A reflection on openness and fairness

Questions regarding the future of the EU

I was recently on my way to the mall when I ran into some people from D66, a social liberal party in the Netherlands. They were very pleasant, including one I knew from many years back, who had become a member of parliament. Such civility and openness are nice, especially in a time of constantly increasing polarisation.

It made me think of the difference between being nuanced and being relativistic, between open-mindedness and indifference, and what a constructive attitude towards the recent upheaval could be.

I should begin by saying that writing for a Eurosceptic site is a pretty interesting experience for this Dutchman. The people I spoke to were obviously strong pro-EU. I understand the passion for European cooperation, integration and unity, but what has puzzled me for the last few years is what the EU is exactly? It started of being about economics as the EEG but since that it has become something bigger, but what exactly? A union of values? What values exactly? Who defines them? The European treaties don’t seem to cover them all properly.

Take Hungary’s recent education law that limits sex education in schools, specifically regarding LGBT issues. Rutte suggested Hungary should leave the EU over it. Yet the law is very similar to section 28 that was enforced by the UK till 2003. So, it doesn’t seem like it contradicts the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union.

Of course, values can evolve but the treaties themselves haven’t changed, and while Western European countries may have moved away from such an interpretation of human rights and legitimate limitations but former communist states are moving in exactly the opposite direction.

Western European countries have been expanding LGBT rights the last 10 years and this has led to disputes about how this impacts classical rights such as freedom of religion, speech and assembly. The old debate of liberty vs. equality? Can fundamentalist schools be forced to promote acceptance of homosexual practices? Currently there is the debate about bans on conversion therapy and how far such bans should go. A ban on prayer, even if it is to “cure someone of homosexuality”, is extremely controversial and novel and something which has even been linked to anti-Christian persecution.

In fact, limitations on homeschooling, educational freedom in general and the rights of families and the autonomy of the family are viewed with suspicion and even horror by Eastern Europeans who tend to associate such things with the communist dictatorship they overthrew. This is also a common position amongst conservatives in the West, but it has greater significance in the East where resistance by the churches to state interference was a rallying point for anti-communism. Liberty is understood in a very old fashioned classical liberal sense. And sympathy for authoritarian conservatism mixed with economic centrism has appeal amongst those who do appreciate the stability the communist dictatorships provided.

Sex education is rather limited even in post-communist countries, even pro-European ones such as Croatia. Many of them have had constitutional bans on gay marriage for years (Croatia, Slovakia, Lithuania, Hungary, Bulgaria, Poland) and some even explicit constitutional protection of unborn life (Slovakia, Hungary). Macron’s call to enshrine abortion as a human right might not go over to well.

Without picking sides here, my honest question is: Do Europeanists want to pick their battles? Would they prefer preserving the EU even if it means accepting that Poland Hungary don’t move in a progressive direction and even return to the most reactionary interpretation of EU values possible? Or, are they committed to progressive principles and willing to continue to EU with most former communist states being forced to leave?

Do Hungary, Croatia and Poland have an equal say in defining EU values as Germany and Belgium? What issues can states agree to disagree on? Does the European Commission have the final say or the CJEU?

The assumption that pro-Europeanism in Eastern Europe is stronger than nationalism or conservatism (whether secular or religious) is rather naïve, I fear. The enthusiasm exhibited for the EU in former Soviet states was for the EU of 20 years ago and even that enthusiasm is not as wildly held. If the values of 20 years ago are too reactionary now, this could lead to a confrontation between the West and the East. The citizens of Romania and Ukraine are closer to Russia on cultural and social issues than to Brussels.

This is why it is always important to have clearly defined rules. Too focus on consensus and agreement over polemics. This is why I support the call to fight and preserve the rule of law in the EU and also the lamentation (made previously on this site), that the rule of law is not properly defined nor applied consistently with regards to pro-European and Eurosceptic governments.

Rule of law and constitutionalism are truly beautiful things. They age like wine. In times of crisis you truly learn to appreciate them.

Hopefully President Duda’s proposal to dissolve the notorious disciplinary chamber in Poland will lead to a renewed friendship with the EU and the country can receive the necessary funds to recover from the pandemic. Then trust and good will may return.

Johan van Schaik

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