John Osullivan

Eastern Europe’s new conservative alliance

Eastern Europe's new conservative alliance
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Viktor Orban, Hungary’s 'controversial' (i.e. conservative) prime minister, travels today to Vienna to meet the new premier of Austria, Sebastian Kurz, for their first serious political conversation since the latter’s election. Orban and Kurz are seen in the conventional narrative shared by the international media, the European Left, and most Western European governments as the terrible twins of the populist nationalism now emerging across Europe. Both are better described as nationalist-minded conservatives who draw on populist support—Kurz’s conservatives have the populist Freedom party as their junior coalition partner, Orban’s substantial parliamentary majority is achieved in part by populist votes from the still unrespectable Jobbik party.

Both are also known, in this case quite accurately, as politicians who have taken a strong stand against Chancellor Angela Merkel’s 'welcome' policy towards Syrian refugees who in practice proved to be migrants of various kinds from several countries. Both now resist the attempts of Brussels to distribute refugees across the continent via a system of quotas. This resistance is shared by other countries in the four-nation Visegrad group (though Slovakia seems to be suing for peace.)  Kurz’s Austria is accordingly now known as the fifth member of the V4.

Today’s Orban-Kurz confab, however, will be concentrating not on migration and its discontents, about which both men largely agree, but on two more mundane topics where their interests clash: Kurz wants Austria to be able to reduce welfare benefits going to the Hungarian families of migrant workers in Austria to reflect the lower cost of living across the border; he also believes that the state finance for Hungary’s PAKS nuclear facility is or should be contrary to EU rules. Both these are recurrent disputes in EU politics where the Central Europeans cite free market competition when it comes to labour costs and the Western Europeans do the same in relation to infrastructure investment and state subsidies.

Almost certainly there will be some sort of compromise on these disputes after an interval—and similar disputes will then succeed them. France’s President Macron is waging a small war against the 'social dumping' (i.e., lower-cost labour) of Central Europe, and Hungary has a strong ally in Poland on maintaining this rare economic advantage. Watch this space. But both Orban and Kurz have a clear interest in not allowing such disputes to obstruct their wider joint interest in restraining the power of Brussels and in protecting the prosperity, safety, and cultural character of their own countries against the EU’s casual adoption of 'visionary' ideas.

In a way today’s meeting is a good illustration of the reality of the new European politics: a new kind of national conservatism, sometimes allied to populism, is changing Europe, not by overturning the system, but by working within it, raising their distinctive national concerns, but also dealing with the full range of government policies.

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. Freedom of speech in general is more secure in Hungary than in either France or Germany under internet censorship and political correctness. Yet the failings of Hungary and Poland are cited to justify comparing them with countries that jail opponents, murder journalists, and censor the press.

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 Kurz, 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.