Why the EU’s Coronavirus Rescue Package Might Save the European Project

Why the EU’s Coronavirus Rescue Package Might Save the European Project
Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, at an EU summit in Brussels, July 18, 2020 (pool photo by Francois Lenoir via AP Images).

Authoritarian leaders have taken advantage of the coronavirus pandemic, intensifying their efforts to undercut the democratic norms that restrain their power. Some of those leveraging COVID-19 for their autocratic agenda are in the European Union, where they have created dilemmas for the bloc for years. And yet, this crisis has also created opportunities. If managed skillfully, the EU can convert the upheaval of the pandemic into a turning point, at long last exerting meaningful pressure to start reversing Eastern Europe’s undemocratic, illiberal tide.

Last month, EU leaders managed to craft a muscular economic rescue package to deal with the pandemic’s economic toll. By making disbursements contingent on adherence to fundamental democratic principles, the continent’s democracies may just save the European project.

The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights commits its members to a set of values, including democracy, the rule of law, human rights and a free, independent media. When Eastern European countries joined the EU, they were widely expected to embrace ideals that had remained out of reach during the Cold War. But in recent years, some of those young democracies have started moving in the other direction, driven by nationalist, illiberal parties and authoritarian-minded leaders who are steadily eroding the EU’s principles.

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