As the European project grew from six reasonably cohesive members to 28 more diverse and less controllable ones, it was faced with two big questions. One was what to do if a country decided to leave. The response of the United States to South Carolina’s secession in 1860 seemed excessive, so instead the treaty was amended to include Article 50, which sets out the procedure for exit. The hope was that it would never be used, but now Britain is invoking it. Untried though the procedure is, one thing seems certain: it will be long-drawn-out and painful for everyone. The second question was what to do if a country started to trample on the democratic standards that are a condition of membership. Europe has had to consider this issue before, in 2000, when Austria brought Jörg Haider, a far-right politician, into a coalition government. The EU tried to isolate Austria by freezing contacts, but when that failed to oust Mr Haider it gradually thawed, and has since tacitly accepted governments sustained by extremist parties. In the 2000s several commentators suggested that Italy under Silvio Berlusconi would have failed the Copenhagen criteria for membership because he wielded such enormous power over the Italian media, but at the time nothing was done about it.
The underlying difficulty, as David McAllister, a German Christian Democratic MEP, puts it, is that the EU has a great deal of leverage over applicant countries but almost none over members. It can suspend voting rights under Article 7, which is a sort of nuclear option. But whereas a new applicant can be restrained if it strays off the democratic course, an existing member that flouts the rules cannot easily be disciplined. And now the EU is unsure what to do about two such countries.
The first is Hungary, where Viktor Orban’s Fidesz government, elected by a huge majority in 2010, quickly began to overturn European norms. Mr Orban, whose party had a majority big enough to change the constitution at will, interfered with the central bank, the constitutional court and the media. He even gave a speech in July 2014 extolling the virtues of an “illiberal democracy”. Yet he has been careful not to go too far, pulling back from head-on confrontation with Brussels and using his party’s membership of the main European centre-right grouping, the European People’s Party, to fend off criticism.