These five scenarios are driven by a number of global trends that are changing the democratic politics and societies the world over. For reasons of history, size and geography, and given their still-recent political, economic and social transformation, many of these trends are particularly amplified and impactful in the countries of Central Europe. This makes the region a harbinger of developments that, for their own sake, democracies further West must acknowledge and address more fully and urgently than is currently the practice.
End of liberal certainty
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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