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.
Nick Sitter and Elisabeth Bakke
Land-related disputes and land conflicts are sometimes politicized in elections in African countries, but this is usually not the case. Usually, land-related conflict is highly localized, managed at the micro-political level by neo-customary authorities, and not connected to electoral competition. Why do land conflicts sometimes become entangled in electoral politics, and sometimes “scale up” to become divisive issues in regional and national elections? A key determinant of why and how land disputes become politicized is the nature of the underlying land tenure regime, which varies across space (often by subnational district) within African countries. Under the neo-customary land tenure regimes that prevail in most regions of smallholder agriculture in most African countries, land disputes tend to be “bottled up” in neo-customary land-management processes at the local level. Under the statist land tenure regimes that exist in some districts of many African countries, government agents and officials are directly involved in land allocation and directly implicated in dispute resolution. Under “statist” land tenure institutions, the politicization of land conflict, especially around elections, becomes more likely. Land tenure institutions in African countries define landholders’ relations to each other, the state, and markets. Understanding these institutions, including how they come under pressure and change, goes far in explaining how and where land rights become politicized.
Over the past decades, prosecutors have become more and more powerful within criminal justice systems. Yet, there is still relatively little empirical research on prosecutors. Most of the literature focuses on the analysis of the prosecutorial system of a single country. Cross-country analyses are close to nonexistent. From a comparative perspective, the various possible means to establish the independence of prosecutors from government and at the same time securing their accountability to the law are of paramount interest. Regarding the former, appointment procedures, possible career paths, and the degree to which prosecutors are subject to orders both from within the prosecution agency as well as from without (e.g., the ministry of justice) are of special concern. With regard to prosecutorial accountability, it is the legality principle (also known as mandatory prosecution), the issue whether prosecutors enjoy a monopoly in the prosecution of criminals, whether decisions not to prosecute a suspect are subject to judicial review, and the transparency of the behavior of prosecutors that are key. Regarding the organizational design choices of prosecution agencies that have been implemented across countries, four different clusters can be identified. The four clusters perform markedly different in terms of the rule of law levels associated with them. The consequences of institutional design choices are surprisingly small. The de facto organization of prosecutors turns out to be far more relevant for outcomes than what is prescribed de jure. Countries in which prosecutors enjoy a high degree of de facto independence suffer significantly less from corruption than countries in which this is not the case. Given that the institutional design choices of prosecutors are of limited relevance for their de facto situation, the question is: What factors determine the de facto independence and accountability of prosecutors? It turns out that some rather stable and immutable factors are decisive: Common law legal systems do better than those belonging to the civil law legal families. Generalized trust also plays an important role. If most people believe that others can be trusted, very specific rules for the behavior of prosecutors may seem unnecessary. A number of trends regarding the organization of prosecutors can be observed in many countries, among them the increased reliance on trial waiver systems, bonus payments to incentivize prosecutors, the founding of prosecutorial councils, and prosecutorial activism. It is questionable whether the first three of these trends will increase the efficiency of prosecution agencies; rather, they are likely to lead to a deterioration in the overall rule of law score of those countries relying on them.