MFF – no more drama

So it came to pass. The EU’s 7 year budget framework (MFF) was approved by the Council.

Hungary and Poland effectively conceded their position, having known from the outset that the Article 7 sanction measures on rule of law conditionality that had been approved separately by qualified majority could not be revisited and that inflicting further delay on the NGEU recovery package was tantamount to self-harm. Signals that the big and biggish players were prepared to side-step continued opposition was sufficient to avoid further confrontation and bring about the conclusion.

The story that may be told in Poland and Hungary is a different matter. In the time the EU has been discussing the MFF restrictions on media freedom and, as a direct consequence, political opposition have continued to ratchet toward full state control. In Poland moves toward the legislative restriction of the reproductive autonomy of women moved ever closer to reality along with so-called ‘LGBT free zones’ while cronyism in Hungary continued to encroach on free markets, media and academic institutions.

In October the European Court of Justice ruled the 2017 measures that been imposed on ‘foreign’ universities by the Orban government were contra to EU Law. The measures, a thinly veiled attack on the Central European University which is supported by the regime’s scapegoat in chief, George Soros, had already forced largely to decamp to Vienna. What effect the ECJ judgement has on the ground remains to be seen.

On these and many other infractions the question will remain for the EU27 how and whether a defence of democracy can be successfully mounted and whether the political will exists to hold the Fidesz and PiS regimes to account by waving the financial stick the new regulations have provided. Even were it to be the case that sanctions were accelerated, centre-left EU politicians are committed to potential financial sanction not affecting the intended recipients of EU cohesion largesse – in other words not punishing populations. It is impossible not to conclude that this well intentioned approach reduces the potential leverage of EU leaders on recalcitrant regimes. EU politicians will see the approach as humane – Orban and Co will see it as weak.

While implementing financial sanction remains complex and fraught with practical difficulties of EU process, the supposed realpolitik dilemma remains: ensure that the Poles and Hungarians remain within the EU’s sphere of influence or risk pushing them toward that of Vladimir Putin. This nonetheless begs the question of what, exactly, is the EU’s sphere of influence for if it is not to defend the values of democracy and freedom?

The plain fact is this. Were Poland and Hungary today seeking to join the European Union they would be required to address issues of media and academic freedom, market restrictions, state intervention and individual liberties around gender equality. Many of the same criteria have been used to all but terminate accession negotiations with Erdogan’s Turkey.

While another supposedly existential crisis for the EU has passed much more smoothly than the perennial doom mongers had forecast, the slow burning crisis of European democracy continues to smoulder.

However to focus entirely on the negative possibilities would be wrong. As outlined previously, the MFF package makes considerable strides in the development of EU programme financing, the creation of modest sovereign debt and budgetary flexibility and commitments to move toward a more sustainable framework for future EU financing through new ‘own resources’ revenue streams not dependent on member state governments and domestically contentious GNI-related contributions. Turning these wordy commitments to practical reality in anything like the timescale envisaged remains a risk, but, if grasped effectively, one offering considerable reward to the 27 governments.