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Eastern Europe’s euro-elections: from anger to apathy?

European Parliament election, 2014 (Slovakia) ballot box

Photo: Sečovce CC BY-SA 3.0

The results of the elections to the European Parliament which took place across the EU’s 28 member states last week very much as predicted – at least in the ‘old’ pre-2004 member states: driven by frustration with austerity, economic stagnation, diminished opportunities and a yawning sense of disconnect with established parties and politicians, a variety of outsider parties made sweeping gains and unignorably stamped themselves on the electoral map.

 In Northern Europe, where socio-economic malaise and disconnect were often refracted through the politics of anti-immigration, this tended to benefit right wing, Eurosceptic parties. In Southern Europe anti-austerity parties of the radical left such as Greece’s Syriza or Podemos in Spain gained most.

 The most spectacular gains were been made by parties of varying political complexions which had a long-time presence on at the political margins: UKIP in the UK, the Front National in France, Sinn Féin in Ireland. Whatever their coloration, scale of their political success underlines the potential fragility of mainstream parties in Western Europe even in states with well-established party systems previously considered immune to populist surges such as Spain or the UK.

 Many commentators have lumped in the newer EU member states of Central and Eastern with the unfolding (if exaggerated) story of a populist backlash in the EU’s West European heartlands. Anticipating the strong showing of the radical right in Denmark, Holland and Austria The Observer’s Julian Coman, for example, causally assured readers that ‘across much of eastern Europe, it is a similar story’

 But, in fact, it was not. Read More…

What will the Euro elections tell us about Eastern Europe?

Plakat do Parlamentu Europejskiego 2014 Platforma Obywatelska

Photo: Lukasz2 via Wikicommons

The elections to the European Parliament which take place across the EU’s 28 member states between 22 and 25 May are widely seen a series of national contests, which voters use to vent their frustration and give incumbent and established parties a good kicking. Newspaper leader writers and think-tankers got this story and have been working overtime to tell us about a rising tide of populism driven by a range of non-standard protest parties.

The conventional wisdom is that the ‘populist threat’ is all eurosceptic (and usually of a right-wing persuasion) although in some cases the ‘eurosceptic surge’ is clearly a matter of whipping together (and familiar) narrative than careful analysis: how the European Council for Foreign Relations came to think that the pro-business pragmatists of ANO currently topping the polls in the Czech Republic belong in the same eurosceptic bracket as the Austrian Freedom Party, Front national, Hungary’s Jobbik – or even the moderate Catholic conservatives of Law and Justice (PiS) – is very hard to fathom.

But, as a simultaneous EU-wide poll using similar (PR-based) electoral systems, the EP elections also provide a rough and ready yardstick of Europe-wide political trends, ably tracked by the LSE-based Pollwatch 2014 and others.

And, for those interested in comparison and convergence of the two halves of a once divided continent, they a window into the political differences and similarities between the ‘old’ pre-2004 of Western and Southern Europe and the newer members from Central and Eastern Europe (now including Croatia which joined in 2013). Read More…

Czech Republic: scepticism without euro-scepticism?

Malé Kyšice, obecní úřad, evropské volby
Photo: Akron/ Wikimedia Commons
CC BY-SA 3.0

As elsewhere in Europe, elections to the European Parliament on 23-24 May in the Czech Republic will be more of a trial of domestic strength, than a contest over EU issues.

 The EP elections come at a time when Czech politics is still in flux following the ‘political earthquake’ unleashed by national parliamentary elections in October 2013. These saw the eclipse of established right-wing parties; sharp electoral setbacks for the Social Democrats (ČSSD), the main party of the Czech left; and a dramatic breakthrough by the new ANO movement of billionaire Andrej Babiš.

The question in the minds of many observers is whether the Euro-elections – the first national poll in a year that will also see crucial Senate and local elections – will confirm this changed political landscape

 Early indications are that they will.

 Projections by Pollwatch 2014 (based largely on general polling data) suggest that ANO and ČSSD, who have governed together in an uneasy centrist coalition since January, will top the polls with around 22 per cent of the vote enabling each to elect 6 MEPs. Polling by SANEP which asked specifically about the European elections broadly echoes this, but gives ANO a clear lead.

European elections SANEP1 This is good news for Babiš’s movement whose strategy of presenting itself a non-ideological reform movement and hand-picking high profile technocrats and businesspeople as candidates seems, for the moment, still to be paying off. The movement’s EP list is headed by the ultra-credible Pavel Telička, a vastly experienced former diplomat who headed the Czech Republic’s EU accession negotiating team in 1998-2002 and briefly served as a European Commissioner.  Read More…

Czech Republic: Miloš Zeman’s year of living dangerously

Miloš Zeman Rozhlas 2013

Photo: David Sedlecký CC-BY-SA-3.0

The election campaign that propelled Miloš Zeman to the Czech presidency a year ago was a mixture of boundless self-belief, disregard for political convention and ruthless targeting of opponents.

Zeman’s first year in office has seen him bring these self-same qualities to bear in a concerted drive to remake the Czech political system, revealing a hitherto unsuspected taste for political risk-taking.

The net effect, however, has been far from Zeman intended. His initiatives have wreaked a trail of political destruction, felling both friend and foe alike and leaving the president himself politically damaged and deeply unpopular.

As an exercise in short-term tactics the imposition of a handpicked caretaker government under ex-finance minister Jiří Rusnok was a master-stroke, blindsiding the country’s parties and finally killing off the centre-right coalition.

But Zeman’s hubris and taste for the political coup de main quickly rebounded.

The Czech Republic is not Ukraine and its constitution was not so easily buckled into a semi-presidential system. A caretaker ‘government of officials’ (úřednická vláda) without a parliamentary majority can do only so much and survive in office for only so long.

Zeman’s grandiose visions of reuniting the Czech left and willingness to bend constitutional norms to pressurise opponents also concealed the lack of a well calibrated strategy. And more often than not the president’s blunderbuss tactics proved most deadly to his own supporters. Read More…

Teaching Eastern Europe: A course by any other name?

Process of coming to terms with the past after 20 years

Photo: gynti_46 via Flikr [CC BY-NC-SA 2.0]

 Like most British academics I’m loath to put any of my courses through multiple committees merely for a change of name. But sometimes you come to a point where you just know that the old name’s old name’s just got to go.

 The Politics of Transition and Integration in Central and Eastern Europe  course has evolved since I started teaching it some ten years ago. Less on communism, more on the EU. Out with Democratic Consolidation, in with Quality of Democracy.  Downplay ethnic conflict, foreground state-building and welfare state reform. Fond farewell (sniff) to George Schöpflin’s book on Eastern Europe and the ‘condition of post-communism’. Hello to a new generation of work on leverage and democracy in CEE with sharper methodology and fewer Shakespearean quotes.

Oh and make a small, small berth on reading list for Theories of European Disintegration alongside  Andrew Moravcsik and Frank Schimmelfenning onwhy the EU integrated and why it expanded.

And yes the end, there are no two ways about it. That name too will have to change, paperwork or no paperwork. Transition, at least in the democratisation sense of the word, is almost a historical topic. And integration (well EU membership anyway) is ten

 But the difficult question, of course, now is what do I call it? If the region’s current politics are no defined by transition and integration, what does define them? Read More…

Václav Klaus live and unplugged

A few years ago I honestly told myself that I would spend less time academically on Czech right-wing politics and more time on other things. The world really did, after all, need some decent research about Central European interest groups and under-the-radar new parties threatening to break through into Czech politics. Inevitably, things didn’t work out like that.

As the Czech media have noticed rather than sit at home and write his memoirs the former Czech president is embarking on the political equivalent of a European and world tour and – as with 1980s electro pop or – when you’re got all the albums, but didn’t manage to catch the acts live, it’s hard to stay away.

And so it was that I found myself in Pembroke College (Cambridge) listening to Klaus giving the Adam Smith Lecture (transcript including asides faithfully posted by the Václav Klaus Institute here).

In recent years figures on the left, not least fellow Scot Gordon Brown, have tried to reclaim Smith from his totemic status as an icon of the free market right, but – following in the footsteps of previous lecturers Charles Moore and Nigel Lawson – this will be a strictly orthodox interpretation.

 Accordingly, Klaus tells us about the Smithsonian influence over his career, explaining to semi-approved of status of classical pre-Marxian economists in communist Czechoslovakia and his position as a junior researcher attracted to liberal market economics in the 1960s, critical of the market socialist plans of the Prague Spring.

 Adam Smith, the Adam Smith Institute and the politics of Thatcher and Thatcherism were also an inspiration after the fall of communism when he is – he says – promoting the idea of a fully fledged capitalist market economy against residual ideas of a Third Way on the liberal left. Anglo Saxon liberal ideas helped see off the threat of a French – or German inspired social market economy in the Czech Republic.

 This is the classic Klaus back story. Read More…

Europe as antipolitics machine

Entropa Total

Photo: Daniel Antal via Flikr

The customers in this Westminster café seem a strange mix of  suited civil servants and builders in boots and hi-vis. But it’s worth the early start and the cup of industrial strength tea to beat a path back to the European Council for Foreign Affairs, who this week are  putting on two-handed discussion on Legitimacy: Democracy versus Technocracy.

Despite the abstraction of the title, the event focuses on the experience of the two countries which have borne the brunt of the current crisis and catalysed the political weaknesses in the Eurozone Greece and Ireland.  Looking at experiences and perspectives of small countries is (I think quite rightly) a particular concern of the ECFR, although Greece is admittedly not exactly under the radar right now.

Both speakers, Brigid Laffan of UCD  and Loukas Tsoukalis of the ELIAMEP thinktank sensibly  avoided addressing the populism vs. technocracy dichotomy of the title – one of ECFR’s favourite motifs, but too simple and stylised –   and instead  stressed the way in which the new politics of low-growth and hard times locked in by the Eurocrisis (especially grim in Greece despite success in budget-cutting and squeezing living standards to effect ‘internal devaluation’) are reshuffling the party political deck. Populist ‘challenger parties’ such as the True Finns and (possibly – notes teas-stained and illegible here) Syriza in Greece were picking up support and making electoral breakthroughs in both creditor and debtor states.

The net result was a new ‘politics of constrained choice’ reflected the oft-noted (and often prosaic seeming) fact that EU is a system of multilevel governance: now see national governments trying (and failing) to be accountable to both their own domestic electorates and EU partner governments. This meant not the abolition of any scope for national policy responses – there was some political wiggle room and EU members had quite different capacities for adaptability and reform – but its constriction.

However, elections so far (as in Ireland) had seen frustrated voters turn to main opposition parties and, to a lesser extent, to previously marginalised but coalitionable  substitutes for them (Syriza) the next cycles of elections would put this to the test. The unanswered question was much social pain and dislocation, economic contraction and what level of unemployment – especially youth unemployment – would it take to trigger an explosive political crisis.

Cyclists demonstrating

Photo: Gesimpopos via Wikicommons

For Ireland the answer would seem to be quite a lot. Irish society, said aid Prof Laffan, was a characterised by pragmatism, ideological moderation and a certain fatalistic passivity – there had been little in the way of Southern Europe contentious politics and anti-austerity protest – partly reflecting its historical experience, partly its more global and transatlantic, outlook. With the exception of the last point, it sounded oddly, but familiarly, East European. In Greece, where there was more anger, protest and populism, there was very little nationalistic, euroscepticm (or Euro-scepticism) – notwithstanding the media attention lavished on Golden Dawn – with few people advocating Grexit. However, the main political surprises, both speakers agreed, were still to come.

But what of Populism versus Technocracy? ‘Challenger parties’ was another term for populism – understood here to mean a loose amalgam of demgagogic, impossibilist demands, rather than in the more precise academic sense – although the speakers tended, I think rightly, to see such parties as an unknown threat yet to come, rather than recycling the  hackneyed and predictable line that the rise of the far-right is already upon is. But where was the technocracy?

European Commission flags

Photo: Sebastien Betrand via Wikicommons

The answer was partly in the presence of technocrats and technocratic governments in Greece and Italy, but more in the technocratic nature of the unelected European institutions now moving to centre-stage: the European Central Bank  (‘a pivotal’ institution) and the European Commission, which noted the new fiscal pacts and oversight arrangements were empowering as never before (although I seem to remember reading other commentaries arguing that the crisis had, in fact, disempowered the Commission and robbed it of the political initiative it once possessed).

I wasn’t sure whether such how fully European level institutions really are or whether the problem with them is the fact that they are technocratic or the fact that they are European. Leaving this aside, however, the option of a top-down technocratic solution to the crisis centring around such institutions, it was argued, risked further de-legitimation of the EU – there was a need to re-build EU institutions into new frameworks of accountability perhaps by enhancing roles of national parliaments with European Parliament also having a potential role despite its failure to become a fully-fledged (and legitimate) European-wide legislature.

Rather interestingly – although ominously – the concept of democracy evoked was as accountability without representation similar to the one Mark Leonard of the ECFR claimed to detect emerging in China.  But unfortunately, at national level there are democratic structures with the reverse profile: representation without (clear lines of) accountability

It’s hard to see this staving off the rise of see off populist challengers.  In the absence of growth the [Euro] system lacks the political and economic resources to see them off as it once did to Communist Parties after 1945.  The whole, complex multi-level economic and political system of the EU, it seems is set up as a giant anti-politics machine, a production line for populist  challengers parties of all shades and models that is ready to roll.

Sligo yeats

Photo: Rowan Gillespie via Wikicommons

And in a sense this is the one bright spot to the pessimism-laden analysis that isthe stock in trade of thinktanks these days: the uncertainty around the exact form that such new forms will take. While the ‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold’ line from Yeats’s The Second Coming  – surely one of the all time favourite lines for of the  literate political scientist to quote – may indeed fit our current sense of fear and foreboding we do not yet know the identity of the rough beast  politicall slouching towards Bethlehem – or should that be Brussels? –  to be born

God save the Queen – and the EU governance regime

How do you celebrate the Jubilee? Given the choice between watching Prince Charles on TV, mowing the grass or reviewing a book about Central and Eastern Europe and the European Union, I knew what I would go for.

 There is enormous literature on the influence of the EU on the states of CEE, both as candidates and (latterly)new members of the Union, embracing a gamut of mechanisms, institutions and policies.  You almost feel there should be a moritorium of some kind. But a (thankfully) smaller body of work, however, asks what effects ongoing enlargement into CEE has had on the Union itself.  A lot of seem preoccupied with how   the influx of CEE new members will impact the efficiency of EU decision-making or reshape coalitions and bargaining between members.

 Eva Heidbreder’s new book, however, takes a somewhat different tack, questioning two (implicit) assumptions that seem to underpin many debates about the relationship between enlargement and integration:  that changing patterns of intergovernmental competition and cooperation drive integration; 2) and that there is a trade-off between widening tending to obstruct deepening.

  Her study examines the extent to which the extra powers delegated to the European Commission to manage the accession of CEE states which the EU in 2004-7 resulted in permanent extension of the Commission’s authority. Her theoretical point of departure to my great interest was the neo-functionalist paradigm, which crudely stated sees European integration as underpinned by pressures for larger scale, more functionally efficient  policy solutions and so driven  – somewhat in the face of existing national state structures – by process of ‘spillover’ whereby integration in one sector created pressures for the integration of related sectors.

 Once widely considered obsolete because of its apparent inability to political processes of political competition, neofunctionalism has seems to have enjoyed something of a revival in EU studies in recent times. Drawing on ‘neo-neo-functionalism’ reworking and updating by Philippe Schmitter and others of classic texts of 1960s and 70s Heidbreder  argues, that extensions of the European Commission’s competencies in policy sectors  pioneered during Eastern  enlargement may ‘spill in’ to the broader EU system, effectively extending the  acquis as a side effect of enlargement.

 Such ‘spill-in’, she argues, can be traced by examining the post-accession growth Commission’s ‘action capacities’ in different fields where the conditionalies presented to candidate states ran ahead of the existing acquis in the old EU member states. Picking out five policy areas, – institutional capacity building; minority protection; cross border cooperation, nuclear safety; and anticorruption she asks if, Eastern enlargement has, in some instances have reinforced integration. Such ‘spill-in’ occurs neither automatically nor contingently, but is dependent on the nature of a particular policy field, in particular, and the ‘modes of governance’ used by the Commission to administer it.  Drawing on Theodore Lowi’s neglected ‘arenas of power’ approach to public policy – and incorporating his argument that policy processes shape institutions rather than vice versa – she distinguishes four types of EU policy-making: regulatory; redistributive (zero-sum correction of inequalities); distributive (targeting resources to meet particular groups’ needs); and constituent (making rules about rules).

Photo: Dincher/Wikicommons

Where, as with capacity building and cross-border co-operation,  the Commission relied on loose, informal governance mechanisms of or (as with minority protection) framed policies as distributive programmes targeted at particular groups, member states were willing to allow a degree of ‘spill in’ from accession – even when as with the cross border co-operation and Neighbourhood Policy this entailed the Commission moving into sensitive fields such as foreign policy. However, where implied formal regulation as with nuclear safety or anti corruption, she finds, member states blocked it, either relying on international bodies outside the European union to achieve functionally desirable end or (as with anticorruption policy) simply allowing double standards between old and new  EU members to persist.

 Despite a sometimes dense and desiccated academic style, the book was a well argued original one, which keep me reading even as the wall-to-wall royal coverage started to fade. As being theoretically thorough and engaging, it does an excellent empirical job in surveying and picking paths for the reader through the tangled forest of regulations, conventions and instruments that make up EU governance.

 My one nagging doubt was whether member states’ underlying reason for sometimes irrationally rather blocking integration in relatively low salience issues like nuclear power could credibly be seen as a fear of ‘political spillover’ in which national actors and citizens would re-orient themselves towards supranational European institutions. Given the deep illegitimacy of EU institutions among the Union’s citizens and deep ‘democratic deficit’ has such spillover ever happened – or could it – other than perhaps in very anaemic form?

 The book’s broader finding that integration can often take place most easily through  the creeping extension informal governance offer an interesting lens through which to observe ongoing EU enlargement into South Eastern Europe which – if the Euro holds together – is likely to unfold over the next 10-20 years, the last chapter of the enlargement story, I would guess. It might perhaps even offer some pointers as to how the Commission, widely considered to have been sidelined, if not emasculated, by member states in the new political climate of austerity and debt/currency crisis management, might reassert itself.

Europe’s loose change

  It has to be the single oldest thing in the entire house:  a silver one Gulder piece from the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy minted in 1878, given as a curio to one of the kids by a Czech relative.

About the size of a British two-pound coin, it’s well made and in surprisingly good condition, it would – as far as I can work out from a brief online trawl of historical statistics – once have been a sizeable chunk of someone’s weekly income. Or at least someone from lower social strata.

Its good condition is probably explained by the fact that it probably wasn’t in circulation that long. In 1892 the Gulden (known in Hungarian as the forint, in Czech the zlatý)) was replaced by a new Austro-Hungarian currency the Krone tied – with a degree of fiscal discpline that some modern day of the Euro would no doubt appreciate – to the Gold Standard. Further background can be found on the found here on the Policy and History website in a paper written by Richard Roberts in 2011, which seeks to draw lessons from the Habsburg experience of a single currency without one state. The main conclusion is that budgetary indiscipline can be fixed by tough minded independent central bank(s) policing tough fiscal rules for governments, which wish to play ball.

Despite the popularity of the Uncanny Historical Parallel as insight way into the present – BBC Radio 4’s The Long View documentary  series, for example, does a fascinating  job of ‘uncovering the present behind the past’, especially in interviews with contemporary politicians – I’m not sure if the Habsburg model of European integration, if that is what it was, has that much to tell us. As Richard Roberts notes, there is something of a difference between two governments co-ordinating to govern a single currency and  17 (or in a broad  sense 27). He also seeks the EU’s (surely now stalled?) enlargement agenda as the important and potentially derailing difference of the EU/Eurozone with the Dual Monarchy which is seen as victim of exogenous, apocalyptic shock of WWI.

All this seems rather oddly to ignore more basic political issues of identity and democracy. The Habsburg Dual Monarchy and its currency crumbled due to its inability, among many other things, to create and accomodate national political structures – six states emerged from its former territory in 1918 (today by my reckoning 11) – while the current EU seems to be struggling due to  inability to roll back and rein in well entrenched national states .

Perhaps, at bottom, despite huge democratisation of European political systems a century on, the problem is really the same – mismatch between political forms, political identities and functional economic necessities, the type of conundrum outlined by Gary Marks and Lisbet Hooghe in their ‘postfunctionalist’ take on integration a couple of years ago.

A quick root around around the odd coins and other bits of funny money amid the odds and ends on the mantelpiece reveals some Czechoslovak crowns from 1950s and 1970s and a 50 Euro cent piece with the national design of Greece.

Eurozone politics: Black, no sugar

 The European Council for Foreign Relations stages a Black Coffee Morning event on European Politics after the EU Summit. I have mine white, but from the general tone of the discussion among thinktankers, politicians and journos the prospects for the Eurozone and the EU could be as dark as the stiffest Italian expresso. Some contributors thought it might not survive a year

Discussion centres entirely on the one large existing member whose stubborn pursuit of its national interest is obstructing a long-term viable EU: Germany. France admittedly got a lot of what it wanted out of the summit, retaining the basically intergovernmental approach, but conceded the German demand for a reformed treaty of austerity-inducing financial discipline.

Germany and German politics are overwhelming what matter and, in some ways summit and the drama of the British veto-that-might-not-be-a-veto are sideshow compared with how Europe’s biggest and most economic powerful member decides to play it.

Photo: Tage Olsin

Was Angela Merkel playing a kind of high stakes poker waiting for the right moment to fold ‘em and concede some form of Eurobonds? Or was her government determined to press ahead to a possibly very bitter end?  German public debate and perceptions across political spectrum are, unsurprisingly, very different from those in many other places in Europe with little appetite for a Berlin bankrolled Euro bailout after painful and divisive economic restructuring (and the earlier costs of re-unification).

Indeed, some in Germany are apparently toying with the idea of partial break-up of Euro producing perhaps a sharp two-year recession followed by prosperous German-centred ‘small Euro’, which could ‘go global’ playing to Germany’s industrial and export strength. Unlikely, said some: anchoring in EU part of the political DNA of the FRG.  Be careful countered others:  re-united Germany was different country where old assumptions about how things work are  no longer always safe.

 The vision of Treaty-bound austerity Union in which a French-German tandem  (with the Germany as the senior partner) – European institutions have lost power and influence in the current crisis and may not regain it –  would run up against the interests of states normally closely economically and politically aligned with Germany in the EU such as Netherlands, Finland, Denmark, Poland and other CEE states (I have the phrase greater ‘Greater Germany’ scribbled down in my notebook – did somebody actually say that?). But none bar Poland  – in the remarkable speech by Foreign Minister Sikorski  – have actually raised these issues openly.

Seems in some ways as if history has run full circle and we back once again discussing the idea of a form of Mitteleuropa, albeit in the context of the more balanced and more democratic structures of the EU (or whatever it turn into)

And those pesky Brits? Well, those British demands were perhaps rather modest – maybe we should give Nick Clegg some credit (did I really just write that?) and in some ways leaning to  greater not less regulation.  The consensus view at the ECFR BCM seemed to be –  diplomatic and strategy of the UK were just a disaster, although the underlying issue of who (EU or UK)  regulates was perhaps the key issue was possibly less easily negotiable

Cameron (rather like Sarkozy) comes out a big short-term winner in domestic politics, but at the more strategic levels the Brits are left needing to improvise ‘creative diplomacy’ to prevent emergence of too starkly Two Speed Europe – perhaps pushing for varied integration, really going against the grain of European politics for more political integration. Underlying British problem is that it wants viable Euro to avoid economic meltdown, but fears the decline in own influence that integration necessary for this will bring.

Perhaps, however, if the politics of Euro rescue were to prove Mission Impossible, integration would painfully rebound, as someone put it, like piece of stretched elastics reverting to something closer to UK vision and/or status quo.

And there was distinct pessimism – reflecting in the dank rainy day visible taking shape outside – as to whether the politics could overcome economic diversity across EU with no underlying European identity or solidarity legitimising redistribution.

We are, it seems, caught in a vicious circle/cycle of technocracy and populism:  populist mood of public anger with elites, politicians and distant, illegitimate looking European institutions leads these elites to, as ever, look for quiet, backdoor technocratic workarounds feeding waves of inchoate (and ultimately unfocused and possibly inconsequential) anti-elite politics.

The weather  outside was dark, dank cold with storm brewing up for later.

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