Democratic backsliding in European Union (EU) member states is not only a policy challenge for the EU, but also a potential existential crisis. If the EU does too little to deal with member state regimes that go back on their commitments to democracy and the rule of law, this risks undermining the EU from within. On the other hand, if the EU takes drastic action, this might split the EU. This article explores the nature and dynamics of democratic backsliding in EU member states, and analyses the EU's capacity, policy tools and political will to address the challenge. Empirically it draws on the cases that have promoted serious criticism from the Commission and the European Parliament: Hungary, Poland, and to a lesser extent, Romania. After reviewing the literature and defining backsliding as a gradual, deliberate, but open-ended process of de-democratization, the article analyzes the dynamics of backsliding and the EU's difficulties in dealing with this challenge to liberal democracy and the rule of law. The Hungarian and Polish populist right's "illiberal" projects involve centralization of power in the hands of the executive and the party, and limiting the independence of the judiciary, the media and civil society. This has brought both governments into direct confrontation with the European Commission. However, the EU's track record in managing backsliding crises is at best mixed. This comes down to a combination of limited tools and lack of political will. Ordinary infringement procedures offer a limited toolbox, and the Commission has proven reluctant to use even these tools fully. At the same time, party groups in the European Parliament and many member state governments have been reluctant to criticize one of their own, let alone go down the path of suspending aspect of a states' EU membership. Hence the EU's dilemma: it is caught between undermining its own values and cohesion through inaction on one hand, and relegating one or more member states it to a second tier—or even pushing them out altogether—on the other.
The Hungarian government's discriminatory actions against the Central European University constitute one of the most prominent conflicts between an academic institution and a government today. My contribution gives a detailed account of how the conflict has unfolded so far. Various frameworks of interpretation, including democratic backsliding, cultural war, and international politics are discussed. I place the story of the university in the context of the polarized cultural climate of Eastern Europe and draw attention to the power of universities in collaborating across borders in defense of academic freedom—and freedom in general.
Scholars have paid increasing attention to democratic backsliding, yet efforts to explain this phenomenon remain inchoate. This article seeks to place the study of democratic backsliding on sturdier conceptual, operational, and theoretical foundations. Conceptually, the challenge of backsliding is to define changes that take place within a political regime. Methodologically, the challenge involves measurement of intraregime changes, as alternative coding schemes change the population of units that have experienced democratic backsliding. Theoretical challenges are dual: First, despite a rich and diverse literature, we lack readily available theories to explain backsliding, and second, the theoretical debates that do exist—centered on the causes of democratic transitions, democratic breakdowns, authoritarian resilience, and democratic consolidation—remain unresolved. We consider how these theories might be called into service to explain backsliding. By doing so, the article aims to set the terms of the debate to create a common focal point around which research can coalesce.