Bad boys of the EU? Demonising Poland and Hungary

Battle of Ideas festival 2023, Sunday 29 October, Church House, London


One notable aspect of European Union politics in recent years has been internal tensions when member states’ national priorities clash with EU rules and priorities. Specifically, Hungary and Poland have faced stringent sanctions and have had billions of euros of EU funding withheld under Article 7 of the EU Treaty, for an alleged failure to uphold the EU’s foundational values. What have both countries done to warrant such actions and being targeted as the ‘bad boys’ of the EU?

For Poland, following the 2015 general election, the Law and Justice party (PiS) won control of both the presidency and the parliament. Since then, the government’s wide-ranging reforms of its judicial system are accused by the European Commission of undermining judicial independence. These laws certainly raise questions about Poland’s ability to apply EU law, from the protection of investments to the mutual recognition of decisions in areas as diverse as child custody disputes or the execution of European Arrest Warrants. But do these reforms mean ‘the country’s judiciary is now under the political control of the ruling majority’, as is alleged?

Judicial independence is also a key aspect of the EU’s dispute with Hungary, though issues relating to inadequate anti-corruption measures and media plurality have also been cited. Most recently, the EU has taken Hungary to the Court of Justice of the European Union for enacting child-protection legislation that forbids the promotion of homosexuality and gender reassignment to those under the age of 18.

Hungary and Poland argue they are defending their democratic right to organise their affairs and protect their traditions and customs as they see fit. For example, as far as the Hungarian government and many others are concerned, the education and upbringing of Hungarian children is not the business of the EU and Hungary has every right to protect its children from inappropriate sexualisation. Despite claims to the contrary, Poland still seems to be a functioning democracy, with the results of October’s elections suggesting that PiS has lost power to a coalition led by a former prime minister and president of the EU Council, Donald Tusk.

To its critics, the EU is acting as an imperious technocracy, seeking to impose woke values on nations with different priorities and principles. However, others suggest that Hungary and Poland are using the rhetoric of national sovereignty to justify ‘democratic backsliding’, not just an affront to the EU club’s rules, but a threat to democratic norms domestically.

Is the EU right to intervene in defence of common values or is this simply imposing the values of Brussels technocrats on everyone? Are Poland and Hungary justified in asserting national sovereignty or is this just a smokescreen? What does this ongoing battle tell us about the future direction of Europe and democracy?

Steven Barrett
barrister, Radcliffe Chambers; writer on law, Spectator

Balázs Hidvéghi
Member of the European Parliament (member, LIBE and Foreign Affairs committees); former director of communications, Fidesz; former member, Hungarian Parliament

Agnieszka Kolek
head of cultural engagement, MCC Brussels; artist; curator; founder, Passion for Freedom London Art Festival; former deputy director, Ujazdowski Castle, Centre for Contemporary Art, Warsaw

Anna Loutfi
equality and human rights barrister; consultant, The Bad Law Project

Tony Gilland
chief of staff, MCC Brussels; associate fellow, Academy of Ideas