Future of Europe: Can the EU resist a far-Right, nationalist takeover?
[Source= https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/09/10/future-europe-can-eu-resist-far-right-nationalist-takeover/ , UK Telegraph, by Peter Foster, 10/9/2018, links to the next 5 articles in the series at the end of this article.]
[ Posted by Lara Keller 9/10/18 Updated 19/4/19] Blog Table Of Contents
“With Brexit now less than a year away, the European Union finds itself under assault from a new populist revolution. This six-part series examines the major challenges facing the continent. From immigration to defence, economy to enlargement and, indeed, to the very meaning of democracy itself: ‘The Future of Europe’ is now at stake….”
It could be called the most conservative village in Poland: a clutch of low houses 100 miles north-east of Warsaw, where even the shop and tiny, two-seat hairdressing salon have a crucifix hanging above the door.
People have been settled in Kobylin-Borzymy since the 1400s, but this village in Poland’s old east only gained fame in October 2015 when it voted more overwhelmingly for Poland’s nationalist-conservative Law and Justice Party (PiS) than anywhere else in the country.
Some 85 per cent of the villagers cast their votes for a party that promised a mixture of cash handouts for the poor and an unapologetic defence of Poland’s “thousand year-old Christian heritage” against a rising tide of liberalism and uncontrolled migration.
[With anti-immigration populism now spreading north to Sweden and south to Italy, and with neither Warsaw nor Budapest showing any signs of backing down in the East, the EU is in a quandary.]
This, then, is that “other” Europe – monocultural, conservative and deeply Christian – that the multicultural, liberal and secular Europe had assumed would quietly fade away after the Soviet empire crumbled and its satellite states voted to join the EU in 2004.
But history did not “end”, as Francis Fukuyama predicted. Instead over the last decade in Europe it has been reawakened with a vengeance.
First, the 2008 global financial crisis, then the 2011 eurozone debt crisis and finally the 2015 migrant crisis have all worked to drive a wedge into the heart of the European project, reopening an ancient ideological fissure that now threatens to cleave the union from east to west.
Poland’s government is facing a formal investigation in Brussels for failing to uphold the “rule of law” while Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian prime minister, revels in his role as cheerleader for a new brand of “illiberal democracy” that defends Christian Europe from a Muslim “invasion”.
With anti-immigration populism now spreading north to Sweden and south to Italy, and with neither Warsaw or Budapest showing any signs of backing down, the western half of the European Union is now openly wondering: what shall we do with these turbulent nations?
The great migration divide.
More than the financial crisis, it was the long lines of men, women and children from the Middle East and Africa pouring through the western Balkans in October 2015 and congregating in Budapest’s Keleti railway station that reopened Europe’s east-west divide.
[Migrants march from Budapest’s Keleti station to the Austrian border in 2015, many were met with violence Credit: AFP/Getty.]
For nationalist leaders such as Mr Orbán [in Hungary], Jaroslaw Kaczyński in Poland and Robert Fico in Slovakia the migrants were a convenient political tool, cast as a menacing physical expression of what separates the two Europes.
There are no migrants or liberals in Kobylin-Borzymy, whose skyline is dominated by a massive twin-towered church, built in 1904, bearing testimony to the enduring political and social power of Catholicism in Poland.
For residents of places like this, it was not just Angela Merkel welcoming Syrian refugees that shocked and concerned them, but the liberal, multiculturalist assumptions that underpinned that decision.
“For us, it just seemed completely unbelievable that Germany would throw open the borders to people who are totally different, from Africa or Syria and Iraq,” says Wojciech Mokowski, the mayor of Kobylin-Borzymy, whose sparse office contains yet another crucifix.
[Kobylin-Borzymy mayor Wojciech Mokowski reflects many in his constituency in his rejection of multiculturalism Credit: Piotr Malecki for The Telegraph.]
“What did they expect would happen? That people would just mix together? These people, we know they just don’t want to mix.”
That is a view widely shared throughout Eastern and Central Europe, says Bogdan Zielenski, the local PiS district chief, who argues that the EU needs to accept that countries like Poland and Hungary have fundamentally different experiences of multiculturalism than the West.
“This does not mean we are not European,” he adds, “Poland has always looked to Rome, not Constantinople. But we have no colonial past like the Western countries, we just have no experience of this. The EU has to accept the need for diversity”. [LK: see far-right concept multipolarism]
Money doesn’t talk.
That fundamental difference in outlook between East and West persists despite the EU working hard to narrow the economic gap, transferring billions of euros from richer western and northern countries in the form of farm subsidies and structural development funds.
In economic terms, time has certainly not stood still in Kobylin-Borzymy since Poland joined the EU 14 years ago. But in many respects questions of value and national identity have not moved on.
When Western powers tried to force migration quotas on the East in 2015, the rebellion from Warsaw and Budapest allowed politicians to highlight differences on other value questions including gay marriage and abortion, and even – now – the definition of democracy itself.
In Kobylin-Borzymy, the impact of the EU cash is plain to see. Traditional Soviet-era wooden houses are being replaced by modern two-storey concrete homes with brightly coloured roofs, often paid for with money saved by residents who left to work in Sweden, Britain or Germany.
At regular intervals the main street echoes to the thunder of trucks laden with building supplies and milk-tankers doing the rounds of still small, family-owned dairy farms with about 25-30 cows that attract EU subsidies of 25,000 złoty (£5,100) a year.
Even so, villagers and their leaders are adamant that they will not sell their souls (a phrase not used lightly in these parts) for EU cash.
[Kobylin Borzymy, where voters overwhelmingly backed the PiS (Law & Justice) party during the elections in 2016 Credit: Piotr Malecki.]
“People feel the West is trying to interfere in our internal affairs. They don’t know us, but they want a say over us,” says Leszek Mezynski, 61, local politician and a medium-sized farmer with 25 cows.
“We look up to the West and see how modern it is, but we see it is also without values. So if we have to give up our values to join the West, that leads us down a blind alley. Economy alone is not enough for society to exist.”
An elderly woman tending the flowerbed in front of her farmhouse puts it more bluntly.
“The EU has brought a lot of good, but now they keep picking on our government in Brussels,” says 77-year-old Krystyna Danikowska , who seems to parrot many of the lines she hears on Radio Maryja, a popular Christian radio station on which Polish government ministers appear almost daily.
“Other countries want us to abort babies and have gay marriages, and I pray to God that never happens. We believe in God and the Holy Catholic Church,” she says defiantly.
Away from Poland’s liberal urban enclaves, there is also a sense that when it comes to values the goalposts have moved since EU accession. In 2004, when Poland voted to join the European Union, Kobylin-Borzymy was one of only three areas that voted to stay out, for fear of surrendering Poland’s distinct national identity.
As part of its joining papers, Poland signed up to Article 2 of the Treaty for the European Union, which binds EU members to respect democracy, the “rule of law” and concepts such as “pluralism”, “non-discrimination” and “tolerance”.
But the evolving definition of those concepts in an era when Ireland votes 2:1 to legalise abortion, and gay marriage is viewed as a human right puts a keener edge on Europe’s East-West divide.
Hungarian diplomats now speak openly of developing the “Hungarian model” of democracy, the latest phase in the “cultural counter-revolution” that Mr Orbán promised in 2016, while in Poland PiS is seeking to revise the constitution explicitly to “protect” Poland from liberal advances.
As the Bulgarian thinker Ivan Krastev observed in After Europe, the assumption that the European project was on an inexorable path to “ever closer union” now feels like a strange 1990s delusion.
“When we joined the EU, multiculturalism and gay marriage were not on the agenda,” says Mr Mokowski, the Kobylin-Borzymy mayor. “We were told that on these matters the view of the national government would stand above that of the EU. Now that is apparently not so.”
Here to stay.
The notion that Christian Europe is under threat has allowed politicians like Mr Orbán and PiS’s ageing chairman, Jaroslaw Kaczyński, to foster a siege mentality over migration and social values, harnessing those issues as a potent political force.
The language demonising migrants and Jews is deeply discomforting, and reminiscent of the darkest parts of Europe’s recent past.
Mr Kaczyński once warned of migrants carrying “parasites and protozoa”, while Mr Orbán openly peddles anti-Semitic tropes, conjuring images of the “wandering Jew” in his battle with the liberal Hungarian-American financier George Soros.
[Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban.]
“We are fighting an enemy,” Mr Orbán told one election campaign earlier rally this year, “not straightforward but crafty, not honest but base, not national but international, [one who] does not believe in working but speculates with money, does not have its own homeland but feels it owns the whole world.”
The language shocks, but the uncomfortable reality for Brussels is that Europe’s new nationalist governments are popular at home because of it, and they are using their political power to further entrench control over the media and the apparatus of state.
At the same time, a growing EU economy fuelled by quantitative easing, coupled with populist economic policies such as Law and Justice’s programme handing parents 500 Polish złoty for every child, are creating mini investment booms that help to ensure re-election.
In Kobylin-Borzymy’s hairdresser’s, the political value of PiS’s “500+” programme is clear. “Now at the end of the month I don’t worry if I am going to run out of money,” says Marlena Sikorska, a mother of two children, aged nine and two. “I can buy nappies or milk or clothes for the kids without borrowing off my mother.”
[Victor Orban remains popular among the locals in Kobylin-Borzymy’s hairdresser’s Credit: Piotr Malecki.]
It is not a surprise, then, that Mr Orbán won a landslide majority in this year’s parliamentary elections while [Poland’s] PiS, which was the first party in the post-Communist era to win an outright majority, continues to ride high in the polls. There seems little immediate prospect of a return to the social democracy of the 1990s and early 2000s.
What to do?
The question that now faces the founder members of the European project is how to deal with these “illiberal” Eastern democracies whose message, particularly on migration, is starting to resonate more widely across the union.
Until recently it was common to hear senior EU diplomats play down the threat posed by Mr Orbán, describing him as a “pragmatist” whose attacks on Brussels would always be limited by his need to keep investment flowing and protect Hungary’s economy. Not any more.
[Italy’s Eurosceptic new interior minister Matteo Salvini, has promised to work with Viktor Orban to ‘change the EU’. Credit: Luca Bruno/AP.]
Now, says one senior German foreign ministry official, Mr Orbán appears “determined to export his ideas”, most recently making common cause with Italy’s new populist coalition where Matteo Salvini, the leader of the Lega party, is pushing hardline anti-immigration policies.
These in turn are backed in Vienna, where the far-Right Freedom Party (FPO) now sits in coalition with Sebastian Kurz’s centre-Right Austrian People’s Party. It is not lost on officials in Brussels that in 2000, when the FPO went into government in Austria for the first time, put sanctions on Vienna and more than 150,000 Austrians took to the streets to protest. Now the FPO enters government with barely a murmur of dissent.
In Sweden, the far-Right Sweden Democrats command 18 per cent of the vote after riding a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment, and in Italy the hard-Right Mr Salvini openly makes common cause with Mr Orbán against the liberal Emmanuel Macron.
[Jimmie Akesson of the Sweden Democrats celebrats after his nationalist party turned the general election on its head. Credit: AFP.]
Even Germany, where the hard-Right Alternative for Germany made major gains in last year’s parliamentary elections, is not immune. The interior minister, Horst Seehofer, from the Christian conservative Bavarian CSU party, openly rebels against Mrs Merkel, echoing the calls in Budapest and Vienna to shut the borders.
Against this backdrop of open division, old Western Europe now faces three choices when dealing with opposition from the east: it can either “confront” it head on, look to “accommodate” it or – in the spirit of the classic EU fudge – it can try to “check” their growing influence and then play for time.
For liberals like Guy Verhofstadt, the leader of ALDE, the main liberal grouping in the European Parliament, the only way to tackle what he says is the “threat” from Poland and Hungary is to confront it head-on.
“The situation in Poland and Hungary is serious and worsening. Those who defend liberal democracy and the rules-based international order have an obligation to speak out against rule of law-backsliding in Central and Eastern Europe,” he says.
The Verhofstadt argument is that without action now against Hungary and Poland, the EU will undermine its own legal foundations by simply appeasing them.
“This is a battle about the character of our society and the EU itself; whether or not we are able to preserve the EU as a space of freedom and democracy, kept together by rule of law, or not,” he says.
The difficulty is that for the residents of places like Kobylin-Borzymy, Mr Verhofstadt’s version of the EU is not their EU. Forcing Western definitions of “tolerance” and “pluralism” on the East risks deepening the divide, not closing it.
Still, Mr Verhofstadt has his supporters in the European Commission. Frans Timmermans, the EU first vice-president, has been leading calls for Poland to be punished under Article 7 for reforms to the legal system that the Commission says undermine the independence of the judiciary.
But Article 7 is a very blunt instrument. It could ultimately lead to Poland being stripped of its EU voting rights, but such a draconian sanction can only be taken by a unanimous vote of member states – which Mr Orbán has already promised will never happen on his watch.
Internally in Brussels, there is therefore political opposition at the highest levels, reportedly including Jean-Claude Juncker himself, against picking what is seen as an unwinnable fight which will only serve to advertise, and not fix, the EU’s divisions.
It is not even clear that there is a two-thirds majority among EU member states for enforcing Article 7 proceedings against Poland, with eastern states uniting in defence of Warsaw, the British likely to abstain and some Baltic states nervous about such an attack on another member’s sovereignty.
A softer approach would be to try to check the ambitions of leaders like Mr Kaczyński and Mr Orbán before they run out of control.
One option is to file more legal cases against policies that break EU law, as in a 2012 case that was taken against the Hungarian government for mandating the early retirement of hundreds of judges, in a move that was widely seen as an assault on the judiciary.
The weakness is that such cases take a long time to mount and are often of limited impact, since governments can pay fines or simply find alternative legal ways of achieving the same goal.
More draconian is the suggestion, backed by some Western capitals, to link the payment of EU funds to good behaviour and the adherence to the “rule of law”.
The problem with this idea, even its supporters acknowledge, is that there is a strong risk it will backfire, handing political ammunition to the likes of Mr Orbán and Mr Kaczyński to stoke up nationalist sentiment.
In Kobylin-Borzymy, the idea of withholding EU funds seems obviously counter-productive. “That will be a big mistake,” says Mr Zielenski, the PiS district chief, “Many people would become disillusioned with the EU and they would go to the arms of even more Right-wing parties, like the League of Polish Families. People will become afraid the EU wants to punish us for being Catholic, too.”
For the French president, Mr Macron, as he outlined in his seminal Sorbonne speech, accommodation might ultimately mean the creation of an inner and outer Europe that enables “the driving ambition of some while allowing others to move ahead at their own speed”.
For liberals and federalists, accepting the idea of an outer Europe would spell the beginning of the end. Learning to live with illiberal democracies would be to accept that the advance of liberal social democratic values is neither inexorable nor axiomatic to EU membership.
But while liberals like Mr Verhofstadt warn that the EU’s “political paradigms” are now shifting away from liberal democracy to nationalist illiberalism, for the populist Right this is a joyous statement of fact, not a cause for alarm.
It is also, liberals warn, being aided and abetted by a grand hypocrisy in the heart of the EU’s own centre-Right political establishment.
The attempt to censure Poland for backsliding on democracy is undermined by the fact that, according to Freedom House’s latest democracy rankings, Hungary (and Slovakia, Bulgaria and Romania) score far worse than Poland when it comes to defending democratic norms.
The only difference between Poland and Hungary is that Mr Orbán’s ruling Fidesz party is a member of the powerful centre-Right European People’s Party (EPP) grouping in the European Parliament, which affords him protection from censure.
This piece of hypocrisy is clear even in faraway Kobylin-Borzymy. “The elite sees Poland as a naughty child, but there are other, naughtier children than us in the EU, and they don’t get punished,” says Mr Zielenski, the PiS district chief.
As the EPP splits over whether it is safer to keep Mr Orbán inside the tent or kick him out, Mr Verhofstadt urges the grouping to confront the Orbán cuckoo in their nest.
“Each of the current EPP member parties need to ask themselves whether they want to be part of a decline to illiberalism by continuing to provide political cover for Orbán and his allies, or make a stand before we pass the point of no return,” he says.
Whether that happens will partly be determined by next May’s European elections, which are shaping up to be a battle royale between the liberal forces of Mr Macron’s En Marche party and the conservative wing of the EPP, which includes the CSU [German more conservative “Christian Social Union”] chairman, Mr Seehofer, who has made common cause with Mr Orbán over migration.
Put another way, says Andrew Duff, a former [UK] Liberal Democrat MEP now at the European Policy Centre, the May 2019 European elections will polarise around Mr Macron and Mr Orbán in a battle “for and against liberal democracy and ever-closer union”.
Prosperity and security are key.
That fight will not, of course, be settled in a single round. Europe faces a decade of grinding east-west conflict whose outcome will ultimately be determined by the EU’s wider ability to generate prosperity and deliver security in the face threats from migration, Russian meddling and a crumbling transatlantic alliance, say regional analysts.
For now the illiberal vision of Central and Eastern Europe countries feels in the ascendant, but long-time watchers of such countries, including Otilia Dhand at Teneo Intelligence, caution that democracy has always ebbed and flowed in the east.
In the past, populist movements have tended to collapse under the weight of their own contradictions, over-promising and under-delivering to the point where the voters reject them. For now, she argues, direct East-West confrontation is likely only to feed the siege mentality that sustains them.
The real crunch for Brussels, Ms Dhand predicts, will actually come in the next major economic downturn and whether this time the European Union can play the role of saviour – rather than source – of that crisis when it hits.
“The last three European crises in 2008, 2011 and 2015 have all exported problems to eastern EU countries after initially bringing prosperity and the hope of a better future,” she observes. “Sooner or later they will hit another crisis. They always do. Then old Europe will have its chance.”
Next parts of Europe Future Series in the UK Daily Telegraph:
[The article above is a copy] 1. Future of Europe: Can the EU resist a far-Right, nationalist takeover?, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/09/10/future-europe-can-eu-resist-far-right-nationalist-takeover/
2. Future of Europe – defence: can the EU actually protect itself against Russia?, 11/9/18, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/09/11/future-europe-defence-can-eu-actually-protect-russia/
3. Future of Europe: EU’s liberals are losing their grip in the struggle to solve its migration crisis, 12/9/18, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/09/12/future-europe-eus-liberals-losing-grip-struggle-solve-migration/
4. Future of Europe: Can the EU save a lost generation left fighting for its life in an economic maelstrom?, 13/9/2018, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/09/13/future-europe-can-eu-save-lost-generation-left-fighting-life/
5. Future of Europe: is the EU’s dream of expansion to the east dead?, 14/9/2018, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/09/14/future-europe-eus-dream-expansion-east-dead/
6. Future of Europe: Why in Emmanuel Macron the EU has its greatest saviour – and biggest liability?, 15/9/2018, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/09/15/future-europe-emmanuel-macron-eu-have-greatest-saviour-biggest/