A decade since the Visegrad countries joined the European Union, a backlash against the bloc has inevitably occurred. In Poland and Hungary, this has led to the rise of the Congress of the New Right and Jobbik, two bone-chillingly far-right parties. The example of the Czech Republic, where euroscepticism is much more benign, indicates that perhaps a look into these nations’ political cultures is key to understanding this electoral success, and that the evolution of these cultures is key to overcoming such a strong shift to the right.
Almost exactly ten years ago, the EU undertook its largest expansion yet. Ten countries, eight of which – the Czech Republic, Hungary, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia – were former communist states joined. Millions of people were jubilant. Finally, they felt, their half-century of humiliation was over. Now, their countries would become fattened by EU cohesion funds, which would help them build new highways and repeat the successes of Spain and Ireland (this was before the Great Recession).
Anyone who has ever been in love knows that infatuation eventually fades. The same happened with the nations of East-Central Europe and the EU. As the novelty of the EU wore off, East-Central Europeans realized that the bloc is an imperfect blessing. During the financial crisis that started in 2008, East-Central Europeans realized that the euro may not, after all, be so desirable. They also understood that while EU membership meant greater access to Western European export markets, it is not an impenetrable shield against economic hardship.
Thus, it was inevitable that Europeans east of the Elbe river would eventually start to rethink the EU’s grandeur. The recent elections to the European Parliament are evidence of this. And, in the case of Poland and Hungary, growing euroscepticism has opened a window for the frightening rise of the far-right.
Poland’s Jorg Haider
The surprise of this weekend’s European Parliament elections was the success of Janusz Korwin-Mikke’s Congress of the New Right party. For over 20 years, Korwin-Mikke’s election results seldom exceeded 1-2 per cent. Yet this weekend the Congress of the New Right received over 7 per cent of the vote, by far its best performance ever.
In the past 25 years of Polish democracy, there have been many “anti-establishment” parties: in the 1990s, the Polish Beer Lovers Party entered the EP, while a decade later the parties of farmer populist Andrzej Lepper and far-right Catholic nationalist Roman Giertych were voted in. In 2011, the anti-clerical party of vodka tycoon Janusz Palikot gained 10 per cent of the vote. Now, Korwin-Mikke has apparently become the new “anti” party. In addition, while Giertych and Lepper were strongly anti-EU, they are long gone from the political scene (Andrzej Lepper committed suicide in 2011). Korwin-Mikke has thus apparently filled the eurosceptic void.
Now 72, Korwin-Mikke has for decades promoted the same program, mixing extreme economic libertarianism with radical social conservatism. An anarcho-capitalist, Korwin-Mikke wants to completely privatize Poland’s education and healthcare systems and reduce taxes to a minimal level. He is a promoter of what Britons call a “night-watchman state”: he wants the state’s role to be reduced to maintaining law and order (Korwin-Mikke supports the reinstitution of the death penalty) and nothing more. And, of course, he hates the EU and has said that his intention is to destroy it if elected to the European Parliament.
Additionally, Janusz Korwin-Mikke is a social conservative. His views on abortion, euthanasia, and homosexual civil unions, etc., are traditionally socially conservative. He wants to reinstate a hereditary absolutist monarchy. And despite his otherwise conservative views, Korwin-Mikke advocates legalizing recreational drugs.
So what’s the problem? Janusz Korwin-Mikke’s laissez-faire economics and conservative social values differ little from, say, the right wing of the American Republican Party (except, of course, the eccentric idea of bringing back Louis XIV-style leadership). And he dislikes the EU. But so does David Cameron. What’s the harm?
Janusz Korwin-Mikke is a sexist. He repeatedly says with full seriousness that women are less intelligent than men and are incapable of working and receiving education but should only cook and raise children. He also wants to deprive women of suffrage rights.
But wait, there’s more. Janusz Korwin-Mikke recently said that Adolf Hitler did not know about the Holocaust. His political heroes are Chilean butcher General Augusto Pinochet and Vladimir Putin. He has praised the Chinese government for its oppression of the Tibetan people.
Want to read what Janusz Korwin-Mikke said about people with disabilities? During the 2012 Paralympics in London he wrote on his blog (sadly, the most popular political blog in Poland): “[The Paralympics] have little in common with sports. We might as well organize chess matches for morons or bridge tournaments for people with Down’s Syndrome. European civilization, which dominated the world, stood up for the smartest, strongest, most intelligent, and fastest people; but today’s anti-civilization prefers the poor, stupid, incapable, and also invalids. In effect we are not colonizing the world; it is colonizing us.”
As an historian, I cannot help but think of the Third Reich’s ideological justifications for its euthanasia programs for the elderly and those with disabilities. As a Catholic, I find it disgusting that Janusz Korwin-Mikke, who sees himself as a defender of Christian values, speaks with such un-Christian hatred about women or those with disabilities. Due to his economic libertarianism, Janusz Korwin-Mikke’s fans call him the Polish Ron Paul, although the Polish Jorg Haider is a more appropriate comparison.
Fascism, a living entity
It is difficult to say what is more disturbing: that Janusz Korwin-Mikke was elected an MEP, or that in Hungary’s elections to the European Parliament the far-right Jobbik party gained second place.
Like Janusz Korwin-Mikke’s Congress of the New Right, Jobbik is eurosceptic. And like the Polish party, it is deeply disturbing. Jobbik’s approach to Hungary’s past is unsettling. Last autumn in Budapest, the party unveiled a statue to Regent Miklos Horthy, who collaborated with Hitler during the Second World War. Jobbik is also directly influenced by the ideology of the wartime fascist Arrow Cross.
While anti-EU, Jobbik is particularly friendly with Arab states… for racial reasons. It espouses the racial ideology of “Turanism” espoused by the Arrow Cross’s leader Ferenc Szalasi, which considered the Hungarian people to be part of a Turkic master race stretching eastwards towards Central Asia that also includes Arabs.
Once again, the historian in me cannot help but be reminded of Heinrich Himmler’s belief that the Germans were descendants of a master Aryan race with mythic origins in India.
Meanwhile, Jobbik seems to be pursuing a strategy now common in Western Europe – that of masking traditional European anti-Semitism under the “chic” guise of anti-Zionism. Jobbik regularly protests against Israel’s treatment of Palestinian Arabs. But is it truly concerned about the plight of the inhabitants of the Gaza Strip, or is it simply looking for a way to cloak ancient prejudices?
When the World Jewish Congress met in Budapest in 2013, Jobbik held a demonstration. Its activists and parliamentary deputies demanded that Jews apologize for “the crimes they have committed against Hungary under the Communist regime”. Some Jobbik members claimed this was a Jewish attempt to “buy up” Hungary. In 2012, Márton Gyöngyösi, deputy head of Jobbik’s parliamentary delegation, proposed making a tally of all people of Jewish origin living in Hungary.
Jobbik march, Budapest, 23 October 2013
Jews are not the only minority targeted by Jobbik. Anti-Roma prejudices are nothing new to Europe; it is worth remembering Nicolas Sarkozy’s destruction of legal Roma camps in France. However, the Roma are Hungary’s largest minority. While no reliable statistics are available, between 450,000 and one million Roma live in the country. Anti-Roma sentiments are indeed found in Hungary. One poll finds that 60 per cent of Hungarians believe that the Roma are genetically inclined to criminality.
Jobbik does not explicitly attack the Roma in the way it attacks Jews. However, it frequently links the Roma to crime. And Jobbik continually repeats the claim that the Roma are a financial burden on Hungary – a tumor that only sucks welfare benefit out of the Hungarian state while only giving destruction in return.
A question of political culture?
So what can we do to prevent repeating the rise of such charlatans as Janusz Korwin-Mikke or Jobbik in the Visegrad countries? I propose altering political cultures.
Nations are different, and each has a political culture with its benefits and its downsides. The Poles and the Hungarians throughout their own history have boldly risen up to their oppressors, be they the Nazis, the Soviets, the Habsburgs, or Russia’s Tsars. The Czechs, on the other hand, have preferred to conform rather than fight. However, interwar Europe Czechoslovakia, led by enlightened president Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, was a haven of democracy; while, Poland and Hungary – like much of the rest of Europe – were ruled by authoritarian regimes.
Perhaps that is why, while the Czech Republic has become perhaps the most eurosceptic country in the region, no unsettling parties entered the European Parliament from the country this past weekend. Vaclav Klaus’ Part of Free Citizens gained representation. The party opposes the Lisbon Treaty and the euro. Yet Vaclav Klaus is a eurosceptic reminiscent of David Cameron, not Janusz Korwin-Mikke. I have never heard Klaus speak with pride of Czechoslovak Nazi collaborators or insult women or Czechs with disabilities.
The Czech Republic is evidence that one can be critical of the EU yet not resort to far-right extremism. Yet one country’s political culture cannot be automatically be transplanted to another. Then what is to be done for Poland and Hungary?
NGOs in the two countries should work to improve their political cultures. They should also expose and amplify the controversial statements of politicians; and Poland should pass stricter hate speech legislation (within reason). Korwin-Mikke’s statements about women and “invalids” should not go unchecked.
Meanwhile, in Hungary, historians should work to educate Hungarian society about the dark chapters of its past collaboration with Nazi Germany. Hungarian NGOs as well as educators should be committed to teaching young people about tolerance towards minorities such as the Roma or Jews (Hungary has East-Central Europe’s largest Jewish Diaspora, yet a recent poll shows that anti-Semitic attitudes are most prevalent there among all the countries in the region).
Changing political cultures is an arduous, years-long process. But it is the only way to stop demagogues such as Jobbik and the Congress of the New Right from embarrassing the great nations of Poland and Hungary in Brussels.
Filip Mazurczak studied history and Latin American literature at Creighton University and international relations at The George Washington University.