Angela Merkel’s rule-of-law legacy: A divided Europe

BERLIN — It shall be remembered as Chancellor Angela Merkel’s final Christmas miracle.

As Europe’s mood darkened amid a worsening pandemic and stricter lockdowns this month, the German leader cajoled Hungary and Poland into accepting a compromise on rule-of-law sanctions, clearing a blockade on the EU’s emergency coronavirus aid that had threatened the Continent with a winter of switches and ashes.

Yet as is true of most yuletide tales, the real story is a bit more complicated.

For while Merkel deserves credit for resolving the impasse, she also bears responsibility for creating the problem in the first place. For years, she sat quietly as Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and Poland’s Jarosław Kaczyński set about dismantling their countries’ democracies.

In both Budapest and Warsaw, the inaction of Europe’s de facto leader was perceived as quiet acquiescence, giving them little reason to temper their pivot to authoritarianism.

By the time the magnitude of what Orbán and Kaczyński were doing — which has included undermining independent media, the courts and minority rights — became clear, confronting the problem was an enormous challenge that couldn’t be dealt with by the quiet, behind-the-scenes diplomacy that is Merkel’s signature.

The chancellor’s failure to act early led to a bitter public confrontation, pitting the EU against Hungary and Poland, driving a new wedge between the Western and Eastern halves of the bloc and fanning nationalist flames. Bilateral relations between Germany and its eastern neighbors have also suffered, culminating over the summer with Warsaw’s refusal to approve Germany’s new ambassador to Poland. When Warsaw finally relented, it did so on September 1, the anniversary of the 1939 German assault on Poland that triggered World War II. 

Of course, it’s always difficult to avoid the war when it comes to Germany’s relations with Central and Eastern Europe. That’s particularly true in Poland, where Germany’s steadfast refusal to address the question of war reparations remains a sore point in the two countries’ bilateral relationship.

That is one of the main reasons that Merkel tread lightly in the face of Hungary and Poland’s rule-of-law abuses. The last thing she wanted was to leave the impression that Berlin was intervening in its neighbors’ domestic affairs — a fear that’s never far from the surface in the region.

Eastern conservative

But there was also another dynamic at play. Given her own history of growing up in communist Germany and witnessing its democratic transformation, Merkel couldn’t believe that Hungary and Poland would really try to turn the clock back and curb fundamental rights, people familiar with her thinking say.

“She never expected Orbán to go this far,” recalled one of Merkel’s political allies.

That’s because the Hungarian has been a fixture in Merkel’s political universe ever since she first joined Helmut Kohl’s Cabinet in the early 1990s. For a generation of German conservatives, Orbán, who describes Kohl as his mentor, epitomized the victory of democracy over communism. The Hungarian leader was the conservatives’ standard-bearer in the East, a role he insists he still plays.

“Our Christian-nationalist government in Hungary takes more or less the same ideological position as the CDU under Helmut Kohl,” Orbán recently told German weekly Die Zeit.

The same can’t be said for the woman he calls “Angela,” whom Orbán likes to greet with a traditional hand kiss.

The relationship between the two remained friendly even after Orbán, who returned to power in 2010 after several years in opposition, began to tinker with Hungary’s constitution to strengthen his Fidesz party’s grip on power.

The ties didn’t sour until Orbán’s decision in the summer of 2015 to send thousands of refugees from Syria and Afghanistan to Austria and Germany, unleashing a crisis that shook the EU to its core.

In contrast to Orbán and Hungary, Merkel has little history with Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party or its leader, Jarowsław Kaczyński. In Merkel’s chancellery, Poland’s de facto leader is viewed as ideological and unpredictable.

That helps explain why Merkel, who prizes pragmatism, has maintained an arms-length stance towards both PiS and Kaczyński since they took power in 2015.

Interdependence

A more immediate reason Merkel has taken a hands-off approach with her Eastern neighbors is that it’s good for German business.

Often lost in Brussels’ high-brow deliberations about European values and the importance of safeguarding the rule of law across the EU is the behind-the-scenes role of German business.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, German industry has transformed Central Europe into its shop floor, investing more than €30 billion in Poland alone. For big German carmakers such as VW and Daimler to lesser-known companies like boat maker HanseYachts, the region has become an integral part of the manufacturing base. Just this week, Mercedes announced plans to produce a new electric vehicle south of Budapest in the town of Kecskemét, where it will invest more than €140 million. BMW, Audi and the auto-parts giant Robert Bosch are also big investors in Hungary.

That engagement, which has gradually deepened over the last 20 years, has created an interdependence that is impossible for politicians in either Budapest or Berlin to ignore.

Members of Merkel’s CDU acknowledge quietly that if it weren’t for the auto companies’ reliance on Hungary, Germany would have reckoned with Orbán a long time ago.

Instead, they opted to tolerate him. That has meant turning a blind eye to what Orbán and his allies have done to Hungarian democracy, while trying to ignore the persistent provocations of Fidesz officials in Brussels.

The latest test of that patience came Wednesday night as leaders of the European People’s Party (the center-right group in the EU Parliament to which both the CDU and Fidesz belong) had to decide whether to expel the head of the Fidesz delegation, Tamás Deutsch, for comparing comments made by EPP group leader Manfred Weber about Hungary and Poland to the slogans of the Gestapo.

As usual, the EPP decided not to get tough, opting instead to suspend Deutsch’s speaking rights in the plenary on behalf of the EPP and barring him from holding formal positions representing the group “until further decisions are made.”

It’s a showdown the German chancellor would rather sit out.

“Merkel would postpone [the vote] until eternity,” one German MEP said.

Polish MEP Rosa Thun, whose Platforma party belongs to the EPP, wanted to expel Fidesz, but said that in the end it was up to the Germans, who comprise the biggest delegation in the group.

“They have a very special attitude with countries behind the Iron Curtain,” she said. “Nobody has so much patience with Poland as the Germans … They did so much evil to this country.  They feel bad.”

Whatever the EPP eventually decides on Fidesz, the reality on the ground is unlikely to change. Fidesz and PiS will continue to run roughshod over the rule of law and democracy, while Germany will continue to protest, all the while doing brisk business in the region.

The grand compromise Merkel brokered with Hungary and Poland last week is likely to delay the rule of law provisions from taking effect until after Hungary’s next general election.

In the meantime, the deal will allow EU budget money to flow to Hungary unhindered, helping Orbán to cement his hold on power for another term.

In other words, Merkel didn’t really save Europe’s Christmas. Orbán stole it.



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