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Sensemaker: Hungaro-Polexit?

Sensemaker: Hungaro-Polexit?

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Virginia Giuffre filed a civil case in New York claiming Prince Andrew raped her when she was 17. The Duke of York has previously denied the claim. 
  • Chinese authorities evacuated more than 150,000 people in Yunnan province to make way for a herd of migrating elephants on an epic journey through human settlements.
  • Anti-vaxxers attempted to storm a former BBC building yesterday, apparently unaware it has long since been converted into flats, a Soho House members club and the set of Loose Women.


Are Hungary and Poland heading out of the EU? They’re at loggerheads with Brussels on LGBT+ rights, judicial reform and corruption. Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, says Hungary “has no business in the European Union” and the Polish opposition party chairman Borys Budka tweeted last month that “#PolExit is slowly becoming a fact”. Could it actually happen, or is this all an increasingly dangerous game of legal and political chicken?

What the EU says: the European Commission’s second annual rule of law report was released last month, and on Hungary and Poland it was scathing. The Commission is demanding judicial reform and decisive moves to combat corruption on pain of removal of funding and/or financial penalties. Its hand is strengthened by the fact that Brussels is currently approving member states’ pandemic recovery plans. Extra funding is conditional on following the rule of law. More than €7 billion for Hungary has already been delayed and Poland is waiting for €23 billion in grants and €34 billion in cheap loans. 

What they’re accused of:

  • Rights. Both governments are accused of discriminating against LGBT+ communities, breaching Article 21 of the Charter for Fundamental Rights. Some towns in Poland have declared themselves “LGBT+ ideology free zones” and Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, has made it an offence to “promote or portray” homosexuality or gender reassignment to minors. Ursula von der Leyen, the Commission president, has called Hungary’s law “shameful”. 
  • Judges. The European Court of Justice says Poland’s system of disciplining judges is incompatible with EU law. Ruling nationalists have set up a disciplinary chamber at the Supreme Court. They say it’s needed to improve efficiency and remove residual communist influence. Critics say it’s a vehicle for political control of the courts. The ECJ told Poland to disband the chamber by 16 August or face big fines. The country’s ruling party leader Jarosław Kaczyński agreed on Saturday to “scrap the disciplinary chamber in the form in which it currently functions”. 
  • Corruption. The rule of law report pointed to “risks of clientelism, favouritism and nepotism in high-level public administration” in Hungary. In Poland it found a “risk of undue influence on corruption prosecutions for political purposes”. 

The rebuttal: Hungary’s justice minister, Judit Varga, says the rule of law report is “biased, politically motivated and factually weak” and a means of “blackmailing Hungary”. Poland’s justice minister, Zbigniew Ziobro, said last week that “the belief that the EU is a good uncle and gives us money, and that we should accept all its demands at all costs, is propaganda and false”. Ziobro did concede that Poland should stay a member of the EU, but “not at any cost”. Orbán has granted a referendum on his homosexuality laws, but there’s no sign of either government blinking on any of the substantive arguments. 

And the people say… Steady on. Support among Poles for EU membership hasn’t dropped below 70 per cent since 2005, the year after Poland and seven other east European countries joined the EU. In fact, support for the bloc has risen since Poland’s Law and Justice party came to power in 2016. At the end of 2020 approval for EU membership was at 88 per cent, and a Eurobarometer study last winter found only 39 per cent of Poles and 28 per cent of Hungarians believe their countries could face the future better outside the EU. 

So this is all bluster? Again, not so fast. The populists have picked a fight that isn’t all that popular, but much of this public support for EU membership is transactional rather than visceral. It’s about the money. Donald Tusk, the former Polish prime minister and ex-president of the European Council, said last month that EU funding and the pro-Europe sentiment among voters “are the only brakes keeping PiS [the Law and Justice party] and Kaczyński from overtly leaving the European Union”. 

In sum. Hungary and Poland aren’t leaving the EU any time soon if current polling is anything to go by. But i) their leaders have found that pushing Brussels’ buttons wins votes on the right. So ii) they’ll go on pushing. Meaning iii) more bust-ups are inevitable. Which iv) creates a serious medium-term risk of both countries drifting away if their relationships with the EU are mismanaged. Which v), like Brexit, would please no one more than Putin. 

Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Sneaky spies
Chinese agents are reportedly trying to gain entry to the UK using a visa scheme designed for Hongkongers. Government sources tell the Times they’re aware of spies applying for British National Overseas visas and purporting to be refugees fleeing the crackdown by the Chinese government in Hong Kong. Lord Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, says none of this should come as a surprise: “If anybody has fears that the Chinese Communist Party will seek to place informers and people who will steal security secrets in open societies then they are entirely justified.” Spies may be trying their luck, but it’s not clear if any have been successful and in any case fears about inevitable intelligence activity shouldn’t undermine the entirely appropriate commitment that Britain has made to protect the people of Hong Kong. Nearly 300,000 people already have BNO passports. Since last year 34,000 more have applied for them and about three million people in all are eligible. 

The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY

£9,000 for Zoom
18 year-olds across the UK have woken up to their A-level results after a tumultuous year in and out of lockdowns. Good news for some: UCAS says 245,330 students have been accepted onto degree courses – 17 per cent more than last year. Will any of them get in-person teaching? Gavin Williamson, the education minister, told Sky News: “We do expect all universities, unless there’s unprecedented reasons, to be moving back to the situation of actually delivering lessons and lectures face-to-face.” But some universities (including UCL, Cardiff and Leeds) have already said lectures will continue to be online. More than 9,000 students at the University of Manchester have signed a petition demanding a return to in-person teaching, and there are signs the government might get behind them. “If universities are not delivering what students expect,” Williamson added, “then actually they shouldn’t be charging the full fees.” Amen.

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Red alert
Part one of the most comprehensive IPCC assessment of the pace of climate change in seven years sent a bleak but clear message: the planet is warming faster than expected and some of the effects of that warming, including rapid glacial retreat, are already irreversible. If there’s any ground for optimism it’s that the “unequivocal” evidence in the report means policymakers have nothing left to hide behind. John Kerry, the US climate envoy, responded with a call for major economies “to commit to aggressive climate action during this critical decade”. Boris Johnson said that he hoped the report would be a “wake-up call for the world to take action now”. Keir Starmer tweeted that “the biggest threat we now face isn’t climate denial but climate delay” and accused Johnson of lacking the ambition required to match the moment. Johnson and his Cop 26 minister, Alok Sharma, have less than three months to do two things: agree an agenda and set an example. They have left it very late indeed.

New things technology, science, engineering

Dementia tech
Diagnosing dementia can take multiple scans – or, if the disease is in its early stages, up to a year of monitoring for the patient. New tech developed by Cambridge University and the Alan Turing Institute could help diagnose dementia with just one scan. The BBC has the lowdown on how the diagnostic tool works. A brain scan of someone with suspected dementia is fed into an artificial intelligence system that analyses the images against a database containing thousands of scans from people with the disease. The system is being tested on patients at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge. If it enables quicker  diagnosis and earlier intervention with what drugs and treatments are available, it could help patients even though a cure remains frustratingly out of reach. 

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Why Cameron <3 Greensill
The Greensill scandal is a complicated affair, full of financial shenanigans and political manoeuvring that’s tough even for hardened Westminster and business hacks to follow. But one question that has bubbled along for months is why David Cameron staked his reputation on a financial start-up few people had ever heard of. BBC’s Panorama provided an answer Monday, noting that the former prime minister and ex-Greensill pitchman was paid about $10 million in shares, salary and bonus. The report put meat on the bones of previous stories that pointed to a bumper payday for DC – and it is sure to keep the Greensill issue alive. Meanwhile, investors in funds that bought assets from Greensill are still short several billion dollars. Hundreds of millions of pounds in UK government Covid loans distributed by Greensill remain at risk. German authorities and the Serious Fraud Office are among several agencies investigating aspects of the scandal. Cameron might have hit the jackpot with Greensill, but the final cost has yet to be counted.

Thanks for reading, and please share this around.

Phoebe Davis 

Duncan Mavin

Additional reporting by Sophia Sun (@SophiaaSun)

Photographs by Getty Images