The European Union has acquired a habit of bullying member states that do not conform to policies coming out of Brussels. This is a growing problem that, in the near future, could become a serious threat to the long-term integrity of the union itself.
In 2015, Brussels did not contain its fury over Hungary’s insistence on protecting its territorial integrity. Prior to that, the EU unleashed punitive policy measures on Greece when, in the thick of the austerity crisis, there were rumblings in Athens about the country leaving the euro zone.
Now, individual member states are refusing to go along with the expansion of the passport-free Schengen area. How will the EU respond this time?
On December 8th, the EU Council of Ministers approved Croatia’s application to join the Schengen area. This means that Croatia will enter the euro zone as well as the ‘inner circle’ of the borderless EU on the same date, January 1st. However, as Deutsche Welle reports, Bulgaria and Romania were not admitted:
the chances for Romania and Bulgaria to join the zone, which includes most EU states as well as Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Norway, and Iceland, were dashed following opposition from Austria.
The Sofia Globe, a Bulgarian news site, explains that the Netherlands also opposed Schengen membership for Bulgaria, but not for Romania:
The Netherlands has insisted that its objections to Bulgaria joining Schengen are based on Sofia having failed to make sufficient progress against corruption and requested a report on Bulgaria under the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM).
As we reported back in November, there were also muted voices of dissent in Sweden, but the Swedish government apparently gave its go-ahead to an approval vote anyway.
The European Union had better be careful in how it responds to the Austrian opposition. This is not just a matter of respect for a member state, but on a broader scale about the integrity of the EU institutions themselves. If Brussels does not address Austrian concerns about corruption in Bulgaria, there is a risk that the EU could be tarnished by its choice to ignore those concerns.
The corruption in Bulgaria is not exactly new. In 2017, Global Financial Integrity asked if Bulgaria was losing the fight against corruption:
The Bulgarian anti-corruption body (BORKOR) reports that responsible authorities in the fight against corruption lack the necessary level of expertise and coordination and that none of the related institutions are committed to investigating high-level corruption.
The focus was instead on “low-level” cases where it is easy for government to look good in the fight against corruption.
Five years later, in March this year, The Guardian reported that the country’s new prime minister Kiril Petkov and his party “We Continue the Change” had vowed “to tackle Bulgaria’s most pernicious problem: corruption.”
While the criticism of corruption has been broad-based, the concerns expressed by the Netherlands and Austria have specifically pointed to how it affects the integrity of the Schengen border, should Bulgaria be responsible for it. It is fair to take the concerns of Vienna seriously, especially against the backdrop of 2015 when the EU was flooded with illegal immigrants. Austria took a major hit back then.
The problem for the EU is that its behavior during that crisis exuded not only ineptitude in protecting its borders, but also complicity. Even worse: the EU Commission took initiatives to get Hungary condemned by the EU Court of Justice for the country’s efforts to protect itself against uncontrolled illegal immigration. The Court sided with the Commission, absurdly declaring that Hungary had violated the rights of illegal immigrants.
To be honest, when Hungary did what the EU should have done, the EU Commission did what it could to punish Hungary. The Commission’s priority was not the legal integrity of the borders of the Union, not even the Schengen area—but to try to force a specific political view upon a dissenting member state.
This is where the EU puts its own integrity at risk. The political preferences that favor mass immigration—legal or not—were elevated above the rule of law. It should not come as a surprise that Austria, when witnessing what the EU did back in 2015 and how it reacted to Hungary, fears that the EU will fail to respond to a corrupt Schengen border between Bulgaria and Turkey. After all, if the effect of such corruption is to increase illegal immigration, and Brussels clearly wants more of that, why should the Austrian government not fear a perpetuation of the 2015 problems?
In what is almost an absurd twist of irony, the EU’s manifested preference for putting a political agenda above the rule of law—at least insofar as its border integrity is concerned—is an exhibit of corruption. It is not the commonly recognized form, where a person holding an entrusted office, uses the power and trust of the office for his or her personal gain. Nobody has any reason to believe that such corruption exists within the Eurocracy.
No, this type of corruption is a bit more subtle but no less problematic. It is the kind of corruption where a government official, appointed or elected, makes decisions or passes laws from which he or she can make ideological gains and further a given political agenda, regardless of whether or not doing so will violate any laws.
In the case of the 2015 migration wave, politicians who were ideologically committed to mass immigration did indeed gain from the influx of illegals. Their gain came at the expense of the rule of law, and they apparently had no problem with that.
This is a classic case of political corruption.
The mere fact that there is ground for suspicion that the EU is playing reckless politics with illegal immigration, is a problem for the integrity of the union itself. The EU cannot afford to create such doubts about itself, especially not since it is using other issues as political baseball bats, with an apparent disregard for how it affects the integrity of the EU institutions.
If anything, the relentless targeting of Hungary by Brussels and others that share its magyarphobia has made Hungary one of Europe’s best working democracies. That said, it is also understandable that Budapest is getting irritated over this political persecution. Their decision to veto the latest proposal for lending more EU funds to Ukraine could easily be defended as an appropriate response to the Brussels bullies.
From that angle, the discord over the Schengen expansion is a bellwether issue for the European Union. Just like the conflict with Budapest is purely ideological, so are the disagreements over the Schengen expansion.
Let us be clear about why the EU is perennially upset about Hungary. The Eurocracy has disliked Hungarian conservatism from the day that Viktor Orbán started putting it to work. By remaining obsessed with Europe’s most successful conservative democracy, and one of Europe’s absolutely strongest economies, Brussels shows with crisp clarity that it is ready to put everything else aside to further its political agenda.
We are reminded of this every time a new magyarphobic resolution is adopted by the European Parliament. It has now come to the point where the EU defines democracy not as a political system, but as an ideology that should supersede all other matters in government affairs.
Again, this is what political corruption looks like, and it has caused two major problems for the European Union.
First, it has rewritten the premise for the very founding of the European Union. Does anyone today remember the “four freedoms” from the union’s birth—the freedom of goods, services, labor, and capital to move across a smoothly integrated continent? So long as they were the pillars of European integration, the EU had a pact with its member states that said, ‘We are here to make you stronger.’
The EU as it looks today is something very different. In order to make those four freedoms work as intended, the EU would have had to become a union in a very literal sense. It is nothing of the sort; instead, it has become a patchwork of member states at different paces and with different membership statuses. The discrepancy between the EU and the Schengen area prohibits the free flow of labor; the discrepancy between the euro zone and the EU affects the flows of capital, goods, and services.
By not taking seriously the objections that some member states have to the Schengen enlargement, the Eurocracy effectively says that it would rather preserve the patchwork than facilitate the furtherance of the four freedoms. In short: the Eurocracy has another agenda, one that is incompatible with, and apparently more important than, the formation of a cohesive union.
So long as it was meant to facilitate economic integration, the EU had no interest in challenging the ideological sovereignty of its member states. A union centered around free markets, hassle-free trade, and free interior migration (within the union, not across its borders) has no interest in discriminating against national conservatives in Hungary or Poland.
With its eyes taken off the four freedoms, the EU no longer appeals to those who want to preserve the unique characters of Europe’s nation-states. When political corruption fills the void left behind by the demised freedom-minded policies of the early union, the EU gradually becomes a burden on the shoulders of the member states, not a platform under their feet.
If the EU reacts to Austria’s opposition to the Schengen enlargement in the same way it reacted to Hungary’s opposition to illegal immigration, then we will soon have to start looking for a point when another national government starts asking itself the ‘Brexit’ question.
The second problem derived from the EU’s pervasive political corruption is its democratic deficit. No one has captured this problem more eloquently than Todd Huizinga in his book The New Totalitarian Temptation. A former U.S. diplomat to Europe, Huizinga explains how the EU almost by its own volition grinds democracy into fragments. His point is that the EU constitution favors bureaucracy and non-democratic governance over the people’s will.
When the will of the people is not allowed into the most hallowed hallways of political power, those hallways are inevitably conquered by political corruption. This alone is enough to provoke euroskepticism among voters, but since the EU is constitutionally immunized against the full brunt of democracy, that skepticism finds its way into national politics instead.
When EU skeptics gain ground nationally, they contribute to the fragmentation—the loss of integrity—of the union itself. This has not happened yet, and it will be a while before it does. But so long as the EU operates based on the idea that member states exist to make the Eurocracy stronger, it won’t exactly make more friends among voters and taxpayers.
Which brings us back to Austria and its opposition to the Schengen expansion. If the EU starts to apply pressure on Austria to ‘encourage’ Vienna’s approval of Bulgaria and Romania, it will only confirm that its ability to continue to exist relies not on bringing positive experiences and outcomes to its member states, but on the subordination of recalcitrant nations.
Much like an abusive spouse who wakes up one morning finding out that his family has left him, the EU may one day learn that its disrespect for its member states was a harvest of dragon’s teeth.