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Tilting the playing field through informal power in Hungary and Poland : How did Russia’s war in Ukraine change the EU’s approach?

While democratic backsliding and the EU’s constraining role has received notable scholarly attention from the formal, legal perspective, its responses (or lack thereof) to informal power in Central and Eastern Europe is still understudied. This working paper aims to fill this gap by looking at the case of Hungary and Poland where the governments tilted the playing field informally since 2010 and 2015 respectively. It applies the concept of informal power to explain how the Hungarian and Polish governments captured the media in an uncodified, informal way under the watch of the European Union. Despite the EU coming up with new tools to address the problem, it failed to force Hungary and Poland to comply with the core values of the EU. Triggering the Rule of Law Conditionality Mechanism against Hungary and withholding multiple financial transfers both from Poland and Hungary marked a turning point in the dispute within the EU. The working paper briefly explains the linkages between the informal power, and the responses of the EU institutions. The theoretical expectation is that due to the increasing politicization of the EU’s responses, it would address certain aspects of informal power and ignores others in a selective way. Empirically, the paper maps the legal and political toolkit of the EU and how it addressed democratic backsliding in Hungary and Poland, before and after Russia invaded Ukraine.

Keywords: Hungary, Poland, Informal power, European Union, media capture, clientelism, politicization, Russia, Ukraine



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