European Union leaders increasingly are at cross-purposes with agreement elusive on the big issues facing the bloc — as witnessed midweek at a summit in the Austrian city of Salzburg, where over a four-hour dinner they aired deep divisions over migration.
But they are not only divided on the headline issues of migration, Brexit and economic governance, say analysts and EU officials.
Expectations about how national governments exercise power and observe EU rules are diverging, too. And some national leaders worry that the liberal democratic values the bloc was founded on are now being eroded by some of their counterparts.
“It is not clear that we have shared expectations,” says a senior EU official, who sees the primary fault line running between the more traditional states of Western Europe on one side and new nativist and populist governments in Central and southern Europe on the other.
Clashes are coming fast and furious and more often than not focus on rule-of-law issues and arguments about democratic checks and balances. One of the latest flash-points has come over the Schengen system of borderless travel.
The system, which is observed by 26 member states, has already been coming under pressure from the migration crisis roiling the continent. Austria, Denmark, Germany, Norway, and Sweden have all temporarily re-imposed border controls at some or all of their borders after citing security threats. But they are within Schengen rules when doing so and have been careful not to break them.
But Poland has been accused of flagrantly abusing the system by blacklisting a rights activist and trying to limit her freedom of movement within the Schengen area.
Last month, the Polish government of the populist Law and Justice Party (PiS) deported Crimean-born rights activist Lyudmyla Kozlovska. Married to a Pole, the 33-year-old had been living in Warsaw for many years and applied for permanent residency only to find herself expelled after the application was declined. Kozlovska runs a high-profile rights foundation focusing on democracy issues in former Communist countries, and was active in the Maidan protests that led to the ouster of Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych.
After deporting Kozlovska, the Poles added her name to a Schengen-wide blacklist — in effect preventing her from entering any of the 26 Schengen-member states. Polish officials claim the non-governmental organization she runs, Open Dialog Foundation, has funding irregularities and is involved in “subversive activities.”
Kozlovska told VOA she believes she’s been targeted because “the PiS is afraid of popular protests like Maidan developing” and is fearful of ODF’s contacts with European politicians in Brussels.
Her blacklisting has prompted the anger of German lawmakers, straining already tense relations between Berlin and Warsaw. German parliamentarians argue Schengen blacklisting is meant to be reserved for people who are convicted or suspected terrorists or for criminals, and that critics or dissidents, however inconvenient they might be, shouldn’t be listed.
Kozlovska, a critic of the PiS, spoke this week at an event in the German parliament after the German embassy in Kyiv issued her a temporary entry permit, despite the Schengen ban. Frank Schwabe of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), one of the lawmakers who invited her, says, “the Polish government has a problem with accepting criticism” and he dubs as “scandalous” the blacklisting of her.
Kozlovska’s case is just one of a series of growing disputes between member states over rule-of-law issues and the interpretation of EU regulations, reflecting how different expectations are in the Western EU states compared to Central and southern Europe, ruled now by new nativist governments.
EU officials say Western states tend to be more punctilious in the observance of EU-wide laws and regulations. While their counterparts in the east and the south are less legalistic and more pragmatic in their compliance when it suits their domestic political purposes, breaching fiscal rules, banking transparency and money-laundering regulations more often, and increasingly flouting continent-wide human rights protections, from freedom of expression to the rights of civil society.
“The Kozlovska case is just one example of an increasing split between states who are wedded to classical liberal ideals and those who are not,” says a senior EU policy-maker. “Freedom of the press, an independent judiciary, legal certainty are democratic achievements that bind us together as a community — or they did once. Now they are being challenged,” he added.
Both Poland and Hungary have clashed with Brussels and Western EU states over their efforts to reshape civil society and to curtail the activities of NGOs.
Midweek, Hungarian officials vowed they won’t withdraw a package of laws passed earlier this year that criminalize any individual or group offering to help illegal immigrants claim asylum. The legislation, which was passed in defiance of the EU, restricts the ability of NGOs to act in asylum cases. Under the law, individuals or groups that help illegal migrants gain status to stay in Hungary will be liable to prison terms.
The measures are called officially the “Stop Soros” laws, named after Hungarian-American billionaire NGO philanthropist George Soros. Two leading European rights bodies, the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, have criticized the measures as “arbitrary” and vague, arguing they are incompatible with EU law.
Hungarian state secretary Pál Völner told a midweek news conference that Budapest finds it objectionable that the European Commission, which has started infringement proceedings against Hungary, is getting involved in domestic political activities.
That’s also Poland’s position when it comes to rule-of-law issues.
Poland was banned Monday from an EU body representing member states’ judicial institutions for the perceived erosion of the independence of country’s judiciary following changes introduced by the PiS government. Polish ministers say their reforms are popular and are in line with their electoral mandate. Polish President Andrzej Duda has rebuffed EU threats telling supporters earlier this week at a rally in the south of Poland, “they should leave us in peace and let us fix Poland.”