1 October 2018
The sovereigntist and illiberal trend that is particularly pronounced in Central European politics becomes mainstream across the EU. European norms of democracy and rule of law are hollowed out in more and more EU member states, while their further political integration as a bloc is first halted and then gradually reversed. As a result, the European project degrades until it constitutes little more than a free trade zone among what are, essentially, only nominal democracies.
Central Europe successfully spearheads a form of politics that is sovereigntist and nationalist on the outside while being paternalistic, majoritarian and anti-democratic from within. It manifests itself in an aggressive questioning of EU institutions, an open rejection of the EU’s policies from the eurozone to migration, and in flagrant violations of European standards of democracy and the rule of law. With Hungary and Poland as the forerunners, this form of power-politics systematically expands its reach over ever more areas of political, economic and social life, whether by curbing the space for civic organisations, subordinating courts and sub-national authorities, or expanding governmental control over key media and businesses.
Neither the democratic, pro-European (including national and continental) forces nor the EU itself are able to stem this degradation of democracy in Central Europe.
The former, while resting on the pro-European sentiments among many citizens, fails to unite, mobilise and challenge the illiberal powers-that-be. Likewise, the Union is unable to provide any real correctives. Its infringement procedures against member states that depart from democratic and rule of law standards are blunted by the EU’s own political complacency and opportunism, by the increased sophistication of Central European governments to bypass existing norms and by their mutual support – such as vetoes – against punitive measures at the EU level.
On the economic front, Central European growth rates continue to outperform those of the rest of Europe (illiberal governments notwithstanding), and the region remains a darling for investors, benefits from its comparably lower labour costs and avails itself – not least after years of EU co-funding – of an ever improving infrastructure. What is more, it opens up more readily to investment partnerships with non-EU and less-than-democratic states, from China to Turkey and from Russia to the Gulf. In so doing, the Central European countries compensate for the decrease in EU subsidies and cement the illiberal political status quo through authoritarian alliances beyond Europe.
Seemingly successful in both politics and the economy, this illiberal model changes European politics at large. One effect is that the style of politics first implemented in Budapest and Warsaw will find willing followers in other EU capitals. In Central Europe especially but increasingly also in the West, the appeal of a strong state that asserts itself against interference brings to power governments that are ready to compromise their countries’ earlier commitments to democracy and European integration. This will, by 2020, provide them with a critical mass and veto power in the European Council.
Another effect is the improved systematic cooperation of EU-sceptic and illiberal strands across Europe. Given their success at home, Hungary’s Fidesz and Poland’s PiS (Law and Justice) parties become the ideological nucleus of a new Europe-wide party that gathers together the hitherto scattered sovereigntists and nationalists.
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With a strong showing in the 2019 elections to the European Parliament, and through realignments in the following years, this new bloc becomes the largest parliamentary group, dominating and effectively neutering what should be the heart and defender of European democracy.
On the institutional side, this seizure of the Council and Parliament allows Europe’s illiberals to paralyse these two central EU institutions and places pressure on a third, the European Commission. This reduces the ability of the EU overall to safeguard democracy within EU member states and to create integration and unity among them.
This is accompanied, on the policy side, by an increasing ability of sovereigntists and illiberals to shape the European political agenda and discourse. They pressure the European political establishment, whether centre-left or centre-right, to adopt harder-line positions as is already happening in Europe regarding refugee, migration and border policies. Given, among other factors, the unresolved and deepening refugee, eurozone and security crises in the EU, these illiberal leaders are successful in promoting their radically alternative projects among growing segments of the European populace.
This puts the entire European project, and the moderate political forces underwriting it, on the defensive. The first response will be to switch to a preservationist mode. Bold designs to further European integration will be dropped, fixes to the manifest political deficits of the EU will remain piecemeal and the bloc will continue to muddle through its multiple crises. However, this will neither appease sovereigntist and illiberal appetites nor reduce the public appeal of nationalist alternatives to a seemingly failing European project.
Instead, an ever greater array of EU policies face sovereigntist claims for repatriation of competencies to the member states. Migration controls are established nationally as are energy strategies; non-eurozone countries make their opt-outs permanent; the modest common foreign and security policy gives way to exclusively bilateral external relations.
In the same vein, illiberals permit less EU criticism, let alone any interference, as they recast their national, political, economic and public lives.
This downward spiral is basically unstoppable as, whenever there is controversy, sovereigntists and illiberals threaten to leave the EU altogether.
That threat will be particularly powerful if a soft landing of the United Kingdom shows Brexit to be a feasible and favourable example to follow.
This dynamic steadily hollows out European integration and strips it of most of its attributes. The end result is an EU that is little more than an elaborate free trade zone, with a subset of members that retain a common currency. Democracy and the rule of law may survive in the bloc’s north and west, while Central Europe slides into neo-authoritarianism that is only thinly veiled by democratic procedures. Ironically, this new format of a Europe of sovereign and not necessarily democratic nations swiftly expands to include the Western Balkans, it sees political relations improve with both Russia and Turkey, and it becomes ever more dependent on China for both trade and investment. Yet, the erstwhile European project of deep integration among democratic nations is over.