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Autonomy or Unity: An EU Divide


Autonomy or Unity: An EU Divide


Escalating disputes and conflicting visions between the EU and Hungary and Poland may result in a divisive future for EU politics and foreign policy.


– Hungary and Poland have clashed with the EU over its authority to influence the internal affairs of member states.
– The EU has worked within the EU system to bring Hungary and Poland back in line.
– Both Hungary and Poland have upcoming elections which may influence the outcome of the rift.


Hungary and Poland have been locked in a series of disagreements with the EU centered around its foundational ideas and adherence to the supremacy of its institutions. The conflict arose during the 2015 migrant crisis when Hungary and Poland opposed an EU proposal for migrant intake quotas. Both countries argued that the EU did not have the power to mandate an open immigration policy within member states’ borders. Since then, tensions have only escalated, with Hungary and Poland seeking to advance an ideologically alternative vision for the EU. The conflict has also furthered itself into the foreign policy arena, with both states seeking to establish foreign ties outside the purview of the EU. 

At the macro level, Hungary and Poland have worked to promote a more conservative, state-centric future for the EU. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban described this future as a vision based upon the preservation of Europe’s Christian culture.” The Hungarian-Polish path has seemingly stood in direct contradiction to the EU’s foundational vision for a more integrated, liberal European society where the harmony of values and the primacy of EU law is seen as essential to the integrity of the bloc.

One area where this divide is best illustrated is in recent legal actions taken by the European Commission (EC) against Hungary and Poland for enacting laws targeting each country’s respective LGBTQ+ populations. The laws were designed to prevent LGBTQ+ awareness among minors, prohibit pride marches and stop the proliferation of other similar events. The EU argued that this legislation was discriminatory and an affront to the bloc’s values. 

In recent years, the EU and Hungarian-Polish conflict has also surfaced in the foreign policy arena, as both camps have held differing views on bilateral relations with non-EU states. For the EU, leveraging the economic and political power of the bloc is only possible through the collective strength of its member states. In contrast, Hungary and Poland have sought to establish and maintain their own foreign ties outside the purview of the EU based upon the belief that member-states have the sovereign right to direct their own foreign affairs. An example of this struggle is evident in Hungary and Poland’s dealings with China. Both states have extensive economic ties to China and have used their relationships with Beijing to leverage political and economic concessions from the West. These relationships, in effect, have bypassed the EU as a single actor and have limited its ability to conduct outside relationships with one voice. 

To bring both states back in line, the EU attempted to take punitive action against Hungary and Poland in the European Council. However, action has been restricted by the EU’s unanimity requirement, which has allowed Hungary and Poland the ability to veto any proposal designed to restrict a member state’s voting rights. As such, neither state has been shy about using this rule to its advantage. The leverage of the unanimity requirement could be seen last year when Hungary and Poland attempted to block a rule of law mechanism for the next-generation COVID-19 recovery fund. Hungary and Poland managed to secure concessions limiting the conditions for its use by threatening to veto the entire fund.


The fight ahead is already being determined. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen supports qualified majority voting rules on foreign policy decisions rather than unanimity. The EU will likely wait for the outcome of next year’s Hungarian parliamentary elections before establishing any concrete steps to effect such a change. Should the pro-EU opposition in Hungary form a majority government, the power balance will likely shift significantly in the EU’s favor. If the current Hungarian government is re-elected, it is nevertheless possible that Western European member states such as France and Germany will push ahead with strategic autonomy without Hungary or Poland. This could be done using the enhanced cooperation mechanism or in an intergovernmental manner.  

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The EU could also use the existing but limited rule of law mechanism in the COVID-19 recovery fund against both states. This would allow the EU to increase the cost of not adhering to EU principles and rules. The mechanism can only be used in a situation where non-adherence to rule of law would directly affect the financial management of the funds. The limited conditions for its use could prove to be a blessing in disguise for the EU, as it will be difficult to claim that it is being used arbitrarily to punish states with differing views. The EU would have to take these actions carefully, so as not to alienate Hungarian or Polish voters or other member states.  

From the Hungarian-Polish perspective, the challenge will be to balance compliance as a means of continuing to receive EU aid and maintaining autonomy within the EU system. So far, this has included the removal of  LGBTQ-free designations from a limited number of Polish provinces and localities without repealing its discriminatory laws. Poland has also made commitments to disband a disciplinary chamber in its supreme court deemed a breach of EU law, but has so far taken little action to do so.

Striking a balance will be difficult and both states will need to pick their battles carefully if they wish to keep the benefits of EU membership. This was made evident when the EU threatened to exclude both nations from the COVID-19 recovery fund if a compromise on rule of law couldn’t be found. As a last resort, Hungary and Poland could leave the EU, but this is unlikely given the extent of the economic ties and financial aid both countries receive from it. A Poland or Hungary outside the EU would also have to contend with geopolitical isolation, making withdrawal from the bloc a very risky endeavor. In the end, the EU’s financial and economic leverage is likely to give it the edge it needs to bring the two nations in line and push forward its objectives but expect Hungary and Poland to make this a long and arduous fight.

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