By hook or by crook or by law

by Andrea Hossó

“It is not by speeches and majority resolutions that the great questions of the time are decided… but by iron and blood”, Bismarck famously said. These days, with much more sophisticated weaponry at hand and fast electronic communication available to voters, politicians are selectively more cautious with iron and blood, but can instead reach for a similarly dangerous if more civilised solution: the law.

It is remarkable how many political legal actions are taking place right now against individuals and countries.  President Trump is being impeached, Matteo Salvini, the former Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior of Italy and Federal Secretary of the Norther League Party is facing a lawsuit, and both Hungary and Poland are undergoing the EU’s Article 7 procedures. We should rejoice to see justice in action in public life were it not for the strange coincidence that all those individuals and countries facing legal action happen to be on the conservative patriotic side of the political spectrum.

Trump’s impeachment would truly be beyond surreal were it not so predictable and transparent. The President is accused of having committed impeachable acts by bribing the Ukrainian government to investigate political rival Joe Biden and his considerable family interests in that country. The process currently underway throws up “sensational” discoveries everyday but Jay Sekulow, a member of the Trump defence team, summarised what many think: “Are we here because of a phone call? Or are we here, before this great body, because since the President was sworn into office, there was a desire to see him removed?”

The past seems to justify his views. As early as in December 2016, when Mr Trump was only president-elect, Vanity Fair published an article entitled “Democrats are Paving the Way to Impeach Donald Trump.” This grand effort has never died off and culminated in the Muller investigation, which after two years of dirt digging and spending millions of taxpayer funds failed to come up with any proof fit for purpose. It was time, therefore, to switch the effort from Russia to the Ukraine to be able to impeach the President, who is launching his re-election campaign.

By hook or by crook or by law…

Matteo Salvini’s case verges on the absurd. The former foreign minister called for a no-confidence vote last August to prompt national elections as his coalition with the Five Star Movement had become increasingly difficult to manage. Fearing that Salvini’s eurosceptic Lega party would win effortlessly, President Mattarella and Prime Minister Conte quickly threw together an unlikely coalition government with the participation of the Five Star Movement and its political arch-opponent Democratic Party. The two parties could not be farther from each other but were willing to enter the uneasy partnership with the sole purpose of impeding Salvini’s victory.  No principles or policies were more important than “democratically’ preventing voters from democratically choosing their candidate, and in this noble effort they enjoyed the warm support of Brussels.

Salvini, however, continues to enjoy strong public support, so in advance of the Emilia Romagna and Calabria local elections on 26 January, the Senate saw an opportune moment to vote to start legal proceedings against him for the surprising crime of “kidnapping migrants at sea”. The puzzling accusation means that Salvini did not allow an Italian coastguard ship with illegal migrants on board to dock in an Italian port after he had issued abundant warnings that Italian ports would not welcome migrants.

By hook or by crook or by law…

Some countries find themselves in the dock as well.

Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union is supposed to be triggered when there is a “clear risk of a serious breach by a member state of the European values mentioned in Article 2: “The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. These values are common to the Member States in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail.”  The sanction is the suspension of voting rights.

Article 7 has only ever been used against Poland and Hungary, initiated in December 2017 and September 2018, respectively. Not much has happened since but the newly elected — or appointed – EU officials and MEPs suddenly feel the need to speed up proceedings. A new brush sweeps clean, the saying goes, and no political career, on the right or left, has ever suffered from vilifying a central European country, especially such a feisty one as Hungary or Poland, who both said a categoric no to the open mass migration policies of their democratic “betters”.

There may also be some pragmatism behind the zeal to sanction or at least pillory these countries in advance of the tense budget negotiations awaiting the remaining 27 member states. Nobody wants to increase their contribution, especially during an economic downturn, so the tussle over the post-Brexit reduced pot of funds has high stakes. It might help a little if these rebel countries could be struck off the recipients’ list for breaching “European values”. This should not be difficult as these values seem fairly flexible anyway; no Article 7 procedure was ever triggered against the socialist government of Hungary in 2006, when it unleashed savage police brutality against Hungarian demonstrators. The same way, the French government is under no scrutiny for police attacks on demonstrating firefighters, pension protests and Yellow Vest protesters, nor is the Spanish government for shocking police brutality against Catalan voters in the 2017 referendum.

By hook or by crook or by law…

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