Event Summary: ‘Authoritarianism in Central Europe’.


By Axel Rigault Jørgensen

On Tuesday May 30th, The Henry Jackson Society warmly welcomed Dr William O’Reilly, Senior Lecturer in Early Modern history at Cambridge University, and Christian Davies, contributor to the Guardian Newspaper from Poland. During the discussion, the honoured speakers focused on the situation in Hungary and Poland respectively.

Dr O’Reilly on the situation in Hungary

Since the coming to power of Viktor Orban and his Fidesz Party in 2010, much has been altered in Hungarian politics. From that time on, Hungarian domestic politics have taken a hard turn to the right. Today, the political landscape in the country is dominated by nationalism and populism. This has in turn led to a more authoritarian state, in which the judiciary has been overrun by the executive, crony capitalism has become norm and antisemitism is on the rise.

During the presentation by Dr O’Reilley, various examples of the nationalistic and anti-liberal surge in Hungary were presented. One of these was the Prime Minister’s redefinition of Hungarian values, as he is making the country undergo a so-called “cultural war” against the West. The elements of this so-called war evolve around nationalism, the defence of Hungarian and Christian values, anti-EU rhetoric, and scepticism and rejection of refugees from the Middle East.

Among the most brazen acts recently undertaken in an anti-European, anti-liberal and undemocratic agenda, is the decision of wanting to close the Central European University, one of the country’s finest places of learning and free thinking. The University, which opened its doors in 1991, has since risen to be among the top 200 universities worldwide. Since its founding, it has been a bastion of liberal Western values in the heart of the old Warsaw pact region. The amendment, which would force the university to close, dubbed Lex CEU, has yet to be repealed, and the closing is to be set in motion during the 2018/2019 academic year.

Since 2010, the number of students in the country have declined drastically. Orban wants a “worked-based” state, which would mean creating a workforce of manual labourers, not highly educated academics. Meanwhile, he has introduced a more nationalistic curriculum to Hungarian universities. The only university that managed to stay out of the grasp of the government was the CEU – an institution advocating tolerance, liberal principles, openness, democracy, rule of law, human rights, and critical thinking, which are all values that oppose Orban’s illiberal policies.

In conclusion, Dr O’Reilley said that the sad truth was that although the Orban government is turning Hungary into an authoritarian state, it seems the larger swath of the population are still pro-EU, liberal and Western-orientated, on the contrary of the government. Although there is a great chance that the CEU will move abroad, and thus survive, the truth remains the same: for the first time since the Second World War, a University in Europe will have to close for political reasons.

Christian Davies on the situation Poland.

Mr Davies’ presentation was fixated on detail surrounding the duel between the new Polish government, and the Polish Constitutional Court, a dilemma that has since been taken to the European Commission. Although the discussion was very detailed, it was highly interesting, and the speaker managed to completely convey the problems currently rooted in Polish politics.

In Poland, the deeper situation is one surrounding the rule of law, and the executive’s abuse of power toward that independent branch of government. In 2015, the Civic Platform – then the governing party – appointed five new constitutional judges to Poland’s Constitutional Court. Problematically, however, some saw the appointment of judges by government as unconstitutional, as according to Polish law, it is parliament’s task, not the executive’s to appoint judges to the Constitutional Court. In the end, out of the five judges put forward for office, only three were approved by the Court, and two of the appointees were thus retracted by government. At the end of the day, there was a democratic compromise between the Civic Platform and the Court, and the problem was resolved.

In the following months, the Law and Justice Party, a right wing populist and national-conservative party, won the elections, which is when the underlying issues took root. The new government refused to swear in the three judges that had been agreed upon by the Constitutional Court and the previous government. The current President, Andrzej Duda, has instead sworn in five appointees of his own. In other words, the new government has neglected to respect the decision and freedom of the Constitutional Court. In response, the Court refused to accept the Law and Justice party’s appointees. In a reaction to the Court’s decision, the government tried to reform the Constitutional Court in order to amend the Court’s ruling. In an attempt at thwarting reform and an infringement on its freedom, the court labelled the reform as unconstitutional.

In continuing this tennis match of reprisals between the Court and the government, the latter characterised the Court’s decision as invalid, and continued with appointing its own judges, without constitutional consent. The result is that the Polish government has taken upon itself the power to set its foot down against all Court rulings. This is a fundamental breach of the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary.

In response to the government’s violation, the E.U intervened on the side of the Constitutional Court, and threatened Warsaw with sanctions, but nothing concrete has been done so far, as Hungary promised to veto any decision by Brussel to impose economic sanctions on Poland.

The result of the Constitutional Court crisis is that – as of today – the country has two parallel legal systems, something that has caused legal chaos, said Mr Davies. The judges now appointed by the government are in majority in the Constitutional Court, as such, there is a clear correlation between government-appointed judges and the executive. The government thus de facto control the Court. This means that there is no longer any oversight on government policy, and the primary tool for holding the government accountable for its actions has been subdued.

This hijacking of the judiciary has not been met with enough punitive action from the E.U, said Mr Davies. The E.U looking into the Polish constitutional crisis is not a question of outside interference, but rather, it evolves around democratic legitimacy. It is about the Polish government’s respect for the 1997 Polish constitution. Mr Davies concluded by saying “It is a dispute between people who believe in liberal democracy and those who do not” pointing to the authoritarian nature of the new government’s undemocratic subjugation of the Court.



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