BERLIN — I learned to drive at the age of sixteen. A neighbor taught me. A few days after my eighteenth birthday, after I passed my end of school exams, my parents gave me an old, used Opel Kadett – not as cool as a Renault 4, but a real car, with reclining seats and everything.

My joy was short-lived, however. As a punishment for letting my hair grow long, my father took the car keys away. I had to make a choice: the car or my long locks.

Why am I remembering this? Because the EU's dispute with Poland and Hungary reminds me of my father's response: an arbitrary display of power over dependents who willfully resist its authority.

My colleagues are all of the opinion that Poland and Hungary are "blackmailing" the EU, that they are holding it to ransom. However, I think it is the other way around. The EU is blackmailing Poland and Hungary, threatening to cut subsidies if they do not restore the rule of law in their countries.

A 1964 Opel Kadett — Photo: Lothar Spurzem

Poland and Hungary's treatment of minorities, corruption in the judiciary and decisions on abortion law are seen by many as scandalous, particularly in Germany. But remember, Germany is a country that is still arguing over whether East Germany was a police state or not. This is a country where there used to be a certain respect for Hungary's decision to allow East German refugees to pass through to Austria, and also respect for Poland's defiance against the Soviet Union while Germany was still vaunting the merits of "change through trade". Now, though, there is little gratitude left.

We must remember that the EU is not a confederacy, but a loose union founded on common interests. Its members grant Brussels some powers, but they retain their own sovereignty. If Poland and Hungary fail to meet the high standards demanded by the EU, it shouldn't just cut off their pocket money. It should trigger Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union and suspend them.

But the EU will not dare to do that. They don't want to shoot themselves in the foot.

My father understood that. After four weeks, he gave in and let me take the car keys back. It was more convenient and cheaper for him to get me to drive him around than to order a taxi every time he needed to go to the doctor.

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