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    European Union: How Political Compromise Becomes an Act of Political Maturity and Moral Responsibility

    February 2021

    The value of political compromise has always occupied my thinking. My thoughts are haunted by how political compromise becomes an act of political maturity and moral responsibility, and under what conditions it becomes morally unacceptable.

    It is my conviction that in a liberal society “compromise” cannot be a dirty word. But a “rotten compromise” can destroy a liberal society. We should actually be more judged by our compromises than by our ideals and norms. Ideals may tell us something important about what we like to be. But compromises tell us who we are.

    How might this great moral judge Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany based on the compromise she reached with the Prime Ministers Viktor Orban of Hungary and Mateusz Morawiecki of Poland in last year’s European summit? Was this a compromise or a rotten compromise?

    In the weeks leading up to last year’s European Council summit, the governments of Poland and Hungary threatened to veto the agreed upon European Union budget on 1.8 trillion euro recovery fund if the European Commission does not withdraw its plan to condition budgetary disbursement on adhering to the rule of law norms and principles. Twenty-five of the 27 European Union members last year welcomed the rule of law conditionality as a guarantee that the money of European taxpayers would not line the pockets of government cronies. But Hungary and Poland felt that the agreed upon “no rule of law, no E.U. money” mechanism was a breach of their national sovereignty and a breach of the E.U. treaty.

    Orphaned after Donald Trump’s defeat in the United States, the Polish and the Hungarian right-wing leaders arrived at the summit literally wearing suicide belts. They threatened that if their demands went unheeded they would block the budget and paralyze the European Union at a critical moment amid a pandemic and economic collapse.

    In the last act of the drama, Warsaw and Budapest withdraw their veto. The compromise reached was that the rule of law mechanism would be maintained but it would not be deployed before 2021, the year of the next Hungarian parliamentary elections.

    Many civil society leaders urged Ms. Merkel not to compromise. In my opinion, if this shameless blackmail succeeds, the populist, xenophobic, nationalist ruling parties in Hungary and Poland will be able to go on doing pretty much what they please, being paid for it generously and, for good measure, biting the German and Dutch hands that feed them. Opinion polls showed that the majority of Poles and Hungarians opposed their respective government’s veto, too.

    For Ms. Merkel’s liberal critics, her compromise with the Hungarian and Polish leaders is emblematic of everything that is problematic with the European Union: a lack of vision, a focus on survival and a brutal realism. It amounts to betraying pro-European forces in Poland and Hungary. Was Ms. Merkel really wrong in judging that giving money to struggling Europeans in the midst of a devastating public health crisis is a better way to defend Europe’s values then depriving illiberal governments of European funds?

    In my opinion, compromises, even when less than rotten, can never be a triumph of principles. After all, blocking the European budget when Britain to be out of the European Union with a deal could have resulted in a new wave of Euroscepticism that would further threaten the very survival of the European Union.

    By making a deal, Ms. Merkel has sent a strong signal to ordinary Europeans that solidarity matters when it is most needed – and exposes the emptiness of the sovereignty rhetoric coming from Warsaw and Budapest. The only thing those governments actually care about, it is now clear, staying in power. Many liberals tend to see Ms. Merkel’s compromise as a victory for illiberal forces in Europe. In my opinion they are wrong! The Polish government barely survived after one of the political parties in the governing right-wing coalition declared the compromise “surrender”. In Hungary, pro-government propaganda declared the deal a success, but the recent and much-contested changes in the electoral law aimed at splitting the opposition are a clear sign that for the first time in a decade Mr. Orban’s re-election should not be taken for granted.

    The politics of compromise is in my opinion like Sumo, the ancient Japanese sport, where you win not by destroying your enemy but by pushing him out of the ring.

    It will likely be years before we can determine whether Ms. Merkel’s compromise was noble or witless. It is not the refusal to make any compromises, but the ability to distinguish between a compromise and a “rotten compromise” that is at the heart of any liberal politics.

    Just days after the EU resolved the dispute with Poland and Hungary over a rule of law mechanism both countries saw opinions go against them in the EU’s top court on elements of Hungary’s asylum process, and of Poland’s judicial reforms. What actually began as a confrontation over democracy and the law, moreover, is fast becoming a culture war.

    Hungary’s nationalist Fidesz government chose to amend its 2011 constitution that already specified marriage as the union of a man and a woman, rendering gay marriage illegal. The amendment adds that, in families, “the mother is a woman, the father is a man”. Together with another legal change saying only married couples can adopt children, same-sex adoption is in effect outlawed.

    Poland, Meanwhile, has seen mass protests over moves to impose a near-total ban on abortion after a ruling from its constitutional court, which the governing PiS party has stacked with conservative judges. PiS has made intensifying efforts to cast itself as a defender of traditional values. More is expected to come, like the introduction of a constitutional ban on same sex – adoption, and to continue to block same-sex marriage.

    Though committed to defend human rights, the EU has previously left family law issues largely to member states. The EU in my opinion has to be sensitive to differing sociocultural attitudes among members. As a union built on democracy and the law, however, it cannot allow these values to be eroded by certain countries – or vulnerable minorities to be discriminated against. It is the defense of these fundamental democratic principles, not any attempt to impose alien norms, that is at the heart of the rule of law stand-off.