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May 27, 2016 - Zoltán Kovács

Who thought that was a good idea?

International relations has its political dimension. Certain interests will support a government or oppose it motivated by a political agenda. That’s understandable. But when purely partisan politics becomes the most important driving force behind bilateral or multilateral relations among sovereign, independent countries, then we’ve got a serious problem.

“Who on Team Clinton thought offending a close American ally—and 10 million Polish Americans—was a good idea?” asks security expert John R. Schindler in his commentary published recently in Observer. The title refers to former US President Clinton’s unfortunate comments made during a recent campaign stop for his wife in her bid to win her party’s nomination.

Set aside for a moment all we know about how Hungary and Poland curiously appeared in the former president’s remarks and who certainly has his ear (see my recent post on that here).  Professor Schindler makes an important point: in addition to a substantial Polish-American community, Poland is one of NATO’s most important members and the Clintons should have known better.

The same could be said, of course, for Hungary, especially in a NATO alliance where reliability and commitment are sometimes just as important as size. And we’ve had a number of occasions in recent years – whether in the EU or in particular bilateral relations – to wonder at the same question: Why go out of your way to offend a close ally?

The Observer editorial seems particularly relevant as we watch the institutions of the European Union beat up on Poland for “undermining democracy.” Some are calling for the European Commission to pursue the so-called “nuclear option,” Article 7, which when implemented could mean that the member state’s voting rights are suspended. Last week, Poland was threatened with this option when it was given an ultimatum to impose “significant changes” by Monday.

"Brussels' stance against Poland is not just,” said Prime Minister Orbán in a recent interview. “Brussels will never win this battle against the Poles."

What we hear when the critics lay out their case – we saw similar charges against Hungary a few years ago – are mostly fuzzy, ambiguous, politically motivated charges. “Common values,” along with “rule of law” and “press freedom,” are their words of choice, yet the only concrete question that the Commission has been able to identify concerns the workings of the Constitutional Court. To make the double standards more apparent, at the podium where Eurocrats are concerned about the independence of Poland’s Constitutional Court, we find a commissioner from The Netherlands, a country that does not even have a Constitutional Court.

Seems like déjà vu all over again. As the Orbán Government pursued a serious plan of national renewal, reforms that put the country back on track, the EU and its companion Venice Commission subjected us to years of monitoring. Despite a lot of grandstanding in the European Parliament, the Commission, which is the only body with authority in the EU to review such matters, ultimately brought it to a professional and legal level and, after a few modifications to some legislation, we all moved on.

But that’s not the point.

The point is that politicians and NGOs from across the political aisle now have a willing if inappropriate forum to advance their political agenda. Many of these groups are now incapable of winning over voters in national elections at home, so they have taken to the international stage to pressure governments that they don’t like.

It would be a mistake to believe that these voices go quiet once a couple of laws are changed or a constitutional judge is appointed to their liking. Remember that the new Polish government wasn’t even inaugurated before being labeled a “threat to democracy.”

In reality, however, these voices are not concerned about the state of democracy. Frankly, most of the time they don’t have an adequate command of the facts to make any determination. On the contrary, they are worried that their political friends will not get elected, even in transparent, democratic elections. But you don’t have to take my word about this.

Roger Scruton gave an interview to the Hungarian weekly Heti Válasz in 2013, when the Hungarian government found itself in a position very similar to that of the Polish government today. “These people,” Scruton said, “are often rather intelligent and interesting people. But they have lost their seats in the Hungarian Parliament and they tap into their privileges from the western world to form an external opposition. I consider this an illegitimate practice of authority.”

These attempts may appear successful in influencing the international perception. However, as Hungary’s 2014 election results show, they have been unsuccessful in having much influence in Hungary. I suppose the same is true in Poland.

More importantly, as I wrote in a previous post, when we know there are other political forces out there who would love to drive a wedge between the new members of Eastern Europe and their NATO and EU allies in the West, these very public, often poorly informed offenses do little to help our common cause.

Who thought that all of this was a good idea?