To the inhabitants of the British Isles, the nations of central Europe have always existed in a semi--mythical space, near enough to be recognised as somehow European, but too distant to be taken seriously. Neville Chamberlain dismissed them as ‘faraway countries of which we know little’; Shakespeare gave landlocked Bohemia a coastline. In British school textbooks, Poland appears for the first time in 1939 and then vanishes again, just as abruptly.
In the feverish politics of the Brexit era, central Europe has once again returned — and, once again, it is in a semi-mythical form. This time, the region is playing the role of an imaginary alternative Europe, one perfectly suited to the needs of Brexiteers. In their imagination, the illiberal ruling parties of Poland and Hungary are bravely standing up to leftist tyranny, boldly joining Steve Bannon and the intellectual descendants of Mussolini to build a Europe free of Muslims, Brussels bureaucracy and the remnants of communist ideology. Last week, Tory and Ukip MEPs even voted to protect Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian Prime Minister, from being censured by the EU for undermining democracy. Why? In the words of a former Ukip MEP, they wanted to ‘assert the right of a democratic nation to defy Brussels’s interference’.
Unfortunately, this vision of plucky independence is about as genuine as the coast of Bohemia — and the Brexiteers who believe it are being played for fools. Desperate for allies, they have instead become useful idiots. They may think that they are courageously bucking intellectual trends when they meet ‘fellow conservatives’ for a boozy evening at the Hungarian embassy. In fact, they are providing intellectual cover for a profoundly corrupt political party, one which will never voluntarily leave the European Union because its leaders have invented too many clever ways to hijack EU funds on behalf of their friends.
By the same token, nobody is exploring interesting intellectual alternatives by debating with a proponent of Poland’s new ‘judicial reform’: they are merely jousting with a professional liar. There is no judicial reform in Poland, there is just an unconstitutional court-packing exercise designed to give the ruling party the ability to appoint dozens of new judges, influence the outcome of trials and possibly change the results of the next election.
To be clear: I am not arguing here that the illiberal parties of Europe — including those in ruling coalitions, like the Austrian Freedom Party or the Italian Northern League, or those out of power, like Marine Le Pen’s newly renamed National Rally in France — are racist, xenophobic Russian agents or nostalgic for fascism. Some of them are all of those things (and don’t pretend otherwise) but you can read that argument elsewhere.
I am saying something different: they are hucksters. They are con men. They are phoney. Whatever language about ‘European ideals’ or ‘Christianity’ Orbán’s disciples use at their government-sponsored think-tank events, in practice their destruction of institutions, including the media and the courts, has led directly to corruption and the entrenchment of their own power. These are people who want to cheat their electorates, pervert their markets and turn public broadcasters into party propaganda organs. And that, not ‘Christianity’, is the point.
Nobody, in either Poland or Hungary, is ‘fighting communism’, or even the remnants of communism. Poland’s judiciary was purged in the 1990s of particularly nasty communist judges, and biology has taken care of most of the rest; the average Polish judge, nowadays, was under 16 when the Berlin Wall fell. More to the point, both ruling parties readily and happily employ ex-communists themselves. Stanislaw Piotrowicz, the Polish Law and Justice Party MP who propagates the Polish ‘judicial reform’ project in parliament, for example, is a former communist prosecutor who locked up dissidents in the 1980s. The Hungarian ruling party, Fidesz, also has many of its own pet ex-communists, including, for example, Sándor Pintér, Minister of the Interior. Curious, isn’t it, how members of the old regime are so attracted to the police institutions of the new illiberal states.
Nobody, in either country, is seriously trying to grapple with the difficult issues of immigration or refugee policy either. They are not going to join you in fighting against ‘freedom of movement’. Both governments of course still want their own people to be able to work in Britain. Neither really cares much about the integration of immigrants from outside Europe either — because in their countries, there aren’t any, and there aren’t any trying to get in. This is why Orbán refocused his fearmongering election propaganda on George Soros. In the absence of actual black or brown people, he had to make a Jewish billionaire into the primary hate figure instead.
Neither has Orbán ever made the slightest contribution to solving the problem of real refugees from real wars. While he and his far-right friends dreamed up offensive slogans for the purposes of winning elections, immigration rates plunged — thanks entirely to the efforts of centrist politicians like Angela Merkel, who quietly did a deal with Turkey to take care of millions of Syrians. In the next EU budget, the one that Britain won’t take part in, there will be extra funds for border guards as well. This is actual policy change, not propaganda. This is why, as the number of real immigrants falls, you will hear a lot more about Soros or some other cartoon-book villains — maybe the Rothschilds? — from Hungarians, Italians and Ukip instead.
Bannon’s equally phoney anti-European funding vehicle ‘The Movement’ will make no real contribution either. This organisation, designed largely to revive the career of the former Trump aide, is now seeking to pump up the careers of some other out-of-office politicians too. No doubt they will try to manipulate social media and try to inflate fear and anger, as they did in the past. No doubt they will raise money from some billionaires who live in tax havens, far away from the Europe inhabited by real Europeans. But don’t make the mistake of thinking there is any larger issue at stake. Bannon, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage all need new jobs — the last is about to lose his lucrative European parliament salary — and that, not a ‘Europe of Nations’, is what really matters.
A different Britain, a Britain that still sought to play an important role in Europe and the world, would right now join the rest of Europe, or even lead the rest of Europe, in pushing back against the tidal wave of hypocrisy, corruption and authoritarianism that threatens Europe and the UK, potentially undermining not just the European Union but Nato and a host of other transatlantic institutions, not to mention international financial markets. Instead, as Michael Gove told Andrew Marr recently, ‘individual criticisms’ of Orbán don’t ‘help us in ensuring that we get… the best deal for Britain as we leave the European Union’. Britain is silent, because… Brexit.
The task thus falls to other Europeans, especially the much-maligned bureaucrats of Brussels. That EU parliamentary decision — the one British Tories voted against — might help. It’s a step towards invoking Article 7, a procedure that can suspend EU states which undermine democracy and the rule of law. The same procedure has already begun against Poland. Meanwhile, the European Court of Justice that Brexiteers so despise has ruled that EU members can, in certain cases, block Polish arrest warrants on the grounds that rule of law no longer exists in Poland. The officials and MEPs who have worked behind the scenes to make these changes happen are Swedish, German, Dutch — anything but British.
On the most important political and moral issues facing Europe today, the British, once the leaders in the struggle for European democracy, have nothing to say. Hamstrung by Brexit — they know they can’t afford to offend anybody — British diplomats keep quiet about Hungary’s assault on democracy. British politicians say nothing, not even behind closed doors, about Poland’s destruction of its courts. Brexiteers amuse themselves, meanwhile, by flirting with Bannon and helping to revive his career in Mayfair, now that he has failed in Washington and New York. They go on dreaming of a Europe that doesn’t exist and never will, a Europe that conforms to their prejudices, echoes their nostalgia, and remains little known and far away.