This article by Wolfgang Streeck for the New Left Review will be disturbing to many. But it is an interesting article, and well worth reading. I would take issue with one claim Streeck makes: that the “supranational extension of the debt state” he rightly considers the Corona Recovery Fund to be, does not entail a change in European institutions toward more “solidarity”. These transfers are financed by issuing European debt, but the way in which member states will have to contribute to their repayment will make a difference. Perhaps Brussels would claim some more tax base for itself (a European tax, or similar?).

Streeck has a few interesting points. He deems “imperial systems”, as he considers the European Union to be, to be dependent “on a successful management of peripheral by central elites. In the EU, peripheral elites must be staunchly ‘pro-European’, meaning in favor of the ‘ever closer union of the peoples of Europe’ as governed by Germany with France through the Brussels bureaucracy.” If they are not, they become worrisome and have to be punished one way or another, even by twisting the letter of extant treaties.

Streeck is critical of the way in which the Polish and Hungarian governments are being “nudged” by Brussels to exhibit some more respect for the rule of law. He writes:

Under the Treaties, member countries, all of them, including Hungary and Poland, remain sovereign, and their domestic institutions and policies, for example, family and immigration policies, are for their electorates to decide, not for Brussels or Berlin. When it comes to a country’s legal institutions, the only legitimate concern of the EU is whether EU funds are properly spent and accounted for. Here, however, Poland has an immaculate record, and Hungary seems still on or above the level of ‘pro-European’ Bulgaria and Romania, not to mention Malta. So what to do?

In Brussels there is always a way. The Commission has for some time tried to punish Poland and Hungary under a different provision in the Treaties that forbids member countries interfering with the independence of their judiciary. But this is such a big bazooka that member states hesitate to let the Commission activate it. (It also raises uncomfortable questions on the political independence of, say, the French Conseil d’Etat.) Now, however, comes the Corona Fund, and with it the idea of a so-called ‘Rule-of-Law Mechanism’ (ROLM) attached to it, on the premise that if you don’t have an independent judiciary, including a liberal constitutional court, and perhaps also if you don’t admit refugees as a matter of human rights and in obedience to EU distribution quotas, there is no assurance that your accounting for your use of European money will be accurate.

I am not a fan of either the Polish or the Hungarian government but I think this year has been terrible for the rule of law all through Europe. Due to the pandemic, constitutional rights have been dismissed, and very often the judiciary seemed silent or inert. Freedom of movement, a pillar of the European project we purportedly have to defend against populist rulers, was suspended everywhere. I am afraid this will constitute a precedent that will be hard to dismantle. Streeck suggests there is little concern with the rule of law in Brussels and more interest in power games. I hope he is wrong, but the point can hardly be dismissed as the ravings of a lunatic.