State Sovereignty, Supranationalism, and the EU’s Threat Against Hungary

Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban appears to be buckling to pressure from the European Commission to change Hungary's laws. But what are the implications for state sovereignty and democracy?

State sovereignty is a bedrock principle of today’s international system.  It means that governments exercise final authority within their own borders and that states are free from foreign interference in their internal affairs.  Of course, sovereignty is sometimes more clear in theory than in practice.  States are often incapable of exercising complete control of their territory (e.g., Pakistan) and they struggle in an age of globalization to secure their borders against unwanted goods, people, and ideas (e.g., China’s efforts to police the internet).  An additional threat to state sovereignty in the last several decades has been the rise of supranational organizations that have increasingly sought to place limits on state sovereignty in order to deal effectively with global issues ranging from human rights (the ICC) to trade (the WTO) to the distribution of the ocean’s wealth (UNCLOS).

It is therefore not surprising that Hungary today finds its ability to freely enact domestic laws constrained by its membership in the 27-member European Union, the world’s foremost experiment in integration.  Specifically, the EU has voiced concern that recent changes to Hungary’s laws and constitution that appear to undermine judicial independence, central bank independence, and media freedoms herald a return to authoritarianism in the former Communist country.  But the EU has gone beyond simply voicing its displeasure: the European Commission (the EU’s executive body) has declared that these laws violate EU rules and has threatened to take legal action against Hungary if the laws are not changed.  The New York Times highlights the extent (and the limits) of this effort to curtail Hungary’s sovereignty:

“The 27-nation European Union has been grappling with what to do about member countries when they adopt policies that seem to undermine the union’s basic principles.  Though nations must meet specific democracy criteria to join the bloc, once they are members there are relatively few sanctions available to enforce them.  For that reason, the commission’s action against Hungary is based on technical issues rather than the wider concerns that Mr. Orban’s government is undermining democracy, centralizing power and destroying pluralism.  The commission lodged objections to measures that threaten the independence of Hungary’s central bank and its data protection authority, and that change the retirement age of judges.”

It appears that Hungary’s leaders are backing off their earlier hard line and may give in to the EU’s demands.  Clearly this is a defeat for state sovereignty, and some would argue that it is high time for unrestricted state sovereignty to disappear as a relic of a past age.  But is this outcome ultimately dangerous for democracy?  By forcefully imposing rules from above, do supranational bodies like the European Commission risk creating an undemocratic precedent whereby unelected entities are given the power to overrule the choices of elected governments?

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