Hungarian Conservative

The EU’s Rule of Law Trilemma Grips the Entire Continent

Gergely Dobozi, senior research fellow, Danube Institute
PHOTO: Máté Lefler/Hungarian Conservative
‘The rule of law's conceptional imperfection makes it a perfect weapon, horribile dictu, a substantive lawfare.’

The below remarks by Gergely Dobozi, Senior Research Fellow at the Danube Institute and chief editor of Hungarian Conservative, were given at the international conference titled The Rule of Law as Lawfare organized by the Danube Institute, The Center for Fundamental Rights, and The European Conservative in Budapest on 27–28 May 2024.

Dear guests, esteemed professors, current and former politicians, think tank colleagues, and distinguished commentators from around the world,

During this conference, speakers will discuss various national interpretations of the rule of law—whether it be Rule of Law, Rechtsstaat, or État de Droit. In this speech, however, I will focus on the Hungarian perspective.

In Hungarian, ‘jogállamiság’ is the word that covers what the concept of the rule of law should mean. This word signifies the ideal functioning of the state, where the branches of power operate by, for, and of the people.

This concept refers neither to a fixed status nor a quality, but an ongoing objective, a beacon for every civilized nation to strive towards.

However, only a state with full external and internal sovereignty has the right and duty to pursue this noble goal.

Let me highlight two key terms of the Hungarian term ‘jogállamiság’: law and statehood. In Hungary, these concepts are enshrined in the Basic Law, which ties our constitutional framework to our rich historical constitution. 

This framework is the bedrock upon which constitutional bodies must relentlessly pursue the proper operation of the rule of law. 

It is this very foundation that empowers Hungarian authorities to cooperate with their counterparts in other member states and the bureaucrats in Brussels, jointly fostering stability, peace, and prosperity throughout the European Union.

And this is why conservative Hungarian constitutionalists raise their eyebrows when confronted with the EU’s current interpretation of the rule of law. We see their so-called ‘legal concerns’ as thinly veiled political arguments.

This is only possible because

the rule of law’s conceptional imperfection makes it a perfect weapon, horribile dictu, a substantive lawfare.

Time constraints prevent me from fully tracing how the abstract concept of the rule of law became entrenched in mainstream EU politics. However, December of 2020 stands out. During the European Council meeting on tenth and eleventh of December, an agreement was reached on the multi-year budget, the post-COVID recovery fund, and rule of law conditionality rules.

Initially, the legislative package contained vague rules, allowing the European Commission to interpret the rule of law broadly, leading to unpredictability. This was further complicated by the Commission’s reliance on unclarified soft legal documents from various EU organisations.

Thanks to Hungary and Poland’s concerted efforts, the agreement of December 2020 imposed a crucial requirement: the Commission must evaluate information solely based on its goal of protecting the EU’s financial interests.

Initially, I was optimistic about this agreement. However, it soon became clear that the Brussels elite saw it as a steppingstone to their federalist utopia, the United States of Europe, undermining member states’ sovereignty.

In April 2022, following a decisive Hungarian election victory—which obviously infuriated Brussels—the European Commission invoked the rule of law conditionality mechanism against Hungary, blocking billions of euros due to vague ‘legal concerns.’ Poland’s then-conservative government faced even harsher financial blocks despite even murkier legal grounds.

Meanwhile, member states supportive of euro-federalism, like socialist Spain, accessed resources without any barriers.

Notably, the EU overlooked Spain’s enormous constitutional crises and clear violations of the rule of law. Similarly, significant corruption scandals in Germany and other parts of Western Europe, such as Wirecard and Airbus, were ignored. 

And now, since Poland’s political landscape has shifted towards federalist support under a pro-Brussels Donald Tusk, their financial block issues seem to be resolving even though he has committed the kinds of rule of law violations that should be of grave concern. 

This shift suggests a troubling triple standard: sovereigntist Hungary remains punished, federalist supporters remain unaffected, and Poland is granted clemency while highly likely reducing its state sovereignty.

Now, if double standards weren’t enough, this scenario definitely stretches the framework of EU treaties. Let me clarify one last thing.

Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union prescribes the rule of law as a common standard, emphasizing human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, and human rights. I am definitely in favour of that.

Article 4 respects member state sovereignty and their national identities. More than welcome.

Article 120 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union mandates an open market economy with free competition, favouring efficient resource allocation. This would be one of the main goal of this cooperation.

But in reality, the Brussels-imposed rule of law framework curtails member state sovereignty, placing non-cooperative states under political and financial quarantine.

So, we find ourselves in a strange ‘euro trilemma’: at this point,

the EU cannot simultaneously enforce standardised rule of law requirements, promote sovereign state interests, and economic prosperity. 

The clash between federalists insisting on a standardized approach to the rule of law and those valuing state sovereignty paralyses the EU, hindering economic interests. 

Pursuing economic recovery through a standardized approach to the rule of law sacrifices state sovereignty, which is unacceptable and unconstitutional, for example, for us Hungarians.

Therefore, we strive to discover a solution that not only drives economic growth within a community of sovereign states upholding the integrity of the Copenhagen Criteria. It is imperative, after all, that each member state respects the rule of law and champions this principle—but on a national level.

Thank you for your attention.