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?
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?
Violence erupts on the streets of Athens in response to the Greek parliament's approval of harsh austerity measures demanded by the EU and IMF.
The financial crises that have gripped debt-ridden countries in the eurozone in the last year offer some excellent examples of the challenges and complexities of “two-level games.” A two-level game, as defined by political scientist Robert Putnam, refers to a common situation faced by political leaders when negotiating agreements such as trade deals with foreign states. To reach an acceptable agreement a leader must take into account the demands of actors at two levels: the domestic level and the international level. For example, in negotiating a trade deal with China, President Obama would need to try to balance the demands of China’s government with the demands of domestic actors such as Congress and business or labor interest groups. These demands restrict the set of acceptable outcomes at each level, and the final agreement must therefore be located within that window of overlap where both domestic and international actors would find an agreement acceptable. The absence of an overlapping set of acceptable options would ordinarily produce a negotiating failure (examples might include the Kyoto and International Criminal Court Treaties, which President Clinton favored but could not get the U.S. Senate to ratify). The theory of two-level games also highlights the fact that leaders can use constraints at one level to gain leverage at the second level. So Obama might tell China’s leaders that he can’t budge any further on trade concessions due to American business demands, or he might tell Congress this is the best deal they’re going to get from an intransigent Chinese leadership.
What does all of this have to do with the eurozone financial crises? Debt-ridden countries such as Ireland, Portugal, and Greece have sought emergency loans from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund in order to stay afloat financially, but the EU and IMF have attached strict conditions to these loans. Recipient countries have been required to enact harsh austerity measures designed to correct the problems that necessitated the emergency bailouts. These unpopular measures include raising taxes, slashing welfare spending, and cutting government jobs and pensions. Leaders such as the Prime Ministers of Ireland and Greece have faced strong opposition to these internationally imposed demands from a range of domestic actors (the general public, interest groups, and some members of parliament). George Papandreou, the Greek Prime Minister, narrowly survived a no confidence vote in parliament on June 22, and violent protests have erupted in the streets of Athens in response to the proposed austerity measures. Papandreou succeeded in holding together enough domestic support to get these measures approved by parliament, although clashes between riot police and protesters escalated after the vote.
But this isn’t the end of the story. As Foreign Policy blogger David Rothkopf notes in a post entitled “15 Things the Greek Austerity Vote Won’t Accomplish,” the parliament’s decision to approve the controversial measures “won’t guarantee that Greece sticks with the plan that’s approved. Riots in the streets illustrate that the people of Greece are deeply unhappy with what they perceive as a foreign-imposed squeeze. They can force a political reversal that leads to a policy reversal.” In other words, round one of this two-level game may have been won by actors at the international level, but the game continues…and domestic actors in Greece, Portugal, and elsewhere may yet be able to exert sufficient pressure on their leaders to change the game decisively in their favor.