The occasion was a central European conference on the subversive disinformation campaigns of Putin’s Russia (which, incidentally, are real, subtle, and potentially effective). The speaker was an American warning that the central European democracies were in imminent danger of succumbing to the lures of authoritarian populism, even of abandoning democracy itself, under this influence. He cited the probable election of the media billionaire Andrej Babis as prime minister in Czech elections as one sign of this democratic collapse.
A heavy sigh came from a European participant, standing next to me: ‘Why do Americans exaggerate so? Babis may be a sleazy operator with a communist past, but he’s been the Czech finance minister for the last three years and the economy did pretty well. He’s getting votes because he opposes the EU proposal to foist migrants on the Czech Republic. And he’s so mired in legal difficulties over fraud and corruption that he may not be able to form a government even if he wins the election. No one in central Europe believes he will end Czech democracy. It undermines our criticism of Putin to say these things.’
Not a bad analysis, and a brilliant prediction. A month ago Babis’s party won the largest single number of votes, but he couldn’t find coalition partners and had to form a minority government. The new parliament voted (for the second time) to lift his parliamentary immunity on the corruption allegations which place him in danger still. Only last week his government lost a vote of confidence and resigned. He is now negotiating to form a new coalition. Babis is resilient and may well end up on top — but Czech democracy is proving no less resilient.
The umbrella explanation of central Europe is that populists are undermining the EU, and putting democracy there into crisis — that the so-called Visegrad Four — the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia — are descending into authoritarianism. Look closer, however, and you can see something else. In their first 20 years these young democracies found that too many levers of power — the courts, the media — were in post-communist hands under rules, constitutions and bureaucracies shaped by the communists. They’re doing what democracies are supposed to do: reforming institutions to channel into government policy what their voters chose through elected politicians.
And while their ideas on borders, immigration and culture have been contrary to Brussels orthodoxy, neither people nor governments in these countries are hostile to the EU itself. They don’t want to leave; they want to stay in and get back some of the power lost recently to centralised EU institutions. In some cases they are for ‘More Europe’ — Hungary’s Viktor Orban is a strong advocate of a European army. But they want a different Europe with greater respect for its newer and smaller members — and they’re working together in groups like the Visegrad Four to pressure Brussels more effectively.
The political status quo that existed after the Cold War is falling apart — but it has not yet settled down into a new system of parties and ideologies. Much is still in flux. The post-1989 left is collapsing almost everywhere: Czech social democrats got only 7 per cent in the elections; Poland’s left all but disappeared in the last few Polish elections, leaving a contest between an urban Whig party and a rural Tory one — the Civic Platform and Law and Justice respectively. Three years ago, five parties on the Hungarian left formed a single coalition to maximise their vote which, in the event, maxed out at 25 per cent compared to 20 per cent for the populist-right Jobbik party and 45 per cent for the ruling Fidesz conservatives. In Slovakia, the electoral contest is between a centre-right coalition and a Babis-type ex-communist entrepreneur turned ‘populist,’ Robert Fico, whose party dominates the scene.
The mainstream liberal right parties — pro-business, pro-Europe, socially ‘progressive’ — face an existential dilemma of their own. Do they broaden their parties into coalitions that include nationalists and social conservatives? Or accept decline, and even replacement by more traditional conservative parties — or, worse, populists?
The governing Law and Justice party in Poland is now supported by about 45 per cent of the country, according to recent polls, putting it far ahead of any rival. In both the Czech Republic and Slovakia, the centre-right is a serious contender for power, but its parties have lost votes to their populist opponents — in the former case, massively so. In Hungary, Viktor Orban has gradually expanded his Fidesz party from a respectably liberal capitalist one in 2002 into a broad-based conservative one today, fiscally conservative, determined to pay down debt to the EU and the IMF, but nationalist in outlook, Eurosceptic (as Hungarians understand the word), ‘unorthodox’ in its interventionist economic and social policies, and culturally protectionist.
By boldly making the case for national conservatism, especially on migration, Orban has become a trendsetter for the centre--right throughout much of the continent. He is a firm favourite to win again in April this year.
Dig a little deeper into the ideas and arguments that are driving these new parties and new alliances, and we discover an interesting mix of political ideas and cultural attitudes. One is that the four Visegrad countries have finally become angry with being dictated to and pontificated by western Europe — and Brussels, which is considering censuring the Polish government. At a Polish-German basketball match after Cologne, fans unfurled a banner saying ‘Protect your Women, not our Democracy.’
Secondly, members of the former Communist bloc have overcome the sentimental--cum-ideological gratitude at being in Europe, the West, modernity, and are now prepared to pursue their economic interests (in, for instance, Polish coal mining) less respectfully in EU discussions. Thirdly, having only recently regained their independence from the Soviets, they self-consciously value both national sovereignty and identity and want to defend them.
From the standpoint of what Donald Rumsfeld once called the ‘New Europe’, especially the new conservative parties among them, it is EU orthodoxy that represents a ‘false Europe’ in embodying both an oligarchic political structure and a sterile repressive culture that defines anything it dislikes as hostile to liberal democracy.
These central Europeans see themselves as the true Europe. One which values the nation state, the family, prudential politics, the Christian religion, and majoritarian democracy — and sees them as more authentic echoes of European tradition. So their tussles with Brussels are not about being anti-European, but a battle over what it means to be European.
Emmanuel Macron has been keen to cast his own vision of Europe as the only vision. He tells central Europeans that ‘the countries in Europe that don’t respect the rules should have to face the political consequences.’ But that’s not how politics — certainly democratic politics — works. It’s unrealistic to imagine that France, Germany, and Brussels can between them invite millions of migrants into Europe and then simply instruct other countries to accept them. The countries he refers to want to change rules like that — and the utopian mentality behind them.
One Polish MEP described to me the two battalions: ‘West European societies look at the east European societies, primarily Polish and Hungarian, as authoritarian and governed by crypto-fascist regimes. While the conservatives in Poland and Hungary believe western Europe to be contaminated by mono-ideological politics, censorship, ideological commissars, mental uniformity — and, of course, a democratic deficit.’
This is all is beginning to heat up. With French and German support, Brussels has been threatening Poland and Hungary with penalties and censures for alleged backsliding from democracy. This is a grotesque exaggeration at best — both countries have lively political campaigns, street protests, contentious media, and fair electoral systems. They are undeniably democratic — far more so than the European Union itself.
The EU’s argument, for instance, that Poland’s Law and Justice government packed the constitutional court glosses over the fact that its actions were in response to court-packing by the previous government. After losing the election, it appointed five new justices to the court, which would have given it 14 of its 15 judges if the new government had not replaced them. As it is, the court today has nine judges appointed by the previous Civic Platform government, versus six Law and Justice appointees.
Similarly, though Hungary’s Fidesz party (and its friends) have bought a dominant position in the media — as a socialist prime minister advised Orban to do when he complained of left media dominance — it’s very far from complete. Consider the opposition media’s lively coverage of government scandals last year. Indeed, it’s strikingly less dominant than the overwhelming favouritism shown to the Democrats by US media.
Macron might like to think that the battle is as simple as East vs West. But public opinion in western European countries has been moving in the same direction — and governments and parties have had to respond to it. France, Italy, and Spain have generated their own populist parties — in Spain’s case, two — in protest at the failures of the mainstream left and right. In Greece a populist left party, admittedly one domesticated by financial strings, forms the government. Portugal has a more left-wing government than it likes because both major parties sacrificed themselves on the altar of the euro in turn. And Britain voted for Brexit. As for policy, migration controls are being imposed across the continent — a concession to reality long denied by Brussels that the V4 grasped. The list could go on.
That casts doubt on Angela Merkel’s claim that her ideas represent European values — and enough of her fellow Germans disagree to have her scrambling to form a coalition after a disappointing election result. If Merkel succeeds in forming the proposed mini-grand-coalition, she will be responding to the voters’ shift to populism by deepening the ‘social democratisation’ of the Christian Democrats that provoked it in the first place — and isolating herself from the rising forces of national conservatism.
Last week she met her new Austrian counterpart, Sebastian Kurtz, who was ‘convinced that the solution to the migrant problem lies with decent border protection and stronger help in countries of origin.’ Or nearby, one should add. Hungary has advocated the same policy from the start of the crisis. So, incidentally, has Britain. Norway too, for that matter. And Hungary has led the whole EU in assisting persecuted Christians in the Middle East — a problem long ignored by the international community. No wonder the central European countries are emboldened: if a new European consensus has not yet emerged, the old one is breaking up.
Merkel and Macron both positioned themselves as defenders of liberal democracy and a resurgent EU against populism. Merkel has just seen Germany move towards populism, and though Macron won last year’s election on a centrist programme of Europeanism, globalisation, and multiculturalism — but he did so by waging a classic populist campaign: establishing a personal political party (named with his initials), running against the regime of the mainstream parties, and offering a vague ideological mixture of left and right policies. In power, he has governed in ways that mimic populist appeals, notably by being surprisingly tough on immigration. If Merkel failed in resisting populism, Macron apparently hopes to co-opt it.
But whether you seek to co-opt or resist populism, the issue is the same: unless the elites are willing to treat other people and social groups as equals in a democratic system, there will be intractable clashes. The philosopher Pierre Manent has argued that European politics will end up a competition between an unrespectable national-populism and an arrogant cosmopolitan centrism. Or, in his words, between populist demagogy and the fanaticism of the centre.
In the old left versus right world, both sides essentially accepted that the other would win power occasionally. But now we have a centrist establishment in Europe that does not really accept the right of its challengers to come to power. And when they do, it casts them as being illegitimate, or extremists, and seeks to use supranational legal and political powers to constrain or oust them. But this has not so far worked, given how few voters in the offending nations wish to back down. Brexit Britain may end up watching from the sidelines, but a new battle for Europe has begun.