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The European Union has just settled on a compromise in a contentious debate similar to the one here in the United States: whether to link economic relief for COVID-19 to advancing political issues.

Here, advocates for straight economic relief tend to be Republicans. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., strongly advocated for immediate funding of the Paycheck Protection Program and other forms of economic relief. Democrats, on the other hand, tend to want to advance their political agenda as a condition for economic relief.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., demands coupling any relief efforts, which benefit all Americans, to political desiderata, such as tax benefits to Democratic states. Neither economic aid nor the political issues advance because each side vetoes the other.

Across the Atlantic, a similar gulf divides the core powers of the European Union from more independent-minded nation-states in Central Europe, such as Poland and Hungary. The independent governments wanted to uncouple economic payouts from political footballs designed to advance partisan interests.

In a radio interview, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán explained that the EU simply couldn’t proceed in the face of vetoes from his country and Poland. German Chancellor Angela Merkel insisted these member states get on board with her program, but proved incapable of forcing them to do so. Germany’s bloc agreed to a compromise in which their demands became symbolic or subject to a court challenge.

In both cases, the real issue is that the ultimate goals of the two factions are incompatible. It is thus impossible for them to work together unless one side surrenders its most basic interests to the other. The core EU powers want to use the grave economic needs of member states such as Italy to force the member states to accept ever-greater EU invasions of what were once sovereign nations.

Hungary and Poland, which have stronger economies, refused to surrender their independence to a central government hostile to their most basic values. Orbán’s interview explained this in terms of protecting a thousand-year commitment to Hungarian tradition.

Rule of Law

Merkel’s faction expressed its commitment in terms of “the rule of law,” which Merkel said was “the basis for the European project.” Pro-EU media outlets describe Hungary and Poland as opposing the rule of law, and indeed of trying to “crash” Europe out of objections to “democratic standards.”

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen reinforced that argument. “We are talking here about the violations of the rule of law that are threatening the EU budget and only that,” she said. “It is very difficult to imagine anybody in Europe who would possibly have anything against that principle.”

Well, if it is so difficult to imagine, you’d want to look a little deeper into the conflict. After all, European Union law is itself what permitted Hungary or Poland to veto the proposed European budget. They used the law to compel a compromise.

What are the violations of the “rule of law” at stake? One is said to be the independence of the press. EU advocates expressed alarm at the firing of a news editor by a corporation that considers itself an ally of the Hungarian government. This was a private, not government-owned, news outlet, however, and its hiring decisions are thus independent. A free press is an important feature of a democracy, but it cannot be made freer by increased government control over its personnel decisions, either from Hungary or the EU.

Judicial Independence

Another claimed violation is said to be of “judicial independence,” which the EU feels the Polish government is violating. The Polish Parliament passed a law to which the Polish judiciary objects. Parliaments pass laws, like our Congress does, and judiciaries are meant to interpret laws rather than create them. “The rule of law” as a principle seems to fall on the side of the Parliament here. So, too, does “democratic standards.” Judiciaries are not democratic, but parliaments are.

The New York Times coverage of this compromise suggests the Hungarian government “adopted a new constitution and changed election laws to favor themselves.” This “new” constitution was adopted in 2011 to replace one with ties to the bygone communist era. After nine years, it is odd to continue to describe this as a novelty, and in any case, it was done legally through Parliament. Likewise, it is hardly an offense against the “rule of law” to have changed laws in a legal manner.

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Hungary and Poland have decided to contest all the rhetoric by establishing a “rule of law institute.” The function of this institute is to explain why the law is really on their side and to point out the ways in which their opponents are not really on the side of the law. As Hungary’s Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó put it, “The aim of the institute is not to be taken for fools.”

Fair enough. Political rhetoric out of order with reality should be pointed out. Yet the underlying issue won’t be resolved by making opponents play fair. Within the confines of the European Union, the political ends of Germany and France are not compatible with those of Hungary or Poland.

The European project will continue to be viable only if it accepts the reality that member states have substantially different interests that they cannot be forced to surrender. If not, the European Union might fragment further as states follow the United Kingdom’s lead in leaving the union to pursue their own national interests.

A Conflict of Values

This is the lesson Americans also need to learn. Our own political factions are likewise incompatible in their basic ends. Clever rhetoric cannot paper this over, however amplified by social media giants, and however voracious the censorship against attempts to counter the rhetoric.

Ultimately, no resolution allows either side to win. What must be done is to find a way to work together within the confines of what we do agree needs doing.

Orbán grasped this, accounting for his victory in the European clash. “I don’t want to accept a compromise,” he said. “This isn’t about reaching some kind of compromise but finding a solution. More often than not, compromises aren’t solutions, but simply bad decisions. … Linking any political debates to this is optional — any political debate could be linked to it.”

The same is true here. Congress cannot pass a relief bill because Democratic politicians are tying relief — which many agree is necessary — to other issues. Any political debate could be tied to relief. Republicans could start demanding concessions on gun rights in return for relief dollars. Adding divisive conditions will not help.

That kind of attempt to muscle a political agenda with federal dollars only derails Congress’s limited ability to achieve any sort of results. In an era in which we are so divided on the most basic political questions, responsible government has to be limited to the few practical points we can all agree upon.

The federal government is not the vehicle for major social change in such an era. Here, Congress should do what it can to help Americans rather than trying to use needed aid to compel political submission. As with the EU, if we cannot make room for each other’s interests, the very survival of our union might be at stake.

Brad Patty is executive vice president at the Security Studies Group. You can follow him on Twitter @BradPattySSG.



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