The US and EU are both battling to protect democracy and the rule of law. The American struggle is more dramatic because the US president himself is leading the effort to subvert the political system. In Europe, by contrast, the threat comes largely from the fringes.
Hungary and Poland are in the spotlight as their governments resist efforts to link EU funding to respect for the rule of law. But focusing exclusively on the Hungarians and Poles underplays the scope of Europe's problem. In several other EU countries, recent corruption scandals and rule of law controversies have raised serious questions about the health of their democratic systems. They include Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia, Malta and Cyprus. Collectively, the troubled democracies account for between one-quarter and one-third of the 27 governments seated around the EU conference table.
The Hungarian and Polish cases get the most attention partly because there is an ideological element to the dispute. Viktor Orban, Hungary's leader, delights in giving lectures about "illiberal democracy". The Poles and the Hungarians have also passed laws that undermine judicial independence.
Graft and corruption elsewhere in the EU tend to take place the old-fashioned way — under cover and without accompanying speeches attacking liberalism. These scandals attract less attention overseas. But they have provoked mass demonstrations and political instability in many of the countries concerned.
Since July, thousands have taken to the streets in Bulgaria to demonstrate against the government of Prime Minister Boyko Borisov. The crowds are inflamed by stories about politicians and officials buying apartments at way below market rates — as well as by a photo of Mr Borisov, next to an open drawer full of €500 notes and gold ingots. The prime minister says the images are fake. But even Bulgaria's president, Rumen Radev, has accused him of running a "mafia government".
In recent years mass protests have also shaken Romania, where anti-graft prosecutors have battled with government ministers. Liviu Dragnea, once the ringmaster of Romanian politics, was sent to prison in May 2019 for three and a half years on corruption charges. Ivo Sanader, Croatia's longest-serving prime minister since independence, was sentenced on November 13 to eight years for corruption.
Elsewhere in the EU, corruption scandals have been mixed up with murder. Jan Kuciak, a journalist, and his fiancée, Martina Kusnirova, were murdered in Slovakia in 2018. Kuciak had been investigating links between the Italian mafia and officials close to Robert Fico, the prime minister — who was forced to resign after protests that followed Kuciak's death.
In Malta, Daphne Caruana Galizia, a prominent investigative journalist, was murdered in 2017 after writing about alleged money laundering by powerful officials, as well as the business dealings of the prime minister's wife. The investigations and public demonstrations that followed her death eventually led to the resignation of the prime minister, Joseph Muscat, and to the arrest of his chief of staff, Keith Schembri.
Mr Schembri is out on bail and has not been charged in a police inquiry into the sale of Maltese passports to non-EU nationals. The sale of passports by Cyprus has also become controversial — with the government accused of issuing passports to foreign criminals and the relatives of despots such as Syria's Bashar al-Assad and Cambodia's Hun Sen.
Some may argue that corruption and violence in small countries such as Malta or Cyprus are relatively insignificant in an EU of 440m people. But in France, former president Nicolas Sarkozy is on trial for corruption and influence-peddling. Transparency International's corruption perception index suggests that Italy's graft problem may be worse than that of Malta or Cyprus.
Corruption in any country, however small, affects the EU as a whole. Every country has a veto over some crucial policies, such as the EU budget. Each country also gets a turn at chairing the EU and shaping its agenda. A passport from any EU country confers the right to live and work anywhere in the EU27.
The EU's powers to investigate corruption and enforce the law in its member states are limited. The recently established European Public Prosecutor's Office can only take on cases involving abuse of EU funds or actions by its staff. Participation in the EPPO is voluntary. Hungary and Poland have opted out.
Eurosceptics will seize upon these flaws to argue that the EU itself is rotten. Mr Borisov has certainly received more protection from fellow EU politicians than he deserves. But if the EU were dissolved, corruption problems in countries such as Bulgaria would probably get worse.
When it acts, the EU is a force for good. After Laura Codruta Kovesi, an anti-corruption prosecutor in Romania, was sacked, the EU institutions supported her. Ms Kovesi was later appointed to head the EU's public prosecutors' office — demonstrating that the political culture of Brussels is still set by governments that take the rule of law seriously.
Even so, badly-governed states with corruption problems are well-represented around the EU table. European leaders pose together at summits for what is called the "family photo". There are quite a few crooked uncles and dodgy cousins smiling for the camera.
- Financial Times