The COVID-19 pandemic is a perfect storm for strongmen to fire up anti-EU sentiments both in the East and the West. Here’s how the Hungarian and Polish governments are taking advantage of the global pandemic crisis.
The history of European integration has taught us that a crisis or simply the evocation of an emergency situation often plays into the hands of EU-critical voices. Likewise, the current fight against the coronavirus (COVID-19) provides yet another opportunity for Eurosceptics to increase their political capital through EU-bashing.
This is unlikely to fade any time soon as the pandemic poses an indirect but even more complex threat to EU integration as Europe might be facing its largest economic crisis since the Great Depression.
The aftermath is likely to be a painful recession and global structural unemployment that will require community responses based on compromise and mutual trust that has been grossly eroded in the last decade.
The EU is an easy target: blaming it for its incompetence and inaction does not only alleviate some responsibility from national governments, but simple scapegoating may also resonate with an electorate desperate to find answers in an uncertain time. Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) has a special attitude to the European integration process.
As Ivan Krastev argued, while Eastern Europeans are among the most pro-EU publics on the continent, they vote for some of the most Eurosceptic governments. Consequently, the parties of the governing coalition in Hungary did not miss a beat to jump on the Eurosceptic train.
Tamás Deutsch, an MEP from the Hungarian governing party argued that “millions of EU citizens feel that Europe has let them down (…) China and Russia are sending medical tools. Currently, unfortunately, it is not the EU institutions that help the member states”.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán stressed that the coronavirus crisis has exposed the EU’s “weaknesses” and its “failure to help in times of need”, while he praised China and the Turkic Council for their help.
Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjén also claimed that “waiting and counting on the EU bureaucracy is ideological blindness and a utopia jeopardising the nation”.
Additionally, in general, the political discourse in the pro-government media is being dominated by narratives about the collapse of the integration.
Similar narratives were mirrored within the Polish political discourse, where the pro-government state television blamed the EU for “helplessly throwing up its hands” and for leaving “the burden of fighting coronavirus on the member states”. At the same time, they praised China for its solidarity.
Whereas Andrej Babiš, the Czech Prime Minister, has also blamed the EU for not helping the member states, this argument was not yet present explicitly in Slovakia, where Igor Matovič has just formed a coalition government with the Eurosceptic We are Family (Sme Rodina) that allied with Matteo Salvini and Marine Le Pen at the European level.
The above-mentioned reasoning may be appealing to people despite the fact that public health remains a national competence, thus arguments about the EU’s failed healthcare policy response are rather unfounded.
Quarrel over finances
However, it is not only the specific policy competence that is questioned by Eurosceptics but also the EU’s willingness to financially support nations in need. Already at the outbreak of the crisis, both the Hungarian and the Polish prime ministers were claiming that “the EU hasn’t given a single cent yet to fight the coronavirus”.
Although the EU could have been responding in a much more efficient way, claiming that the block has not been helping their member states financially during the crisis is misleading at best.
Due to the more flexible EU regulations related to the pandemic crisis, the European Commission provided a plan for over 37 billion euros of investment with Hungary and Poland set to be the top beneficiaries, receiving nearly five and seven billion euros within the currently existing EU budget.
While it is true that this sum is not an extra stimulus (it wouldn’t even be possible given the Multiannual Financial Framework of the EU), it is guaranteed through a scheme that allows countries to withhold or access earlier pre-payments for projects carried out from the structural and investment funds.
Additionally, the application of the money was made much more flexible so as member states may finance their healthcare system, their labour market, and their SMEs from it. Given that the Hungarian government finances its COVID-19 measures mainly through the restructuring of its budget as well, criticising the EU on the same account is unfair at best.
Furthermore, the Hungarian government may only be able to boost its economy with the help of the EU. For instance, one of the most significant elements of the Hungarian government’s economic relief package is an instrument similar to the German scheme known as “Kurzarbeit”. It secures jobs by providing state funds in case employers kept their workers with shortened working hours, instead of firing them.
Although the exact quotas in the SURE proposal of the EU Commission which is set to fulfil the same objective are unclear, Viktor Orbán’s rescue plan is likely to be at least partly financed by the EU.
Similarly, the Polish government has announced that it is ready to support companies with a package worth 100 billion zloty (€22 billion), as long as they agree not to lay off any staff and pay taxes in Poland. Mateusz Morawiecki claimed that one aim of the support was to help Polish firms to protect themselves from being “squeezed by foreign entities, including Chinese companies”.
The Eurosceptic politics of crisis management
The dramatic situation caused by the pandemic in Europe required decisive and swift action by those holding the power. While there are various manifestations across the continent how this was guaranteed according to the playbook of democracy, once again the Hungarian measures received harsh criticism. Practically, Orbán may govern by decree with no time limit.
While most commentators argued that Orbán exploited the coronavirus pandemic to further weaken (or even jeopardise) democracy in the country (e.g. it crippled the local governments and the oppositional parties financially under the guise of fighting coronavirus), the Commission issued a neutral statement arguing that “it is of utmost importance that emergency measures are not at the expense of our fundamental principles and values”.
Although the statement of the Commission did not mention Hungary specifically, other actors were not so hesitant. Within the European People’s Party (EPP), 13 parties requested once again that Fidesz be expelled from the EPP, while Donald Tusk, the President of the Party likened Orbán’s actions to the virus.
The government did not hesitate to respond to the “unfounded, malevolent accusations” about the Authorisation Act and labelled them as “witch hunt” that represented the “double-standard” of a “liberal opinion dictatorship”.
In a similar spirit, the Polish government was forcing through legislation during the night, amending the electoral code, which would allow the presidential elections to be carried out exclusively by post in May. Furthermore, the Sejm will discuss proposals that could virtually end legal abortions in Poland and effectively criminalise sex education.
Arguably, this has nothing to do with combatting the pandemic or building national solidarity in the middle of a global crisis, contrary to Mateusz Morawiecki’s claim. It has only one purpose: to get President Duda re-elected on 10 May, no matter what it takes.
The challenge is that the global pandemic crisis and its implications are further weakening the basis of mutual trust and the willingness for joint action. However, as Donald Tusk has rightly pointed out, without coordination the pandemic will last longer, and economic and political costs will be higher.
Politically, the real risk is that a Eurosceptic narrative will only strengthen as countries disagree and delay on how to proceed further while populists are undermining community decisions and questioning the efforts of the EU in general.
Furthermore, the crisis will likely strengthen the cleavage between supranationalists and intergovernmentalists giving an advantage to one side or the other depending on the success and efficiency of measures initiated at the European level.
Economically, there is a permanent tension between Western countries such as Germany and the Netherlands and Southern member states about debt-sharing or solidarity, which is not helped through recurring Eurosceptic voices either. Despite the increasing number of cleavages, the EU is not likely to be dissolved.
Nevertheless, the multispeed model is likely to accelerate further as the pandemic crisis might shift this process into a higher gear, incentivising those member states that are willing to cooperate further and leaving out those that are criticising or even rejecting community solutions. Eurosceptic voices should not be over or underestimated in the process.
Fidesz’ propaganda has strengthened anti-Western and anti-European public attitudes for years and Poland is rapidly shifting in the same direction.
According to the latest Kantar polls, the number of respondents claiming that Poland would do better outside of the EU has increased by 11 percentage points in two years.
Although neither the Hungarian nor the Polish governments have openly advocated leaving the EU, their Eurosceptic narratives may prepare the ground for an eventual exit, which may undermine support for and legitimacy of the EU further.
This article is part of the #DemocraCE project.
Edit Zgut is a political scientist, a DemocraCE Fellow at Visegrad Insight and a Rethink.CEE fellow at the German Marshall Fund. She is a visiting lecturer at the University of Warsaw and a PhD student at GSSR, IFIS PAN.
Robert Csehi is a political scientist, a lecturer and researcher at the Bavarian School of Public Policy at the Technical University Munich in Germany.