Blog Post #1: Illiberal Trends and Anti-EU Politics: Typical for East Central Europe?

November 30, 2020
Astrid Lorenz and Lisa Helene Anders

Ongoing conflicts surrounding the rule of law, fierce disputes over EU migration and refugee policy, and not least the intensified cooperation of the Visegrád states (Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia) suggest that a whole region has embarked on an illiberal, anti-EU course. Based on a new publication, this blog post provides a more nuanced picture of the illiberal trends and anti-EU politics in East Central Europe.

In East Central Europe, democracy and the rule of law have been under attack. Elected majorities have weakened the judiciary and limited minority rights. They additionally have restricted the activities of several non-governmental organizations and of independent media channels. European Union (EU) actors have recurrently called for maintaining the foundational principles of the Union, as laid down in Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union. But the more they have done so, the more ECE governments have insisted on the right “to carry out domestic reforms within their competences” and have emphasized cultural differences between Eastern and Western Europe.

For example, conflicts further intensified when the Visegrád countries vehemently opposed in 2015 the refugee relocation scheme. Again, ECE governments argued that they had to defend national sovereignty. Since, their public communication towards the EU has become increasingly harsh and often culminated in general criticism of the EU. Commenting on a recent ruling of the Court of Justice of the European Union, the Polish minister Zbigniew Ziobro, for instance, insisted that European treaties would not oblige member states to accept refugee quotas and stated that “some EU institutions are completely detached from reality”.

These examples reflect typical public conflicts between EU officials and ECE governments. On one side, ECE governments present themselves as the true guardians of European values and European democracy. They accuse EU actors of applying double standards and of stretching EU law, driven by Western left-liberal values. They also blame EU actors for instrumentalizing courts to impose their particular interpretation of EU law and the rule of law on member states and for ignoring the will of the people in member states. On the other side, EU actors insist on their interpretation of EU law and on the legitimacy of the Union’s decision-making procedures. They criticize ECE countries for destroying the rule of law as such and reproach them for lacking European solidarity while benefiting from the EU budget.

The conflicts have restrengthened existing alliances, such as the Visegrád group. Although not all ECE governments are directly in conflict with the EU, many politicians are willing to support those who openly oppose EU directives and EU foundational principles. Observers like Attila Ágh have therefore identified a new “core-periphery divide” caused by the “ECE divergence from the EU mainstream”. He sees a tendency towards transitioning to authoritarian rule and processes of de-Europeanization and de-democratization “in the ECE states in general”, and he explicitly states, “Poland has often been cited […] as an exception, but in fact it is part of the same regional trend.” Likewise, some perceive the Eastern region as Europe’s  “authoritarian belt” with “strong authoritarian tendencies supported by the spread of illiberalism locally”.

Such a diagnosis reads as if ECE countries are united through a shared agenda and therefore form a more or less homogeneous region that is increasingly detaching itself from the EU. But is this really the case? Are the illiberal developments and anti-EU politics shared by as well as typical features of all countries in the region? Do Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia follow the same illiberal path? Have they generally become more Eurosceptic than other EU member states, and are relations with the EU in all areas as conflict-laden as the previous examples suggest?

These questions and related topics are addressed in a recently published open-access edited volume: Illiberal Trends and Anti-EU Politics in East-Central Europe. The contributions approach the four countries listed above from different disciplinary perspectives – sociological, political science, and legal science – and various theoretical angles. Collectively, they provide a more nuanced picture of the current illiberal developments and anti-EU policies in the region.

Different Manifestations and Causes of Illiberalism

It is true that there are more or less manifest illiberal and anti-EU tendencies in all ECE countries. They are, however, neither uniform nor determined by fixed regional characteristics. They are initiated and realized by domestic actors with diverging, sometimes flexible, positions in varying political configurations. Often, illiberalism is not rooted in a strict and manifest illiberal agenda but can be attributed to pragmatic attempts to secure certain policy goals or to generate electoral support by addressing voters’ attitudes. Besides, rhetoric and action only partly overlap. Illiberal rhetoric does not necessarily determine the actual policies.

Accordingly, the illiberal paths in Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia diverge. What we can see here is “differential illiberalism”. The Law and Justice party (PiS) of Poland had already started promoting in the early 2000s the idea of a “new and virtuous Fourth Republic” as a radically new illiberal, centralized system based on a particular “moral order” that should help to realize the aims of the “unfinished 1989 revolution”. Recent measures, such as the weakening of the Constitutional Tribunal, are steps to realize this programme. In Hungary, the government has also undermined the independence of the judiciary, curbed the media, and increasingly suppressed civil society actors. As the Hungarian prime minister explicitly stated in 2014, he intends to establish a new illiberal state and wants to break with the dogmas that have been adopted by the West in order to secure Christian values, cultural conservatism, and a true Hungarian way of governing.

Compared to these two cases, the illiberal tendencies in the Czech Republic are less pronounced. Since Prime Minister Andrej Babiš came to power, the country’s party system has more or less collapsed. Babiš, who has been described as a technocratic populist, wants to increase the state’s “efficiency” and suggests to abolish the senate and the regions, to downsize the parliament, to reduce the number of ministries, and to strengthen the state’s influence on public media. These suggestions, however, do not add up to a consistent strategy, and they have not yet been realized. In Slovakia, the populist governing party, Direction–Social Democracy (SMER), has repeatedly articulated anti-minority and anti-EU positions since 2006, whereas the judiciary has continued to be exposed to troubling governmental influence. Overall, however, corruption seems to be a bigger problem than illiberalism. In 2020, the party of Ordinary People and Independent Personalities won the national elections with an anti-crime campaign, but the fragmented parliament makes it complicated to form a coherent coalition and to find a clear course of policy.

No Strong Euroscepticism and No General Lack of Solidarity but a More Instrumental Approach to EU Policies

Quantitative analyses do not provide empirical evidence of a general lack of European solidarity – as suggested by the persistent refusal of the Visegrád governments to participate in the resettlement system. Nor do they show that support for the EU is particularly low in ECE countries. On average, people in ECE countries are not more Eurosceptic than people in other member states. It seems, however, that the majority of citizens in the region have a more instrumental understanding of European policy-making. According to such an understanding, European policies should serve the will and fit the values of the (national) majority. People in ECE countries accept and support further integration when expected gains are high. For instance, redistributive measures, which potentially benefit these countries, are generally supported by a majority of people in the region. The resettlement of asylum seekers, in contrast, is rejected as the majority of people in ECE countries are hostile towards Muslims, and politicians have successfully exploited this deeply rooted Islamophobia to stir anti-EU sentiments. As these examples show, the instrumental approach to EU policies and institutions is related not only to financial gains but also to how EU policies fit to perceived values and attitudes of the majority.

Illiberalism and Anti-EU-politics: Not Necessarily going Hand in Hand

While we are currently witnessing both illiberal trends and anti-EU politics in ECE countries, these phenomena do not automatically go hand in hand. Often, it depends on strategies and cost-benefit calculations of domestic politicians on how they position themselves towards EU policies. As a study on domestic discourse over LGBT rights and the Istanbul Convention reveals, mainstream parties can refuse more liberal-universalist EU policies or even radicalize their rhetoric not because of a decidedly illiberal ideology but in order to avoid polarization over – what is interpreted by large parts of the public as –  Europeanization. Ideology-driven illiberalism, in contrast, does not necessarily entail a strict anti-EU course. As a result, there is no general lack of compliance or general anti-EU mobilization by all political parties irrespective of growing illiberalism.

Taken together, while the ongoing conflicts over the rule of law and the EU refugee policy as well as the intensified cooperation of the Visegrád countries suggest that the whole region has embarked on an illiberal anti-EU course, the studies in the volume Illiberal Trends and Anti-EU Politics in East Central Europe provide a more nuanced picture. Neither illiberalism nor mounting Euroscepticism and open opposition against EU policies can be regarded as a typical feature of all four countries in the region.