Populist foreign and domestic policy may finally face a strong rebuttal. But more needs to be done inside those countries in order to contain the political cancer.


A national foreign policy depends on the sovereign executive leadership of any given country. It is not shaped by bureaucracy or strategic documents but rather moulded predominantly by the person actually in control of a political destiny of a given political entity – Viktor Orban in the case of Hungary and Jaroslaw Kaczynski, in the case of Poland. Those individuals have the ultimate control over what is defined as a threat in their international environment and how they should respond to them. The very act of disagreement with those interpretations is considered by them as a political challenge evoking the simplistic friend-or-foe dichotomy. This is how a populist eludes to a seemingly all-encompassing open society paradigm.

The essence of a populist foreign policy has been captured by Viktor Orban during his speech at a meeting of the V4 prime ministers in Warsaw on March 28th, 2017. Speaking to a crowd at the CEE Innovators Summit, he described himself as a political innovator – meaning someone who can question the status quo and attain political goals in a much more efficient manner than traditional ways. He must have meant a disruptive innovator.

In the language of new high-tech culture, the term disruptive innovation is used when new segments are carved out of the market for novel goods or services that replace existing actors and institutions, creating added-value in their wake. Clearly, Viktor Orban is a political disruptor as he sings his song of right wing rebellion against the Western norms of liberalism that bind his ambitions. “To revolt is to rule could be his credo, echoing one of his controversial prophecies about 2017 – a year of rebellions in Europe[1].”

Personal state of exception

But here the high-tech added-value analogy ends as there is little innovation in Orban’s policy itself. So too, the Polish leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski, also a lawyer by trade, instead of creating effective and worthwhile legislation, satisfies himself with the preservation of any power he can obtain; this is usually accomplished through legal nihilism, ensuring that laws serve the political ends and are scrapped if they are any challenge to his political will. The method is still disruptive but not really innovative.

Both men take advantage of a self-induced state of exception in which only the leader can generate new norms and define new boundaries of sovereignty by creating conflict and chaos. Both are effective in undermining the existing order, yet neither of them has established new competitive political products that would outlast their rule – be it institutions or laws.

They both speak about politics in historical terms. Evoking traditional values and myths about the greatness of their nations – hence they often are portrayed as conservatives driven by tradition – but there is little political substance that would support such a description apart from their various, shallow declarations. In fact, they would rather be portrayed as considerable reformers than fearless revolutionaries. “This is not a revolution but a reformation. There is a whole range of things that need to be fixed. By the very nature of change, it will result in conflict,” Kaczynski told FT when asked about the conflict surrounding the Constitutional Tribunal[2].

Some may see the rule of Kaczynski and Orban as the realisation of the obscure political theology by Carl Schmitt – a 20th century jurist and political philosopher – who argued that sovereignty is coined by those who can declare a state of exception and that any political identity arises primarily through setting up a political enemy by abusing religion, ideology or any historical difference between groups of people and being able to redraw those lines. A state of exception – a new definition of situation that renders old laws obsolete and enables new paradigms seems a permanent feature of both regimes. Political identity built on the division of Us vs. Them is their political religion. This is made clear by their ardent distinctions between us (Hungarians or Poles) and them – Muslim, liberal elites, unknown others.

It would be naive to assume that both leaders and many other dictatorial personalities – like Le Pen, Trump, Maduro or Putin – are motivated by Carl Schmitt. But one can understand the behaviour of those political animals in a matrix of Schmittian theory, where the consistency of right or left political ideologies are just bi-products of a much more primal striving for power. The political will shapes both domestic and foreign policy mindsets by sheer force. A colleague of Jaroslaw Kaczynski, during his student years, recalled in an article about his intellectual inspirations: “During our PhD seminars, Jarek was the only one to claim that the Soviets will fall during our lifetime. The Professor demanded proof, but Kaczynski did not have any. Furious because of his intellectual impotence, he fired off: ‘Because I want it[3].’”

This self-made attitude has prevailed in him and was later documented in an autobiography ‘Agreement against mono-power. From the annals of PC’ published in 2016.[4] Inside the self-congratulatory tome, he portrayed himself as the central figure in the Solidarity movement, of which he was not. The conviction about the power of one’s will and the consequences of ideas put forward by a wilful individual are yet another proximity factor of the two political minds; Victor Orban has nourished a rebellious legend about himself all pivoting around a 1989 speech he gave where he demanded the withdrawal of the Red Army.

As mentioned before, both Central European politicians have studied law, and that knowledge, today, is one of their main instruments of power. The disruption of legal order coupled with the creation of new provisions are the mode by which they exercise their sovereignty. Speaking in Schmittian terms, it is not legal continuation they both want – anchored in domestic and international obligations – because it would deprive them of sovereignty. Therefore, they question and undermine the current regime and continuously redefine boundaries of their power. This fluctuation of legal norms, undermines the existing institutions and allows for the implementation of new ones – created by the new regime, such as: a new constitutional court, new agencies, new ministries – to anchor themselves in the revolutionary mode.

Hypocrisy and sovereignty

Hypocrisy is not a sin. If the Catholic church had it declared as an offence, then it would have to shut down itself in a minute. Hypocrisy, in fact, enables institutions to run and operate under the rule of law guided by a steady moral compass. It is the same in politics; hypocrisy is evenly distributed regardless of party affiliation. It allows for the masking of the particular human error that we are all bound to and preserve, a system of universal guiding principles.

Stephen Krasner calls this concept of sovereignty in international relations an organised hypocrisy. Here, state sovereignty supersedes the international system over a specific area and people, and furthermore, the state has a legitimate exercise of power and its own interpretation of international law. Rules of sovereignty, Krasner observes, are repeatedly being broken. This can apply to any of the four types of sovereign power: legal sovereignty (based on independent territories, interdependence sovereignty (resulting from globalisation), domestic sovereignty (the standard definition of legitimacy in domestic power structure) and the Westphalian sovereignty – states have the right to separately determine their own domestic authority. In any of the four cases, there are exceptions to the rule, which enable peaceful coexistence. This neo-realist approach also helps to understand the foreign policy of today’s Europe where EU norms and principles are adhering to the political will of national governments as well as Brussels-based institutions.

Viktor Orban eagerly criticises the hypocrisy of the European arrangement[5], arguing that rules must be changed since they do not represent the reality of the power-effective relations in the EU. In principle, he – just like other populists in Europe – is complaining about the overblown powers of the European Commission and the EU Parliament. Praising national sovereignty enshrined by democratic elections, he overlooks the obvious paradox of his statements i.e. the liberal institutions of Brussels protect smaller actors like Hungary from the nationalism of greater powers like Germany, France (or, until recently, the UK) in doing as they like.

This cherry-picking hypocrisy could not mean less for the EU order if Poland had not joined the populist club, clearly under the influence of the events in Hungary. The like-minded narrative – referring to the old refrain of the Polish-Hungarian friendship – has captured the imagination of the senior leadership of Poland including Marek Kuchcinski, speaker of the Polish parliament (second seat in the official rank of seniority of the official power structure of Poland after the President), several ministers and, most importantly, the unofficial head of the country – Jaroslaw Kaczynski. Hungary even managed to take over the V4 stage for its own foreign policy goals. The asymmetry of Polish-Hungarian relations became too obvious to ignore even by the Polish Institute of International Affairs as the foreign policy of Warsaw, supposedly fighting to reclaim sovereignty, became nearly annexed by Budapest:

“Thanks to the role it has played during the migration crisis, it has strengthened its position within the Visegrad Group, to the extent that it might be perceived as having the greatest political influence among V4 members. Orbán ensured that the rejection of mandatory quotas for redistributing immigrants was acknowledged as the unifying element of the V4. As a result, Budapest has found itself in the spotlight among European political forces opposed to accepting refugees. This distinguishes Hungary from Poland, which has failed so far to unite the group with its concepts of EU treaty reform. The Hungarian government restrains from taking a clear position on this issue, for bigger Member States give no signs of their willingness to support treaty reform. Thus, Hungary increases its political potential by maintaining both a strong regional position and good relations with Germany and the EU institutions.

At the same time, the Hungarian government signals that it is interested in participating in the construction of a “new international order.” This might mean an unwillingness to defend the order created in Europe after 1989, one of the main beneficiaries of which is Poland[6].”

In other words Hungary, for its own national goals defined by Viktor Orban, took advantage of the political capital produced previously by the Visegrad Group that was sanctioned, if not discretely led, by Poland. The effect is disastrous both for Poland and for the V4, effectively damaging the current arrangement in the EU, where Poland was once considered to be one of the main EU players and having realistic ambitions to lead the region.

The ensuing chaos from the current Polish foreign policy is only growing. Much of the blame could be naturally placed on their Hungarian accomplices, but a large portion of the responsibility has to be accepted by the Poles themselves. The situation has been exacerbated by the over-zealous Minister of Foreign Affairs, Witold Waszczykowski[7], who’s political future is wholly dependent on the will of PiS, though his diplomatic blunders are protecting Jaroslaw Kaczynski from taking full responsibility.

In effect, Poland is stepping down from its role in the EU – clearly demonstrated by the number of lost voting rounds and declining ability to form a V4 coalition on EU affairs under the current leadership[8]. That, in effect, is slowly decimating the very purpose of the V4 that all four countries have been satisfied with, including Viktor Orban whose ambitions are to gain influence in the EU through the Trojan horse of Visegrad. What was once hypocrisy is now pure chaos.

What next

Hungarian and Polish foreign policy under the governments of Fidesz and PiS will remain a burden to both national interests of those countries long after both nationalist governments are ousted. The damage will be repaired neither easily nor quickly. These countries’ foreign policy have applied a chaotic cocktail of post-modern ideology mixed with nationalism and an anti-institutional approach. This is neither unique nor new.

In the current international context, the options are limited. There is the EU, currently shattered by Brexit negotiations that will be priority for the Germany[9] as well as for Britain itself – each of those countries having a considerable influence on the politics of the V4 countries. USA has, for the time being, a ticking bomb as president and despite positive developments regarding LexCEU, the State Department is unlikely to exert any more serious pressure on the governments. The only possibility remains in new political actors on the domestic scenes who could bring forward a new policy outlook and set up far reaching agendas for regaining influence within EU, either individually or as a group.

First, a new European agenda for the V4 should be set. The most obvious one is the eurozone, which is likely to become a second if not the strongest political integration mechanism within Europe. In other words, it will not matter so much that the V4 coordinates positions on the EU because more decisions will be taken by another influential group within – members of the monetary union. Only Slovakia has adopted the euro, and its economic performance is better than any other country in the region, contrary to any propaganda coming from Orban or Kaczynski. To preserve the strength of the V4 on the continent and keep up with multi-speed (or even two-speed) Europe, this substantial goal should be clearly advocated for and fulfilled. Slovakia has a role to play here through the means of public diplomacy directed at the other V4 countries and by promoting its performance. If successful, it will strengthen the cohesion of V4 as well.

Second, there needs to be more social integration and an activation of social capital. The foreign policy must follow democratic sentiments and understanding. A clear focus on the eurozone offers a space to bring forward not only an economic policy debate (close both to the hearts and wallets of their citizens) but can also be interlinked with political foreign policy objectives (by putting influence on the political agenda of the continent, fulfilling the dream of integration and ensuring peace). The societies of the V4 suffer from low levels of social capital, a lack of trust and insufficient participation. Political actors along with the media and NGO must devise common strategies to address this challenge. United we stand, divided we fall should never again be limited to elitist circle but must integrate broader and broader circles of society.

Third, Hungary and Poland should contain the burgeoning nationalism within its own borders through a cohesive political strategy of main political parties. Be it through centrist populism like in France or pushing nationalism to the corner like in the Netherlands, there is room to win democracy for moderates. Regardless if one devises such strategies within the existing mainstream parties or if the right moment and resources are applied to relatively new political entities, the only strategy in today’s politics must be a winning strategy. Therefore, a dose of populism ought to be a good vaccine against stiffness of the good old liberalism.

Wojciech Przybylski, Editor-in-chief of Visegrad Insight.

This article has been first presented at a conference ‘V4 for Europe’ co-organised by the Hungarian European Society and the Ebert Foundation in Budapest on May 16th, 2017

[1] https://888.hu/article-orban-2017-a-lazadas-eve-lesz

[2] Jaroslaw Kaczynski: Poland’s kingmaker, Henry Foy – Financial Times Feb 26, 2016


[3] Kaczynski mysli Leninem?, Maciej Letowski, Gazeta Wyborcza Mar 12, 2016 http://wyborcza.pl/magazyn/1,124059,19754022,kaczynski-mysli-leninem.html

[4] Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Porozumienie przeciw monowładzy. Z dziejów PC, Zysk i S-ka, 2016; PC – Porozumienie Centrum – Centre Agreement party led by Kaczynski from 1990 to 2002

[5] see Viktor Orban, Hungary and the crisis of Europe, Hungarian Review Volume VIII., No. 1, Jann 24, 2017

[6] Veronika Jóźwiak, The Visegrad Group from Hungary’s Perspective, PISM Bulletin no. 86 (936), Dec 13, 2016 https://www.pism.pl/publications/bulletin/no-86-936

[7] Previously, he had been the undersecretary to Radoslaw Sikorski. He was downgraded by Sikorski for ‘diplomatic treason’ for taking up negotiations with the USA on the missile defence system on his own and has considered PO and Sikorski his mortal enemies ever since. The future career of this diplomat is solely dependant not on his merit or international reputation but solely on the political will of Jaroslaw Kaczynski

[8] Polish approach weakens V4’s leverage to influence the future of Europe, VoteWatch Mar 20, 2017, http://www.votewatch.eu/blog/polish-approach-weakens-v4s-leverage-to-influence-the-future-of-europe/

[9] http://visegradinsight.eu/german-helplessness/

Editor-in-chief of Visegrad Insight and Chairman of the Res Publica Foundation

Scenarios for cohesive growth

As of 2019 the negotiations about the next Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) will enter a critical moment. In the face of an imminent Brexit and the fallout from global turmoil, the EU has to reflect on its guiding principles and take decisions to fulfil the promise of a united Europe.

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The Visegrad/Insight is the main platform of debate and analysis on Central Europe. This report has been developed in cooperation with the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS).

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