Governments in the European Union (and beyond) want to be seen as respectable, even when their actions are not. The Hungarian Fidesz government of Viktor Orban moved from angry denial to more conciliatory language in order to defuse the problem, but the embarrassment must be felt by their political friends, such as Wilfried Martens, the president of the European People's Party, who endorsed the Hungarian media law, and EPP group leader Joseph Daul, who belittled and procrastinated instead of taking a principled stand for the rights of EU citizens. .
I have no special desire to see the EPP leadership with egg on its face, but the freedoms and rights of EU citizens are more important to me than misplaced consideration for blatant political misjudgments.
In summary, even when national political leaders think that they can act with impunity domestically, they can cause serious political damage to their country and their ”friends” at the European level.
The potential damage is not limited to intra-European affairs. Internationally the European Union portrays itself as the champion of the universal values of human rights. The foreign, security, defence and trade policy (external action) of the European Union is not based on interests alone, but on acting in accordance with and promoting the founding values of the EU.
This is (or should be) more than wishful thinking, since Title V of the Treaty on European Union (TEU), General provisions on the Union's external action and specific provisions on the foreign and security policy, opens by stating the value based character of all EU action on the world stage, in Article 21(1) TEU:
GENERAL PROVISIONS ON THE UNION’S EXTERNAL ACTION
Article 21 TEU
1. The Union’s action on the international scene shall be guided by the principles which have inspired its own creation, development and enlargement, and which it seeks to advance in the wider world: democracy, the rule of law, the universality and indivisibility of human rights and fundamental freedoms, respect for human dignity, the principles of equality and solidarity, and respect for the principles of the United Nations Charter and international law.
The Union shall seek to develop relations and build partnerships with third countries, and international, regional or global organisations which share the principles referred to in the first subparagraph. It shall promote multilateral solutions to common problems, in particular in the framework of the United Nations.
Evidently, if the European Union, even by individual member states, slips at home, it loses credibility abroad. In other words, a domestic embarrassment becomes a global shame.
Dictators and authoritarian rulers are quick enough to praise their rule(s), if a ”fifth column” inside the EU passes the ammunition.
On the website of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) and in the Social Europe Journal, Susi Dennison made the point about double standards and welcomed a debate at European level (7 January 2011):
... it has to be a positive development that a political conversation has finally started about these matters at a European level. A Union that has in its founding treaties respect for democracy, rule of law and human rights cannot credibly turn a blind eye to potential breaches of these principles by constituent states.
Member states and Europarties
In the eyes of EU citizens and the wider world, the acts of national governments can seriously undermine the purposes and credibility of the European Union. The member states who ”own” the union and the Europarties who are supposed to contribute to forming European political awareness and to express the will of the citizens of the union have special responsibilities, including robust peer pressure on bad apples.
P.S. Thoughtful analysis, reasoned arguments, European perspectives … already as an undergraduate Conor Slowey aka Eurocentric wrote one of star blogs of the Euroblogosphere, The European Citizen. Now a graduate student in Leiden, he is a generous contributor on Facebook and on Twitter as @EuropeanCitizen. Highly recommended.