• Estonia’s prime minister Kaja Kallas warns that some reforms Ukraine must initiate to join the EU will be unpopular at home.

    Where would Estonia be now, if we had not had the chance or readiness to join the EU?

    We would be in quite a different place. Firstly, our well-being would not be the same. Since the 1990s, our pensions have risen 65 times and salaries 35 times. The other dimension is security. Membership has an effect – as a member of this club, each one of us is not alone. We meet with other leaders so often that we become friends.

    What are the fears among EU leaders about the accession of Ukraine or the western Balkan countries?

    Years ago I talked with Portugal’s now-prime minister António Costa, who remembered that when their accession was on the agenda, there was a fear [among existing member states] of the “Portuguese plumber”. When we joined, the fear was the “Polish plumber” and now it is the “Ukrainian plumber”. This has not been the case because economic convergence will raise living standards and there will not be a need for large-scale migration.

    There is of course the fear of corruption. Will the [prospective member states] be able to carry out reforms? In the case of the western Balkans, there is also the issue of crime. Another fear is what we see in Hungary today. We wrestle with them a lot. If so many new countries join, what will that mean for EU decision-making?

    How should politicians in these countries calibrate the hopes of their people? Some leaders of future member states claim they could be ready in two years’ time.

    Our accession took eight years. It requires tough reforms, which are unpopular. And they require an understanding among the people that these need to be done for the sake of a better future. We know from our experience that this will not be easy.

    “We will open the Rule of Law Reports to those accession countries who get up to speed even faster. This will place them on an equal footing with Member States”

    Ursula von der Leyen

    In her last State of the Union speech, the EU Commission president touched on the issues of enlargement and democracy. The subject is far from marginal: at present the EU is failing to enforce the rule of law even among its member states.

    Von der Leyen, who is seeking a second term in office, has played a part in this unsuitability. She waited after the Hungarian elections in April 2022, before triggering the “conditionality mechanism”, a leverage that makes the disbursement of EU funds conditional on compliance with the rule of law. More recently, von der Leyen unfroze ten billion euro for Viktor Orbán on the eve of a European Council summit, as if values could be negotiable.

    If the EU wants to keep a balance between opening borders and empowering democratic values, it should start by enforcing the rule of law inside its own bloc.

    In last December’s EU summit in Brussels, Germany’s Olaf Scholz pulled a fast one. After a brain-numbing debate on Ukraine’s accession talks, he invited Hungary’s Viktor Orbán to grab a coffee. As soon as he left, the other member states voted for Ukraine’s EU accession to proceed.

    Many in North Macedonia were flabbergasted.

    Could no one have offered a freddo espresso to the Greek PM and the Bulgarian leader, in order to unblock their countries’ intransigence at granting North Macedonia the start of EU accession talks for almost three decades?

    We have been stuck since 2005 in candidate country status. The Greek Euro-Atlantic blockade precedes even that, and dates back to the early 1990s.

    Athens prevented Skopje’s aspirations for twenty years over what many have described as an ‘irrational’ name dispute.

    Sofia now keeps both Albania and North Macedonia at bay, in an even more illogical dispute based on history, language and identity issues, in which Sofia claims that Macedonian is a Bulgarian dialect and the roots of the Macedonian people are Bulgarian.

    “The EU allows its members to use their place in the bloc as leverage against their neighbours. It is the most anti-European thing one can imagine,” said Albanian PM Edi Rama at the Munich Security Conference, frustrated that his country, which is partnered-up with North Macedonia, is also blocked from launching EU accession talks.

    In light of Putin’s aggression, in which Hungary blatantly misused its right to veto, embarrassing and blocking Brussels from action, a group of nine countries last year declared they want to ditch the veto from foreign policy decision making. Germany and France were among them.

    They argue the veto rule has forced weak compromises and made the EU ineffective on the global stage.

    Western Balkan candidates, who have been left to suffer instability, corruption, populism and foreign influences, have no reason to celebrate.

    While the way out of unanimity lies within the EU acts in the form of qualified majority, there is a catch 22. In order to allow non-unanimity, Brussels would need, you guessed it ― unanimity.

    Meanwhile, Scholz’s coffee trick can only work once.

    In 2005, the French rejected the adoption of the European Constitution, with a 54.6 percent No vote. The referendum was supposed to be a foregone conclusion. The right and the left campaigned for a Yes vote ― only the nationalist far right and the radical left were opposed.

    One figure derailed the campaign: “The Polish plumber”.

    A year after the largest enlargement of the EU, sovereigntists constantly used this expression to inflame fears of immigration by eastern Europeans who would work for lower wages. This was one of the main factors in the No vote. Yet foreign workers had nothing to do with the European Constitution. No wave of Polish plumbers or Latvian bricklayers ever arrived in France.

    Now, in light of another possible EU enlargement, politicians and the public in different member countries are expressing fears that workers and goods from future EU members may flood local markets. Just like in France, some of these fears may never come true.

    “We are home,” reads the faded yellow cover of the newspaper I have carefully kept in a box under a shelf for the last 20 years. Its publication date – 1 May 2004 – is symbolic for two reasons: it was the day when Hungary joined the European Union, and the day when I started working as a journalist.

    In fact, one of the papers I kept is the special edition of Magyar Hírlap, where I started my career as a foreign affairs reporter.

    Much has changed in the 20 years since that cover was published. For one, Magyar Hírlap has been turned into a radical right-wing propaganda outlet, while Népszabadság, the other newspaper I kept, shut down under government pressure.

    It is not only my profession that the government has captured, but Hungarian society as a whole.

    When I see official posters on the streets of Budapest, depicting ‘Brussels’ throwing bombs or the president of the European Commission as a puppet of the Soros family, I wonder if people have forgotten what it means to be part of the EU.

    Government propaganda is having an impact, as support for the EU in Hungary has fallen by 10 per cent in recent years.

    Still, the cover story of two decades ago was not wrong: joining the EU felt like a homecoming for most Hungarians. For us, enlargement was not only about free travel and more chances of a job abroad, but also about finding our place as a nation on this borderland between East and West. Of course, membership came with its own obligations, which both sides had to respect. But I also firmly believe that disagreement on some issues, be it migration, agriculture or foreign policy is good for the European community.

    And waging war against where we have always belonged is not.

    In the 22 years under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s AK Party, Turkey has suffered an earthquake claiming over 50,000 lives and an ongoing economic crisis which sent inflation to its highest level in 2022 in the last 24 years.

    Neither crisis has resulted in the fall of the regime.

    The results of last year’s Presidential election held three months after the earthquake is a further indication of Erdoğan’s strength. Support for the Turkish head of state reached 76 percent in earthquake-hit Kahramanmaraş city, and 52 percent in the country as a whole. For his supporters, even if Erdoğan makes mistakes, only he can correct them. According to a poll conducted last year, 90 percent of AK Party voters thought the government’s post-earthquake performance was successful.

    Erdoğan is perceived as a powerful leader who takes care of the needy. His supporters deeply trust him. Many conservative people feel accepted and respected under the Erdoğan regime for the first time.

    Trust among the majority for Erdoğan has been engendered by the economic prosperity of the AK Party’s first years in office, and social welfare for the poor. Investment in highways and airports have contributed to the image of a “powerful Erdoğan”. Developments in defence manufacture, such as the production of the Bayraktar drone used by Ukraine, and the news in local media about its praise in foreign countries is a source of pride among Erdoğan supporters.

    At the same time, the government has cracked down on the opposition and free media, and the AK Party has built a huge media machine which acts as a mouthpiece for Erdoğan. With such limits on freedom of expression, it is hard to persuade an electorate that the end of Erdoğan is not the end of the world.

    “I had a choice: to stay on a legislative path that would last months or even years and allow hatred to spill further, or put an end to it.”

    Bartłomiej Sienkiewicz, Polish minister of culture.

    This is how Sienkiewicz justified his decision to liquidate Polish public television. According to many experts, including those at Freedom House, Polish public television (TVP) had become a propaganda tool under the previous Law and Justice party-led government.

    The incoming minister’s move to dismiss the current TVP management was against the law, as the members’ terms of office were due to last for several more years.

    This is a risky path, as not all courts want to agree to register the new TVP company’s authorities. In 2015, when PiS came to power, it also replaced the entire TVP management, which was in defiance of the law. The PiS then established a new institution that ensured the party’s control over TVP for years to come.

    The new government faces a dilemma: restoring the rule of law and the independence of the media in Poland may be necessary, but might not be entirely legal.

    Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic was a beloved leader to many of his people in the early 1990s. Masses adored his patriotic speeches and melodramatic cries about Serbia against all, and his promises of economic prosperity.

    By 2000 his legacy included defeat in war, human suffering, economic crisis, sanctions, isolationism, and the brutal suppression of free thought. During the ‘October revolution’ of that year, he was done for.

    But democracies don’t start with only a decree. Declaring a victory over an authoritarian or populist regime is not enough, as they leave behind a societal desert in which good democratic practices find it hard to take root.

    Initial euphoria gave way to the feeling that the criminals in power had already switched sides, the judiciary continued to be run by the same self-serving structures, and the media landscape was dominated by Milosevic’s clientele.

    Reforms in every sphere were hard to pull off, as institutions were rotten from inside, the youth and intelligentsia had fled from the country, and some of the newly appointed officials turned out to be ‘bad apples’.

    Political bickering over which path the country should follow raged. Subsequent governments failed to bring prosperity and fresh corruption scandals piled up. However the state no longer had control over a robust propaganda machine to force rose-tinted spectacles on people.

    If the narrow chance for true change is missed, the impetus dissipates, and people start preferring to see through pink lenses rather than confront the chaos around them. All conditions are set for a new “great leader” to emerge.

    Today’s Serbia reminds us of the Milosevic era. There’s a lack of media freedom and corruption is rampant. Good practices and checks and balances do not have a chance.

    Only, since 2014 there is another great leader, Aleksandar Vucic, pumping up the national sentiment, engaging in melodramatic rants, opening and closing news bulletins and keeping pink glasses over people’s eyes.

    Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy has just been sentenced to a year in prison, including a six-month suspended sentence, for illegal campaign financing. In 2012 he spent almost twice as much as the legal maximum for a presidential bid, which he covered up by using a system of double billing.

    No ex-French president had ever been sentenced to a prison term before. This is the second time for Sarkozy. Last year, he received a three-year term for trying to obtain confidential information from a magistrate about another court case in which he was also being prosecuted.

    In total, Sarkozy has been sentenced to four years behind bars. However, he still influences the government. In the latest reshuffle, several of his protégés became ministers.

    If you want to know an autocrat’s fate, you should look at his propaganda. The ever-shouting illiberal Viktor Orbán has never been silent for so long as during the recent resignation of his country’s president Katalin Novák.

    The head of state resigned after it emerged that she had granted a presidential pardon last year to Endre Kónya, a former deputy director of a childcare institution, where he had been trying to silence victims in a paedophile case. Judit Varga, former Fidesz justice minister and a leading candidate for the upcoming European Parliamentary election, also retired from public life, as she had countersigned the pardon. Viktor Orbán’s confidante and former human resources minister, Zoltán Balog, was also forced to apologise. A Reformed Christian bishop, Balog was an adviser to Novák, and supported the presidential pardon that sparked the scandal.

    This wave of resignations is unprecedented in Fidesz-ruled Hungary. Even more embarrassing was that Péter Magyar, Judit Varga’s ex-husband, gave an interview about state contracts and the Orbán government’s communication machinery. More than two million people watched his incendiary allegations. Orbán’s nightmare came true. On 16 February, tens of thousands demonstrated in Budapest.

    Weeks after the scandal broke, and following the breathtaking demonstration, the prime minister delivered his state of the nation speech. He appeared uncomfortable, and said this election year could not have started worse.

    Will Orbán`s power falter? Perhaps. It is disturbing that the crisis was not caused by opposition or criticism of the government, but by information that came to light by accident. The hypocrisy of Orban’s pro-family propaganda exposed government corruption and repression criticised by an insider, in the case of Magyar.

    The Hungarian opposition is not prepared for an eventual takeover, but Orbán still has two real adversaries: chance, and his own collapsing propaganda machine.