Who (Else) Benefits from Hungary’s and Poland’s RoL Violations?

Piše: Antonio Karlović

In late 2020, rule of law once again made headlines across European media. The direct cause was the Brussels’ attempt to condition the availability of the EU budget and recovery fund on member states’ respect for rule of law principles. As expected, this did not go well with Hungary and Poland who have a long record of violating judicial independence in their domestic political systems – a process that is widely perceived as the greatest threat to democracy in the Union.  However, now that the European Parliament approved the regulation which would put member states in breach of the rule of law at risk of losing access to EU funds, the incentives for Budapest and Warsaw to step back on their controversial practices will perhaps change, as will the whole power (and attention) map in the Union.


In her piece titled ‘Spaces of Politics’, Doreen Massey (1999) examined the political implications of different conceptualizations of space, which she saw as a product of the interrelation of plural and relatively autonomous entities whose identities are themselves relationally constructed in the process of politics. Recognizing this interrelatedness as a power relation means to recognize that one cannot change the interrelationship without at the same time necessarily affecting the subjects which it constructs and vice versa. If the new regulation, tying EU funds to rule of law, turns out to be a magic wand by which the EU would be able to influence Hungary and Poland, power relations in the EU would change dramatically. But who, in the EU power space, would and who would not benefit from those changes? Since the dramatic changes reveal the dominant positions of power that were previously in place, the answer to this question could show who (else) is currently benefiting from the present RoL violations by Hungary and Poland.

At the same time, Gora and de Wilde (2020) recently published an article examining democratic backsliding in the EU and found that, while most of the academic and political attention is fixated on rule of law violations in Budapest and Warsaw, the most dramatic backsliding recorded is occurring in a different domain. Namely, the quality of deliberation between political elites in the public sphere has deteriorated significantly as competing political elites increasingly challenge each other’s legitimacy. Quality of deliberation is an important issue because it signals that elites support basic democratic norms of mutual tolerance (right for others to exist and participate) and institutional restraint (by those in power not to use all available means against their opponents). Extensive literature, which Gora and de Wilde (2020) cite, shows just how crucial quality of deliberation is as a ‘guardrail’ of democracy and how rising populism in the EU deteriorated it.

Why are then both academics and practitioners (in EU institutions) so predominantly focused on rule of law? Gora and de Wilde argue that it could be a ‘once you have a hammer’ situation where the primary tools for the EU are rule of law instruments which makes all problems with European democracy look like ‘rule of law nails’. Also, the ‘rule of law hammer’ is useless for solving problems that are not institutional, i.e. the quality of deliberation which is cultural, even if recognized as a serious issue. Naturally,  the question arises as to why the EU only has an ‘institutionalist hammer’ in the first place.

While those are indeed very remarkable questions in need of further contemplation, perhaps the crucial question we must ask ourselves is – if the latest ‘hammer swing’ proves to be decisive in fixing ‘nails’ in Hungary and Poland, who would be next to get hit by the ‘EU RoL hammer’? Some candidates come to mind easily, the tier-2-RoL-abusers like Romania, Malta, and Slovakia. The European Parliament has already interpellated those countries (together with Poland and Hungary) in the last few years, but this did not receive much attention. Using Massey’s logic, we could extrapolate that those countries benefit the most from the current European map of interrelations in which the ‘hammer’s’ attention is occupied by ‘nails’ in Budapest and Warsaw.

But, what if the EU, once the burning issues of Poland and Hungary are resolved, uses the opportunity to widen its toolkit to address issues such as  the deteriorating quality of deliberation, as Gora and de Wilde claim? To whom will all European eyes turn? The comprehensive V-Dem dataset, used by Gora and de Wilde,  is clear: Romania is by far the most problematic case with its quality of deliberation (on a scale from 1.00 to 0) decreasing from .94 in 2016 to .40 in the last year. New EU tools would most probably be heavily used in Romania which would likely be labeled as the new enfant terrible in the EU. This means that – in both scenarios – Romania has the most to lose by the potential success of the EU’s newest hammer. But for now, it’s still very much enjoying the privacy granted to her by the European fixation of the two Visegrád ‘nails’.

This exploratory article looked into the possible implications of finally “solving” the problem in Warsaw and Budapest and what they tell us about the current power relations in the EU. This revelation – that some member states are benefiting from the attention given to Hungary and Poland – could serve as an invitation to colleagues studying European democracy to explore “less tangible” types of democratic backsliding in the EU.


Gora, Anna, & de Wilde, Pieter. 2020. The essence of democratic backsliding in the European Union: deliberation and rule of law. Journal of European Public Policy.

Massey, Doreen. 1999. Spaces of Politics. in D. Massey, J. Allen, & P. Sarre, Human Geography Today, pp. 279-294. Polity Press. Oxford.


Antonio Karlović is a PhD student in European Politics at the University of Zagreb’s Faculty of Political Science. He holds an MSc in Political Science from the University of Copenhagen. His broad research interests include Europeanisation, European Foreign Policy, and democratisation.