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The autocrat problem

Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary has used the coronavirus crisis as an excuse to further centralize authority.

The European Union seems to be functioning better than the United States in some big ways right now. Europe has been far more successful in subduing the coronavirus. It has also passed a recent economic stimulus bill, while the U.S. Congress has not.

But Europe has a major problem.

It has a rising autocratic movement that the continent’s leaders have no clear strategy for confronting. If anything, the pandemic has strengthened the most autocratic E.U. governments,in Hungary and Poland. Other countries have put a higher priority on fighting the virus and helping the economy than trying to stop the erosion of democracy.

As my colleague Matina Stevis-Gridneff, who covers the European Union from Brussels, told me, “The leading E.U. member states have been willing to partly turn a blind eye to achieve realpolitik gains right now.”

The background: Hungary’s governing party, led by Prime Minister Viktor Orban, has undermined democracy by changing election rules, packing the courts with allies and insisting on uncritical media coverage. Orban has used the virus as an excuse to centralize authority even further.

Poland’s governing party, led by Jarosław Kaczynski, has taken a similar approach, mostly by neutralizing the judicial system

When the E.U. expanded to include Hungary, Poland and six other countries in 2004, the bloc’s leaders made the mistake of assuming that Eastern and Central Europe were on a one-way path to democracy and the rule of law. (The naïveté bears some resemblance to American assumptions about how China would democratize after joining global trade treaties.)<

As a result, the E.U. did not create an easy process for punishing countries that move away from democracy. Doing so can require either a unanimous vote or a supermajority, and Hungary and Poland have defeated either.

Some European officials pushed for a tougher approach in the recent stimulus bill, but in the end, the E.U. leaders chose to avoid a big fight during a crisis. Afterward, Orban gloated about winning “a very important battle.” (This Times analysis does a nice job of explaining the debate.)

There are no easy answers here. Allowing autocracy to flourish may encourage its rise in other countries. But confronting it risks pulling the E.U. apart.

“In the long run, it seems to me, rule of law issues will undermine the E.U.,” Steven Erlanger, The Times’s chief diplomatic correspondent in Europe, says.<