How the EU Funds Its Loudest Critics

It is hard to find nations more financially reliant on the European Union than Poland and Hungary. Receiving the highest amounts of EU funding, they are arguably the greatest net beneficiaries of the union. Yet Poland and Hungary are also the two countries where the governments are most inclined to criticise the EU. For the Polish and Hungarian right-wing, authoritarian political leaders Brussels-bashing is the new trend. The EU is painted as the new common enemy of the people. But why?

The EU’s largest source of income is the GNI (gross national income)-based contribution paid in by member states, which amounts to 69% of the union’s revenue. The EU spends 94% of its income funding programmes and projects mostly within member states, with funds distributed between them in accordance with the size of their economies (the common aim being the satisfaction of the needs of all Europeans, irrespective of which member state they live in). The programmes are “aimed at enhancing competitiveness for growth and economic, social, territorial cohesion” and implementing common policies in agriculture and fishery as well as rural and environmental measures.

On a net basis, the largest contributors are Germany and the UK, and the biggest net beneficiaries are Poland, Greece and Hungary. While in this light some Western states’ doubts about the EU (and the UK’s decision to leave the union) do not seem completely unfounded, arguably the same cannot be said of Eastern European Euroscepticism.

In 2015, EU spending in Poland amounted to €13.358 billion, roughly 3.25% of the country’s GNI, while it only contributed €3.718 billion, 0.9% of its GNI, to the budget. In the same year Hungary received €5.629 billion, 5.32% of its GNI, while only paying in €0.946 billion, 0.89 % of its GNI. In the 2014-2020 funding window this trend is continuous.

It is puzzling that the harshest critics of the EU today are its biggest beneficiaries. Albeit receiving billions every year in EU funds, both the Polish and Hungarian governments are aggressively anti-EU.

This rising Euroscepticism stems from an authoritarian shift that increasingly troubles the EU. Both in Poland and Hungary the ruling party is right-wing, populist and came into power by winning the elections with the greatest majority since the end of the communist era in 1989. After coming into office, both governments have set to undermine independent checks on their power, from public media to the constitutional court. In Hungary, Viktor Orban, prime minister and leader of the right-wing Fidesz party, was elected into office in 2010 and has since built what he boasts to be an ‘illiberal state’.

In Poland a parallel process started last year, when the right-wing Law and Justice party won outright majority. Since then, its chair, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, (who effectively runs the country with the prime minister, Beata Szydlo doing his bidding) has taken steps which imply that Poland is to go down on the same route as Hungary.

The EU is an indispensable source of funds to Poland and Hungary. Why then, are the Polish and Hungarian governments its harshest critics? The answer is simple: both populist governments found the common enemy they needed to sustain support in the EU.

According to Orban and Kaczynski, the EU is a threat to national sovereignty. Its extensive and unnecessary regulations extend its influence to every aspect of life. The idea of ‘ever closer union’, the further integration many in the EU advocate for, endangers national identity. Most importantly, the EU also meddles with internal affairs it should have no say in. Orban is prone to portraying Hungary as a “besieged fortress” threatened by over-interference from the EU, and Kaczynski has emulated this.

However, the most vehement critiques of the EU relate to its handling of the migration crisis. Orban particularly accuses the EU not only of negligence and irresponsibility in addressing the crisis but also of purposeful contribution to the possible destruction of European culture. The EU, to him, therefore is a threat to national security and European values.

Orban and Kaczynski imply that only they understand the need to protect their cultures and nations from the threats posed by the EU’s over-interference and reckless handling of crises. “Politicians are short-sighted in Europe, but we are not," Orban declared when meeting with Kaczynski in September.

Presenting the EU as the common enemy is more than convenient for both leaders, as it not only unites the nation behind the government but also diverts public attention from the lagging economies and the corruption that plagues both countries.

However, although no serious backlash has yet followed, the EU is eyeing the new Eastern European regimes with mounting displeasure. In both Hungary and Poland many fear that if the government continues to portray the union as an enemy as well as build their authoritarian regimes, a decrease in EU funds could follow. This would undoubtedly have a disastrous effect on the countries’ economies.

As the exasperation of the EU with the two Eastern European governments grows, the question is: for how long can Orban and Kaczynski continue to bash Brussels while building their illiberal states and still enjoy all the benefits of their EU membership?

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