the European Nationalist Tiger,”, last modified December 12, 2018
  3. “Gap Between Gantz and Netanyahu Narrows As Polls Show Right-wing Bloc,” The Jerusalem Post |, last modified March 10, 2019
  4. “Neither Right nor Left, Gantz Offers ‘hope’ to a Crowd Calling for ‘change’,” The Times of Israel | News from Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish World, last modified January 30, 2019
  5. “Labor, Bound for Collapse in National Elections, Holds Primaries,” The Times of Israel, last modified February 11, 2019
  6. “These Seven Parties’ Fates Will Decide Israel’s Election,”, last modified March 11, 2019



People-powered change – an interview with party chairman of Volt Nederland Laurens Dassen

By Kirsten Overboom

The new pan-European, progressive movement Volt has established itself in Amsterdam and other cities in the Netherlands ever since june 2018. With the European parliamentary elections coming up this May it is about time to get to know this somewhat different party, so we contacted its chairman, Laurens Dassen.

Change is what they strive for, but it is also what created the party. Big changes such as the ever decreasing amount of youngsters that are politically active and the ever growing support for anti-European movements, resulting in phenomenons such as the Brexit, sparked the creation of Volt. Laurens explains that the party wants to improve the political system from within. With the global challenges we face politics needs to change, especially at the European level according to Laurens. One big obstacle however, is the still defining role of national politics in the European system. To overcome this, Volt reaches out to citizens unbound by national boundaries.

So how does it work? Uniquely the party is active in all member states of Europe with a singular programme, the declaration of Amsterdam. To prevent the party from being unable to react to change, they use a ‘grassroots’ approach, meaning that the debate at a local level is taken into account at the European level. One monthly event, hosted in about 70 cities at once, ensures meaningful discussion at all levels and in all member states. By doing so Volt aims to produce rational solutions to European problems. According to Laurens, citizens are nowadays focused on specific cross-national problems such as climate or migration.These kind of problems have nothing to do with whether politics should be left or right, but with finding the best solution.

Taking on the political system as a whole might come off as an ambitious plan. Despite that, their support is growing, not only amongst youngsters, making it a full-fledged opponent of traditional parties. In a few months we will know whether Europe’s chooses change or tradition. Let’s vote!



Alternative visions of Europe – the debate we must now have

By Norbert Rebow

This year brings a series of momentous events for the European Union. Scheduled first to arrive is Brexit which at the time of writing is still undetermined. Then, we will have a chance to cast our ballots in an election that will be conducted in a political reality unlike any other since direct elections to the European Parliament were introduced in 1979. These developments and others were described by my colleague Nicolai in the last edition of this newsletter. One area he covered was the rise of parties and movements on the right that reject the European Union in its current form but do not argue that their countries should leave the organisation, indeed they are building networks across the continent advocating for a different, more conservative, Union. Nicolai was concerned about what this would mean for the EU –  here I want to assuage some of those worries and argue that these developments provide an opportunity to strengthen the European project in the long run.

Let me clear, the point of this article is not to argue for the vision of Europe that draws on opposition to immigration and the Christian heritage these movements espouse. Rather, I will underline that this change on the anti-establishment right creates space for a debate that Europe badly needs. Discussions on democratic deficit in the EU have always focused on the distribution of power between the institutions of the Union, I contend that the most significant problem for democracy has been a lack of diversity in visions for the future of the European project. Until now we had a choice between the neoliberal consensus of the European People’s Party and the Socialists and Democrats on the one hand and the utter negation of the benefits of the EU coming from people like Nigel Farage and Marine Le Pen. The emergence of movements that offer an alternative redirects the energy of those who are frustrated by the direction of politics in their countries and in Europe from a general opposition to a championing for a vision of Europe.

EU politics has seemed distant, confusing and unresponsive to many, translating into consistently low rates of turnout at European elections. The key, I think is not to ask why European politics appears boring but why national-level developments have the capacity to inspire real passions. Sure, the EU regulates plenty of areas that do not inspire the imagination. Similarly, however, national governments deal with questions that most of the population shows no interest in. The difference lies in the sense that the vision for the future of the country is contested at the ballot box in national elections. The important change the new movements bring is that they replicate this level of passion at the European level. The movements on the right make a claim to a European identity, one drawing on the continent’s heritage and seek to rally supporters. On the other hand, as we see in this issue with the example of Volt Europa, the tumultuous European politics of recent years has also inspired to action those who want to build a liberal Europe.

Early European federalists believed that they would achieve the aim of a united Europe by replicating some of the processes that led to the creation of European nation states in the nineteenth century – as European institutions take over responsibility for the economic wellbeing of citizens, like the central governments did before them, the people will switch their allegiance up to the European level as their nineteenth century counterparts did from the local to the national. All this was to be underpinned by European values mirroring how the previous process was driven by nationalism. At least so far, however, that shift of allegiance has not happened but I would claim that the emergence of alternative visions of Europe inserts the missing part of the puzzle from this modern mirror of nation building. Over the course of the nineteenth century, nationalism diversified and evolved. Starting off revolutionary and liberal as exhibited by the revolution in Germany in 1848, it came to be adopted as a principle in conservative circles, most notably in the case of Bismarck and the crafting of Imperial Germany. Indeed, it is this diversification of nationalism that made the creation of nation states possible.

My point here is not that we are now inevitably going to see a United States of Europe built along the lines of those right wing movements – stressing the continent’s Christian heritage and limiting immigration. Rather I would argue that we have reached a point where without a discussion on what Europe is and its values are, we cannot continue to integrate – EU citizens must feel that they shape the European project and not that they are simply being moulded into a predetermined model of what a European is. That debate is beginning – it will no doubt be contentious and at times may appear to strain cooperation. However, whatever concoction of liberal and conservative, socialist and populist ideas emerges to serve as the guiding principle for the future of the EU, it will leave us with a Union that is better equipped to face the economic and political shocks that, as the last decade has shown, have not left our continent. The nation states of Europe survived the hardships of the twentieth century because their populations at large believed they were represented by them, we need to find a similar solution for the EU to survive the twenty-first.

The role of human rights in the accession of the Western Balkans

by Emma Myhre

In 2018, the European Commission adopted a strategy for enhanced EU engagement with the Western Balkans(1). It presents that the EU holds its doors open for more member states, with the condition that the state satisfies EU accession criteria. In the Western Balkans this remains a struggle, and human rights concerns have become subject to compromise. There are several important dynamics that come into play, some of which will be discussed in this article.

In order for a country to become a member of the EU, it must fulfill the Copenhagen criteria(2). These are based on common European values, including democracy, human rights, rule of law, and a market economy. In past EU negotiations, such as those with Montenegro and Croatia, human rights concerns have been of central importance. Several institutional advancements were made to strengthen the role of human rights in the EU’s enlargement policy(3). However, several scholars point out that the EU’s attempt to spread its democratic values in the Western Balkans has had an underwhelming effect. This becomes particularly evident when compared to the Central Eastern European states that joined the EU in 2004(4).  

There are many ways of looking at the limited impact that EU conditionality has had in the region. Evidence shows that the EU has prioritized concerns related to security rather than those related to human rights and democracy(5). However, the lack of pressure on human rights concerns in the Western Balkans – such as the rule of law and media freedom – is astounding considering recent experiences with Poland and Hungary. Worth pointing out is that the EU has significantly more leverage over accession candidates compared to member states, raising the question even further of why the EU has not aimed for more strict accession policies regarding human rights in the Western Balkans.

Some argue that accession candidates are more likely to adopt EU rules when there are credible incentives and low adoption costs(6), especially when it comes to questions of national identity. However, some cases might display a different image. Serbia, for example, has shown a strong commitment to accession and has been willing to compromise on highly sensitive cases, such as cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal and Kosovo(7). Perhaps it is more relevant to look at media reforms and independent institutions. To continue with the example with Serbia, it is evident that the Serbian government has been more reluctant with these reforms(8). Such institutional changes would challenge the country’s power concentration, seemingly running more strongly counter to the government’s incentives. This perspective suggests that questions of national identity matter less than questions of government authority.  

The EU has shown willingness to accept the slow progress in terms of media freedom and democratic institutions. It has strong incentives to keep Serbia and other countries in the region on the path to accession and keep its political leverage. Concerns such as the refugee crisis and a more aggressive Russia urge the EU to make compromises(9). It may want to prioritize security concerns over more consistent conditions for accession in regards to human rights.

In the coming year, the EU will be faced with tough dilemmas. The union is in a position where it struggles to find a balance between enforcing human rights concerns without losing its political leverage over the Western Balkans that are on the path to accession. Crucial will be to take human rights seriously to avoid painful repetitions of the problems posed by Hungary and Poland, and aligning EU incentives with those of the Western Balkan governments and peoples.  


A 100 years since a Christmas of uncertainty and hope

by Norbert Rebow

Last month the world marked the centenary of the end of the war that many contemporaries had thought would be over by Christmas 1914, but in fact lasted more than four years. Christmas 1918 was thus the first to be celebrated after the signing of the armistice with people across Europe and the globe having to face a world that had changed dramatically over the previous four years – and was continuing to do so. Let us take a look at that first postwar Christmas and how it compares to Europe almost three-quarters of a century since the last major war, and over a quarter since the constraints of the Cold War were lifted from the continent.

The first question to ask is who was in Europe at Christmas 1918 and with whom they were spending this festive season. The war brought soldiers from around the globe to fight or support the effort. This included troops of armed forces of non-European states such as the US Army on the Western Front and a squadron the Japanese Imperial Navy operating in the Mediterranean [1]. It also consisted of a 140,000 strong Chinese Labour Corps as well as forces and support services from the colonies and dominions of the European imperial powers. Over the course of the war, a million men from French and British possessions had served on the western front [2]. Some European soldiers were able to celebrate Christmas at home with families, as the process of demobilization began, though the demands of complex logistics and of an unstable world kept conscripts at arms for another year. Allied soldiers that had been captured and held as prisoner of war camps in Germany, began returning home with some 576,000 being repatriated in December 1918[3].

What were the challenges and uncertainties that Europe faced as 1918 drew to a close? In short, it was a time that demanded great resilience. 1918 saw the outbreak of the Spanish Flu pandemic. A number of regions, especially those in central Europe, faced food shortages. The case of Vienna is of particular interest – the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire left one of the largest cities on the continent cut off from its sources of food supply [4]. Furthermore, the main war may have concluded, but old fault lines were invigorated and new conflicts arose. In Germany the survival of the newly established Weimar Republic was in question and in Russia civil war had already begun. The nations between them, however, were able to celebrate recovered or newfound freedom, though independence immediately brought with it the competition over claims between different people and diverse political visions for their futures.

It was undeniably a Christmas of crisis, but it was also a time of new beginnings. The war had powerful effects that laid the foundation for how we conceive Europe and the world today. With the Paris Peace Conference set to begin in January 1919, the last days of 1918 saw the beginning of the arrival of the representatives of Allied states and of people’s aspiring to statehood in the French capital. US President Woodrow Wilson was insisting on the peace being built on the basis of national self-determination which encouraged this particularly multinational environment at this time. In a world of uncertainties, the upcoming peace conference seemed, at least to some, to have the potential to right wrongs. The respect for smaller nations and the idea of multilateral cooperation and permanent international institutions as embodied in the League of Nations may have failed in the 1930s but they underpin international, and especially European, cooperation today. The end of the war also saw a democratization of the continent as voting rights were expanded. To name but a few examples – the 1918 elections in the Netherlands were the first held under a universal male franchise, in Britain the general election held in December 1918 was the first at which women had the right to vote and in the first days of independence, Poland instituted universal suffrage.

Christmas 1918 was, therefore, characterized by a striking blend of pain, conflict, hope and reunion and the events of this period laid a foundation for the lives of general peace and freedom that we enjoy in Europe today. As the centenary commemorations of the First World War come to an end, we must make sure we keep remembering those past sacrifices that still shape this continent and the world.

Sources used in this article:

  1. ERIC JOHNSTON, ‘Japan’s little-known, but significant, role in World War I’, 2017, retrieved from:
  2. SANTANU DAS, ‘Experiences of colonial troops’, 2014,  retrieved from:,
  4. PATRICIA CLAVIN; The Austrian hunger crisis and the genesis of international organization after the First World War, International Affairs, Volume 90, Issue 2, 2014, Pages 265–278.


The new year: what is the EU looking ahead to?

by Nicolai Santianello

When reading this question there are of course many events in one year that an organization as big and influential as the European Union has to deal with. But, as many might be thinking there are two main events occurring in 2019 that might independently change the EU as we know it. These events are obviously Brexit and the parliamentary elections.

Given that Greenland was (and still is) a territory of Denmark, its 1984 exit from the EEC doesn’t quite count as the first country to exit the EU. This gloomy first place was however happily taken over by the United Kingdom, with its referendum in 2016, and is hence expected to leave the Union on the 29th of March 2019. Since the referendum there have been a series of negotiations involving the exit of the UK from the EU, with a particular focus on their economic relations, rights of Brits living in Europe and vice versa, and question of the Irish border[1].

The latest deal would include a free trade deal between the EU and the UK with the possibility of different trading options for the UK, but would also see the UK leaving the Common Agricultural Policy and the Common Fisheries Policy. The UK and the EU will continue cooperating in matters regarding defense, security, counter-terrorism, and international sanctions. Also there will be no hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. Some things have changed, but the deal seems to satisfy neither side of the British political spectrum, and one of the biggest challenges of closing this proposed deal will be getting it through Parliament[2]. As if Brexit wasn’t already unstable enough, the European Court of Justice expressed its legal opinion that the UK could unilaterally revoke Brexit if it decided to, giving new hopes for a second referendum[3].

As for parliamentary elections, this is more of a threat from within for the EU as we know it, and is thus maybe much more dangerous than Brexit. Many populist parties in Europe have in fact obtained huge success in their home countries, and could easily become a main force in the Parliament if they have major success in the 2019 elections, bringing major turmoil to the political scene and starting to implement their own agenda for Europe[4]. Major political parties in Italy, France, Germany, and Austria have already aspired to such a “revolution” to occur at the 2019 elections, but the Hungarian Prime minister Viktor Orban has been the most directly outspoken about the future of the EU[5]. We might think these populist parties are claiming victory ahead of time and might be getting ahead of themselves, but we can’t forget we live in a continent where one out of four people votes populist[6].

The EU will have a long and eventful 2019, which will start to be defined more clearly with its two first challenges: seeing through Brexit in the best way possible, and trying to contain the populist parties for the upcoming elections. Brexit in the end seems to be in the hands of the British Parliament and the British people right now, and the situation progresses day by day. For the elections however there seems to be a lack of motivation on the non-populist political spectrum, a problem which the EU and the parties which support it need to address before it’s too late.

Sources used in this article:

  2. Elgot, “Theresa May postpones Brexit deal vote,” last modified December 10, 2018
  3. “European Court of Justice Rules Britain Free to Revoke Brexit Unilaterally,” RT International, last modified December 10, 2018
  4. Maia De la Baume, “Populist Plan for 2019 Election Puts EU in Crosshairs,” POLITICO, last modified June 5, 2018
  5. Angela Dewan, “Hungary’s Orban Warns of Backlash Against Immigration in European Parliament Vote,” CNN
  6. Josh Holder et al., “Revealed: One in Four Europeans Vote Populist,” The Guardian, accessed December 10, 2018

The holiday season for those with no home

By Emma Myhre

Many associate the holiday season with going home, spending time with friends or family, and taking it easy before getting back to everyday life. However, this is not the reality for everyone. More than 20 000 people in the Netherlands are homeless1, faced with being left out in the cold during what is supposed to be the merriest season of all.

Mees has experienced being homeless herself. Now she wants to see a change of attitude towards homelessness. “Homeless people are often regarded as dangerous, or as a problem to society. In reality, the society is the problem, and homelessness is just a result of it.” Mees spends a lot of her time empowering her community: she bikes around The Hague, picks up food, cleans up litter, helps those around her and brings people together. ”Bad things keep happening because good people look away.” She wants to take an active role in improving the system, and wants others to do the same.

The holiday season may bring joy to a lot of people, but some are left out. Mees says it is very difficult to be homeless during the holidays. Not only is it cold: most places will be closed and there are not many places to go. There are some special cold weather arrangements for the homeless population in the Hague2. They come into force when it becomes too dangerous to stay the night outside. Frost, strong winds and rain put people at risk of serious health problems. Shelters provide a bed, a meal, and a few other facilities. However, Mees is not happy with the arrangement. From her experience, the quality of the shelters is not great and people get distressed when staying there.


Mees with her bike, 10.12.18 | Emma Myhre

Mees thinks it is upsetting that the city has so much empty space that could have been used in a better way. She notices apartments that stay empty for days, weeks, months. Some people own so many things that they do not use, while others get nothing. “I think it is caused by a greater problem of consumerism. We do not value the things we have and people always want more and more.” She encourages people to use a little less, to value the things they have more.

Finally, Mees wants people to be aware of their actions, be kind and not judge others so quickly. “Homeless people are not bad people. They are very intelligent and everyone is just trying their best.” They are people, just like anyone else. They do not only need food and shelter, but also a sense of purpose and belonging. “Instead of ignoring them, I think people should say hi to them, talk to them.” Perhaps we all should take a moment in the holiday season to be a little more aware of the people around us and the society we live in.

The rule of law and democracy in the EU

By Nicolai  Santaniello

The EU has been defined as a “Community based on the rule of law”, as to make clear how neither a member state nor an organ of said community can act in ways non-conformed to the laws and treaties which regulate the behavior of states and their existence in the European Community [1].

In recent years there have been instances in which the rule of law has been challenged indirectly using another founding principle of the European Union: democracy. This comes from two factors: considering democracy as a synonym for majority rule, and using majority rule as a reason for unconstitutional decisions in domestic policy. The differences between majority rule and democracy are nicely outlined in an article by Ben Snauders who argues that majority rule is about choosing an option which is supported by most people in a group, while democracy constitutes choosing an option which appropriately reflects the wishes of the members of the group [2].

The second point, regarding using popular support for legitimizing unconstitutional domestic policies, is relevant to this article because domestic decisions can have an effect on international events and are hence regulated by the rule of law of the community that states are a part of. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy outlines the concept of legitimacy regarding actions in a democratic context, explaining them as decisions made following a democratic process. However, the encyclopedia does state soon after that there is a clear distinction between a legitimate decision and a just one, and that because legitimacy is a stronger concept than justice in our modern society, it is generally enough for a decision to be seen as legitimate for it to be accepted [3].

The practical examples to which these two concepts relate are decisions made by the Polish and Hungarian governments, which have received extensive criticism on behalf of the international community and EU institutions. The ruling party in Poland has, for example, initiated many reforms of the judiciary system forcing, amongst other things, many supreme court justices to retire on age grounds [4]. This was an unconstitutional move by the PiS party, but also a move which had little popular uproar and did not shift support for the party. Hence, speaking from a majority rule point of view, the move was legitimate.

Legitimacy, however, is always a debated point depending on who you ask. For PiS and its supporters the move might seem legitimate, but the remaining proportion of the population might not view it as such. As a professor at Leiden University with a specialization on political actors explained, the decision is only legitimate for the people who are represented, and not for the other people or the European Union itself. The latter especially should and does consider the moves against the judiciary as a breach of the founding principle of rule of law on behalf of Poland, and as a general breach of the democratic pillar of judiciary independence [5].

As said before Hungary similarly challenges EU laws and EU values. Viktor Orban’s government is in fact accused of targeting the independence of the judiciary, but also NGOs and the media. This recently led to the triggering of article 7 of the Lisbon Treaty which could mean sanctions for Hungary, and potentially the country could lose its voting rights in the EU [6]. Similar to Poland, Hungary’s democratic institutions are threatened by a majority-ruling right-wing party which justifies breaches of the rule of law and undermining international agreements because of their self-centered national interests.

These two countries are both rules by right-wing parties, but it would be wrong to think that this side of politics is the only one to behave like this. A professor at Leiden University pointed out that Euro-skeptic and nationalist views were present in both extremes of the political spectrum in many European countries, and that extreme left-wing parties could be just as willing to implement radical and unconstitutional changes using the same justifications as their right-wing counterparts. The same professor also elaborated on how different views of legitimacy could be applied to this situation. She distinguished between input legitimacy, which depends on how inclusive the decision process is, and output legitimacy, which depends on the effectiveness of the decision in terms of outcome. Rather than justifying or not the governments we are looking at, the distinction allows us to understand the complicated theoretical framework behind the legitimacy of decisions, and how it is almost never a black and white situation that can be judged.

The rule of law in the European Union is today being challenged by political actors who use majority-rule to legitimize decisions of international concern. Regardless of the legitimacy or illegitimacy of these actions, they create practical problems with the concepts of democracy, majority-rule, and how the two relate to the rule of law in the EU. It is in fact quite paradoxical that states are able to manipulate one of the founding principles of the EU in order to exercise practices which go against the values of, and damage, the EU itself. Article 7 is definitely a step towards forcing non-compliant states to change their policies. However, if this were unsuccessful because of Poland and Hungary’s respective “veto promises” to each other, the EU must find different measure for its laws to be respective and the principle of democracy to stand in its true definition and not a distorted variant which fits some groups’ self-interests.

Sources used in this article:

  1. Laurent Pech, “The Rule of Law as a Constitutional Principle of the European Union,” THE JEAN MONNET PROGRAM, April 2009
  2. Ben Saunders, “Democracy, Political Equality, and Majority Rule,” Ethics 121, no. 1 (October 2010)
  3. Stanford University, “Political Legitimacy,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, last modified April 24, 2017
  4. Anna Wlodarczak-Semczuk, “Chronology: Poland Clashes with EU over Judicial Reforms, Rule of Law,” U.S, last modified July 4, 2018
  5. Source requested anonymity.
  6. Rebecca Staudenmaier, “EU Parliament Votes to Trigger Article 7 Sanctions Procedure Against Hungary | DW | 12.09.2018,” DW.COM, accessed October 30, 2018


EU facing unfamiliar dilemmas in using nuclear option against Poland and Hungary

By Emma Myhre

When the Treaty of Amsterdam came into force in 1999, it came with important changes for the EU. Perhaps the most important was the introduction of Article 7, the union’s only legal enforcement mechanism. Introducing such a mechanism held great importance in a time when the EU was preparing to bring in eight former communist countries.1  Member states would be expected to follow a set of common values, and the EU would have potential to suspend the membership rights of those who do not. Article 7 became a mechanism of serious implications, but has never actually been used – until now. The novelty of the situation creates several unfamiliar dilemmas for the EU, the solutions to which are yet to be determined.

Illiberal developments in Poland and Hungary


A protest against PiS in Warsaw on May 7, 2016 | Wojtek Radwanski

Since the nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party came to power in Poland in 2015, democracy has gradually been undermined. Poland has been criticized for its controversial reforms, including the empowerment of the Polish government to remove and replace up to 40 percent of the Supreme Court judges2.

Hungary has experienced a slide to a semi-authoritarian regime since the Fidesz party came into government in 20103. The constitutional structure has changed into one that empowers the centralized executive so much that it dismantles checks and balances and thus undermines the rule of law.  

Although Poland and Hungary are dealing with their situations differently, they share the way they are viewed by many Europeans: as success stories of European integration that turned into painful challenges for the EU4.

The EU having illiberal democracies as members will ultimately hurt the union as a whole. The democratic nature of EU decisions will suffer, and the democratic guarantees of EU-citizens will be threatened. EU companies and investments may suffer the same fate. EU foreign policy, rooted in EU values, will lose its credibility5. Thus, there is a common concern that EU rules and values are not being properly enforced, which is where Article 7 becomes relevant.

What is Article 7?

Article 7 acts as a procedure to be used against members that have violated fundamental rights. It spells out an expectation of all members to live up to EU values spelled out in Article 26:


Signing of the Treaty of Amsterdam | Etienne Scholasse

Respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy,  equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. These values are common to the Member States in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail.

The EU uses these values as a foundation to judge whether or not to trigger the rule of law procedure known as Article 7. There are two parts — Article 7.1 would allow the Council to give a formal warning to any country accused of violating fundamental rights. If that doesn’t have the desired effect, Article 7.2 would impose sanctions and suspend voting rights7.

Problems that arise

The idea behind Article 7 is clear: it was established as a way to hold countries accountable for rights violations. But recently the article has proven to have inherent weaknesses, as the EU has faced internal challenges. Undemocratic developments in Poland and Hungary have put pressure on the EU to act – and highlighting its lacking capability to do so.

A major problem arises in attempting to impose sanctions on members. To do this, the EU requires unanimity among its members and Hungary has already expressed that it will vote against such sanctions8. So then Article 7 remains a naming and shaming tool, failing to unite the EU under a common set of values in a time when it is sorely needed.

Furthermore, Brussels has shown reluctance to act too hurriedly on the Polish case, keeping in mind the possibility of being deemed illegitimate and handing a propaganda victory to Warsaw9.

The Hungarian case creates similar problems. Many EU countries have wanted to trigger Article 7 against Hungary because of its illiberal developmen10. The legitimacy of such an intervention would again be questioned, especially since the Hungarian constitutional changes were perfectly legal11. The situation also has an important cultural aspect. Hungary’s president Orbán has expressed a great disappointment in the EU for favoring Western and silencing Eastern values.


Viktor Orbán at the European Parliament in Strasbourg on September 11, 2018 | Jean-Francois Badias

“We have a different view on Christianity in Europe, the role of nations and national culture. Even differences on the essence of the family and we do have radically different views on immigration. […] These differences cannot be a reason to brand any country and be excluded from joint decisions. We would never go as far as to silence those that do not agree with us.” 12

Orbán signals an east-west divide, raising a further question about what values should be considered “common”. In the future, the EU might have to refine exactly what its values are, making them clearer without making them exclusively western.

The way forward

The EU is faced with many tough dilemmas and has to be careful in its approach to tackle them. The legal weakness of Article 7 has become painfully evident. Hungary and Poland are challenging EU legitimacy and unity, in a time when it is sorely needed. In finding solutions, the EU needs to pay attention to the legitimacy of its actions, what values to root itself in, and how to best respect cultural differences without hurting European unity.


Communism, Democratic Transition and Debates on the Rule of Law

by Norbert  Rebow

A glance at news headlines on Poland and Hungary in recent years would suggest that the radical changes to judicial systems can be explained fundamentally by describing them as the actions of two parties, Law and Justice (PiS) in Poland and Fidesz in Hungary, aiming to consolidate power in their respective countries[1]. This, however, begs the question of why changes to state and especially judicial institutions would be necessary when these parties consistently record high levels of public support[2][3]. Given the experience of communist dictatorship and subsequent transition to democracy common to both these countries, we could suspect that these could be related to the underlying issues associated with the developments in recent years. To investigate this proposition, I spoke to two Leiden University professors – Professor Antoaneta Dimitrova at the Institute of Global and Security Affairs and Professor Petr Kopecky at the Institute of Political Science – as well as my parents who experienced the later stages of the communist regime in Poland and the subsequent transition to democracy themselves.

How might the experience of communist dictatorship help explain decisions made by PiS and Fidesz today as well as the public reaction to them? Professor Kopecky suggests that having lived in a dictatorial period, the leaders of the political parties may be more afraid of the consequences of defeat – in their minds it might not just lead to a change of policy but could be a threat to the party’s ability to ever win in the future. Just as important is the effect on ordinary citizens – it is difficult to imagine how state institutions that served dictatorships propped up by the Soviet Union could inspire trust among citizens. My parents remembered the alienation of the political process during this era – elections with predetermined outcomes just seemed like a game for a staunch party loyalists. My mom also mused on the effect of conscious exposure to propaganda in schools and the media, suggesting that it had an impact undermining general trust in Polish society, making people more sceptical of others’ motives.

The democratic transition has many potential avenues for influencing the current political situation. Professor Dimitrova believes that the privatisation of state assets during the move towards a market economy deserves particular attention: it was the members of the former communist elite that had the best information on these assets and in the 1990s and early 2000s – they were able to gain ownership of them for themselves and their political allies. This led to a sense of injustice among the populations of the former communist countries, a sense that the former elites from that time still held disproportionate power. Parties such as Fidesz and PiS have been able to harness this in their political strategies. The behaviour of the former communist elite has been used as a justification for personnel changes in state, including judicial institutions. This was the case recently in the Polish government’s defence of the changes to the Polish Supreme Court[4]. Professor Dimitrova also suggests that the exploitation of state resources by former communist elites also provided a model for how any party in power may use state institutions for the material gain of key member or supporters.

My parents’ take on this issue was that originally in the 1990s there was a sense of optimism about the transition, giving way to a feeling of injustice more recently. A large segment of Polish society is now critical of the ‘Round Table’ talks between the communist government and the democratic opposition that led to the first partially free elections in Poland in June 1989. Could then a negotiated settlement ending the communist era be the determining factor leading to frustration with the persistence of access to wealth for former communists? Professor Dimitrova is not convinced. She points out that while the end of dictatorship was particularly violent in Romania and remarkably peaceful in Hungary, in both countries former communists were successful in guiding privatisation in their favour.

This discussion raises the question – how common are the underlying factors that have influenced developments in Poland and Hungary across the former communist-dominated states that have become members of the EU? There are already signals that the Romanian government’s moves to roll back anti-corruption measures are causing some in the EU to think about action similar to the steps taken in the cases of Poland and Hungary[5]. Professor Dimitrova pointed to Bulgaria as another case where the economic elite’s relationship with political parties was not conducive to healthy democracy. On the other hand, as Professor Kopecky noted, the Czech Republic’s political scene is divided in a more standard way along class lines – there is less appetite for parties to make appeals to history.

It can be difficult to tease apart how exactly the communist past and the transition to democracy are affecting the politics of Poland, Hungary and other central-eastern European states today – it is by no means a homogenous region. However, an image seems to emerge of publics that are less trusting and more frustrated, and political leaders that are able to harness this thinking to pursue radical changes to how these states are run. As the EU acts against the governments of Poland and Hungary it must remain aware of the effects of history on how the citizens of these countries relate to their political institutions and how they perceive political parties.

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