The Rhetoric of Inaction: Failing to Fail Forward in the EU’s Rule of Law Crisis

01 February 2021, Version 2
This content is an early or alternative research output and has not been peer-reviewed at the time of posting.


In the EU, political crises often serve as catalysts for ‘failing forward’. Yet as a rule of law breakdown has swept some member states, EU institutions have repeatedly failed to act. We argue that this outcome is partly tied to how political elites strategically mobilize rhetoric to legitimate stasis. We rectify existing theories' bias for change drawing on Hirschman’s work to theorize ‘rhetorics of inaction’: coordinative discourse wielded by national and supranational actors to reconcile divergent preferences and justify stasis by appealing to the very policies and values under threat. We specify conditions under which they are most likely to pervade EU policymaking illustrating the theory’s explanatory purchase in the EU’s (non-)responses to constitutional breakdowns in Hungary and Poland. We demonstrate that populist affronts conceal far more sophisticated and effective argumentative strategies behind-the-scenes, concluding that rhetorical politics are central to understanding the EU’s failure to respond to crises.


rule of law
democratic backsliding
European Union
failing forward


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