In the EU, political crises often serve as catalysts for policymaking. Yet as an alarming breakdown of the rule of law has swept some member states, EU institutions have failed to act effectively to safeguard Europe's legal order. We argue that this outcome is of a piece with the ways that political elites strategically mobilize rhetorical frames to oppose transnational policymaking. Drawing on Albert Hirschman, we identify what we call ‘rhetorics of inaction’ and the conditions under which they are most likely to legitimate passivity in the face of crisis. We illustrate the theory's explanatory purchase through an in-depth case study of the EU's (non-)responses to the constitutional breakdowns of Hungary and Poland. By process tracing internal communications between EU institutions and Hungarian and Polish officials, we show how the latter's public attacks on the EU conceal far more credible and effective argumentative strategies behind the scenes.