01 October 2018
After several decades of having a broadly understood liberal consensus, which reached its climax in the 1990s, a global, illiberal trend is on the rise. The weakening of the liberal international order and the accession of neo-authoritarian regimes are alarming global occurrences, but the tendency in Central-European countries – previously champions of the transition to democracy – is particularly disquieting, and these nations are at risk of becoming the prodigal sons of liberalism. In many instances, these shifts are being buttressed by savvy communication strategies, with powerful counter narratives challenging the liberal and democratic paradigm. Illiberal politics has surfaced in nearly every established democracy, but it has been particularly impactful where institutional arrangements are still shaky as in Central Europe.
Adding to this is a broader transformation of democratic politics, which is testing the institutional order of our societies. The sheer volume and diversity of voters in the political systems alone is a persistent challenge that is magnified by technological and cultural shifts like the expansion of the Internet, the fading of post-war memory, social polarisation, tribalism, and the weakening of social trust and social capital. As a result, party systems have come under strain, calls have been growing for referenda and more direct democracy, and the multi-level governance structure has been questioned.
Meanwhile, one of the key anchors for European democracies, the EU, has been suffering from a succession of unrelenting crises for over a decade. Starting with the financial crisis of 2008 through the Russian-induced security crisis (since 2014) to the refugee crisis beginning in 2015, the EU has been in emergency response mode. Neither has it been able to fully resolve any of these challenges nor has there been much political and institutional capacity for a more forward-leaning agenda of advancing the European project. As a result, the legitimacy and attractiveness of the EU has suffered and support among the European populations has diminished.
Along with the standing of the EU, other Western institutions – and global multilateralism overall – has weakened. Already under pressure from illiberal and sovereigntist politics, growing calls for protectionism, and the geopolitical ambitions of Russia as well as other autocracies, multilateral institutions, processes and forums have now been met with additional disdain from the new U.S. administration. Whether it be NATO, the UN or the WTO, none of the traditional institutional formats used to ensure European security, global trade and cooperation or, more directly, conflict-management have remained unscathed.
Economically speaking, Central Europe seems to offer a brighter picture, with generally robust growth, development and lower rates of income equality. While this is a snapshot of the region, trends have been indicating a growing disparity of power and wealth, and even more worrisome is the increasing oligarchisation. One key deficit is the distribution of EU funds which primarily serves, as in Hungary, to cement the powers-that-be rather than the sustainable development of the country. Another element that is emerging is state capitalism; a situation where big state-owned companies are pursuing a successful model of expansionism in which economic interests are intertwined with political objectives. A side effect of this is the new economic protectionism in otherwise free-market economies. Finally, the region’s place in global production chains renders it particularly vulnerable to economic shocks and changes as well as the strong social and political repercussions associated.
Equally mixed has been the impact of technological advancements, and the digital revolution in particular, on Central Europe. While digitalisation offers unprecedented options for democratic oversight over the institutions of power and a vast promise of economic prosperity, it also increases inequalities through uneven social access to new technologies, and it facilitates state surveillance of citizens to a hitherto unknown extent.
What is more, technology exposes democracy to mass-scale manipulation. While the concept of “fake news” is hardly new, digital technologies and social media now facilitate unprecedented levels of disinformation.
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The confidence of the citizenry in quality media and political institutions is being systematically eroded, and a polarisation among these citizens is being fuelled by disinformation. The arrival of the post-truth era, or the seeming relativity of all facts, undermines the cohesion of democratic societies and the ability to govern effectively by elected leaders.
Another trend, long believed to have been left behind but recently returning with a vengeance, are disputes over borders and territories. The Russian annexation of Crimea may have put a spotlight on this old-new challenge but frozen conflicts elsewhere in the post-Soviet space, China’s creation of artificial islands beyond its waters, or the flaring-up of border issues in the former Yugoslavia all testify to a broader tendency. It remains to be seen whether Central Europe – a region with numerous, historical border configurations – will prove immune to this trend.
No less a revival is the recent surge of isolationism and nativism that, as a response to globalisation, has propelled right-wing populists and extremists to political prominence. Not only in Central Europe but increasingly also in the older democracies of the West – from the U.K. and the U.S. to Italy and Germany – political rhetoric and agendas are being reshaped in the direction of closed societies and protectionism. This includes, typically framed as a response to the threat of terrorism, a significant securitisation of the political and public discourse. The key staples of liberal democracy, such as privacy, personal freedoms and civil rights, are at an ever-greater risk of being sacrificed as public fears drive government policies at home and abroad.
An important social trend is the demographic shifts and their impact on democracy in Central Europe. One dimension is the very ageing of societies and its profound impact on both the welfare systems and the labour markets, with increasing burdens on the former while gradually jeopardising social peace and shortages in the latter by limiting the prospects for continued economic growth. Another aspect is a generational conflict that is looming on the horizon. This clash-in-the-making evolves around the status quo orientation of contemporary politics, which primarily benefits the older generation and betrays the future of the younger populations. Yet another layer of demographic change is the increased mobility within the EU. It is not only the persistent economic gap but also the political rift between Central Europe and the rest of the EU that is causing a net outflow of citizens from the region; those leaving are typically younger, well-educated and politically more moderate.
One avenue of mitigating at least some of these demographic effects in Central Europe has been to facilitate labour migration from Eastern neighbours, especially Ukraine. However, migration from further afield, such as Asia or Africa, to Central Europe is much more politically and socially sensitive as the region’s reaction to the 2015 refugee crisis has demonstrated. Such intercontinental migration pressures will only increase in the years and decades to come. Pull forces of labour shortages and comparative wealth in Central Europe, combine with push factors such as violent conflicts and climate change affecting major parts of the world. Though flows of people into Europe will predictably increase, it remains unclear how Central Europe will position itself on migration in the long run.
Yet, refugees and migration are only two of the consequences of wars and conflicts that seem to be moving ever closer to the frontiers of the EU. Whether to the south or the east, humanitarian disasters, state failures, organised crime and disruptions of energy and trade flows will be just as detrimental to the old continent, including Central Europe, as the migration crisis. Tackling these issues will require strategies that go beyond a better protection of EU borders, which regional politicians have called for time and again.
More than ever before, it would seem, these global trends require a strong community of Western democracies, their leadership, multilateral institutions and economic clout with an overarching emphasis on liberal values and the rule of law. Yet precisely in this critical situation, the West is more divided and uncertain of its role in the world than ever. The U.S. is facing strong internal pressures to rethink and possibly reduce their role in global affairs, while the EU has yet to muster the political will and coherence to become a powerful player in world politics. This provides openings that non-European autocracies are more than willing to exploit ideologically, politically, economically and militarily. This growing footprint of powers such as Russia and China, and their open challenge to traditional Western institutions, values and narratives has become impossible to ignore in Central Europe.