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Where the EU went wrong in Eastern Europe

One election, it seems, really can change everything.

Once feted for having bucked both the populist trend and the global recession, in early 2017 Poland was facing international condemnation. Moves by the Law and Justice government have come straight out of the playbook shared by the likes of Hungarian strongman Viktor Orbán. It’s moved quickly to neuter the constitutional court; to take control of the state media; to defund unfriendly NGOs or regulate them into irrelevance; to put its own people in charge of public institutions; and has given every sign of being prepared to ride out waves of protests and ignore international criticism.

Recent footage of opposition deputies occupying the podium of the Sejm and chaotic and hastily convened parliamentary voting by government deputies in back rooms was more reminiscent of the crisis-hit democracies of southern and southeastern Europe than the democratic trailblazer once hailed by European Union heavyweights.

To be clear, Poland is not yet Hungary, the EU’s other major backsliding headache. Law and Justice has only a small parliamentary majority, not the supermajority needed for a Hungarian-style constitutional rewrite. Protesters have been more assertive and quicker to take to the streets.

Nor does Poland have a powerful far-right party like Hungary’s Jobbik waiting in the wings to claim the role of “real” opposition if the ruling party falters. Poland’s opposition may yet manage to use social movements as a rough-and-ready substitute for weakened constitutional checks and balances — and may perhaps eventually make a winning return at the polls. But even in this (far-from-certain) best-case scenario, the country’s institutions are likely to emerge from this period badly damaged.

But the speed at which Poland’s and Hungary’s apparently successful democracies have unravelled points toward a problem that has tended to be overlooked amid the latest political developments: Contrary to appearances, liberal democracy was never solidly rooted in Eastern Europe. Read More…

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From Babiš to Brexit (interview with Eurozpravy.cz)

babis-brexit

Photos in montage: David Sedlecký CC BY-SA 4.0 and The Millennium Report, 2016

You focus on right-wing parties in the Czech Republic – I mean ODS and TOP 09. According to surveys, they are not very popular and they are in opposition at present. Where did Czech right-wing parties make mistakes?  Do you think that they will be able to come back into government soon?

I don’t think right-wing parties will return to government other than as junior partners and TOP09 may not even return to parliament.

Where did Czech right wing parties go wrong? For ODS in not thinking early enough what the right-wing politics would represent in a Czech context once the basic tasks of transformation were over; sticking too long with Václav Klaus, whose idea of free market nationalistic, eurosceptic right-wing politics did not appeal broadly enough; in under-estimating the importance (and politically destructive effects) of corruption; in trying too late to reform its corrupt regional structures.  TOP09 suffered from being anti-ODS, too heavily dependent on the personal appeal of Karel Schwarzenberg.

Do Czech right-wing parties need a strong leader as Václav Klaus used to be?

Parties benefit from having attractive and charismatic leaders, and neither ODS nor TOP09 currently has one. Petr Fiala has done a good job “de-toxifying” ODS and rescuing it from extinction, but is dry and professorial. Miroslav’s Kalousek reputation is well known.   However, I don’t think a dynamic, charismatic leader alone would make the Czech right the political force it previously was.

As I mention above, Klaus’s strength and charisma was a mixed blessing: it gave ODS a clear ‘brand’ but stifled the development of the party longer term. Read More…

Does Eastern Europe have lessons for Brexit Britain?

Vote_Leave_-_geograph.org.uk_-_5002468

Photo Bob Harvey, CC BY-SA 2.0,

In the aftermath of the EU referendum a number of Central and South East Europeanists wrote blogs reflecting on possible parallels between Brexit and break-ups of multinational socialist states like Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia in early 1990s.

There are certainly parallels to be drawn.  They lie, as Catherine Baker notes, often in the political dynamics of exiting a large multi-national structure: the desire of smaller nations (Scotland) to ‘exit the exit’; the woes of asymmetric federalism, where nations ina multinational union have varying degrees of autonomy; the changeable nature of public opinion; the EU as a symbol of modernisation and liberalism (the ‘March for Europe’, and the normalisation of  radical positions through by media coverage – and now social media ‘echo chambers;.

Scotland’s (now much more likely) exit from the UK – as noted in the lead-in to #indyref – had echoes not only of Yugoslavia’s disintegration or Czechoslovakia’s ‘Velvet Divorce’ in 1992 but also – more distantly, but perhaps more pertinently –  of the dilemmas faced by small, newly independent Central European states emerging from the Habsburg Empire in 1918. Read More…

Could Brexit lead to Frexit – or Czexit?

A powerful coalition of forces – ranging from the driest of conservatives to Greens and the radical left and taking in big business,  trade unions, churches and universities – has come together to underline the negative economic, social and political consequences of Brexit.

The UK leaving the EU, it is argued, will not only do lasting damage to the country’s economic prospects and political influence, but could have wider repercussions and might even  cause the Union to start unravelling.

This is not simply a matter of absorbing a mighty economic shock, the complexities of negotiating the terms of Brexit, or the umpredictable effects of a sharply changed balance of forces within a downsized Union – the greater weight of Eurozone vis-a-via the non-Eurozone, for example – but the new political dynamics that might take hold.

Some have argued that, emboldened by the example of Brexit, eurosceptics across the EU, will start to push for the exit option, triggering a kind of ‘domino effect’.  Writing for France Inter. Bernard Guetta gloomily takes for granted that post-Brexit

… so many politicians and political parties would follow headlong down this route to get a slice of the action. The pressure for similar referendums would arise all over Europe. The defenders of the European ideal would find themselves on the defensive. In such a crisis it would be very difficult to rebuild the EU.

Available evidence does suggest potential for such a process.  Polling by Ipsos Mori shows high public demand for referendums on EU membership in with significant minorities France (41%), Sweden (39%) and Italy (48%). favouring withdrawal. Other polling even suggested that post-Brexit a majority of Swedes would support exiting the EU.

 French, Dutch and Danish electorates do have experience of rejecting EU treaties in referendums – with voters in the Netherlands getting further practice in last month’s referendum on EU-Ukraine trade deal, which some see a dry run for a Nexit vote.

 And demands for exit from the EU – or referendums about it – have been raised by expanding parties of the populist right pushing their way towards power: Geert Wilders’s Freedom Party in Holland advocates Nexit, while French Front National plans to organise a referendum on Frexit within six months of coming to power.

FN leader Marine Le Pen, who relishes the idea of becoming Madame Frexit, also recommends that every EU member should have one (although her offer to visit the UK and help out the Brexit campaign has been abruptly turned down). Read More…

East Central Europe: liberalism gone missing – or just never there?

Refugees welcome hashtag

Spread of #refugeeswelcome 3 September 2015

This commentary on liberalism and the responses to the refugee crisis in East Central Europe was co-authored with James Dawson.

 Images from Hungary showing security forces turning tear gas and water cannon on refugees from behind a newly fortified border will come as little surprise to many observers of East Central Europe.  The government of Victor Orbán has systematically exploited the refugee crisis to ramp up a long-standing rhetoric of nationalist intolerance and consolidate its grip on power by passing a raft of emergency powers, further eroding Hungary’s once robust legal checks and balances. Such actions have drawn a storm of international opprobrium – including harsh criticism from the governments of Austria, Croatia and Serbia, all of which have taken a more humane and pragmatic approach to managing the influx of refugees.

Few criticisms of Hungary’s actions have come from neighbouring EU states in East Central Europe still widely seen as front runners in liberal political and economic reform. Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic initially opted to close ranks with Orbán to head off the European Commission’s proposals for compulsory quotas. Wrong-footed and exasperated by the sudden re-discovery of liberal compassion on the part on Germany and other West European governments, leaders ranging from Slovakia’s social democratic prime minister Robert Fico to Poland’s newly elected conservative president Andrzej Duda provoked astonishment in Western European capitals by conceding that they might take a handful of those fleeing the war in Syria hand-picked on the basis of their religion. Poland has lately broken ranks by responding to pressure from Berlin, Paris and Brussels to sign up to quotas, yet even the deal’s supporters doubt it will ever be implemented against a backdrop of consistently hostile public attitudes towards refugees in the region. As one social media visualisation graphically showed, widespread use of #refugeeswelcome stopped abruptly at the old Iron Curtain. Such stances have been widely lambasted as hypocritical, ungenerous, lacking in compassion, and contradicting the long-term interests of East Central European states themselves.

Yet just a decade ago these same former Eastern bloc countries acceded smoothly to the EU on the basis that they had fulfilled the Copenhagen Criteria as ‘functioning liberal democracies’. Why has liberalism, once a rallying cry for pro-European leaders from Warsaw to Sofia and a condition built into the EU’s demanding  pre-accession acquis, suddenly gone missing when it is needed most? Read More…

Eastern Europe 25 years on: catching up or catching cold?

25 years on from the fall of communism, the Wall Street Journal recently told its readers, Central and Eastern Europe is still playing catch-up. The reasons are mainly economic and infrastructural. Too little growth by the standards of the Asian tigers. Too few high speed rail links. Not enough motorways. Viktor Orbán bossing it over Hungary in an ever more worrying project of illiberal transformation. A bad subsidy habit fed by an indulgent EU. A Middle Income Development Trap waiting to be sprung. And –when did this ever happen before? –  progress that “ has fallen short of what many of its citizens had hoped”.

 But we shouldn’t be too harsh. The WSJ is not particularly well known for the quality of its CEE  reporting. And this occasion it’s absolutely right: Central and Eastern Europe is playing catch-up. The politics of catch-up, rather than geography or culture or post-communism, are probably what define the region best. If it wasn’t catching up, it wouldn’t be Central and Eastern Europe.  Historians of East Central Europe such as Andrew C. Janos or  Ivan Berend have long been preoccupied by the region’s long-term efforts to push its levels of socioeconomic– and political – development into line Europe’s core West European states –  although they have sometimes bluntly simply spoken of “backwardness”.

 The post-1989 project of European integration and enlargement, although more usually referred to in terms of ‘convergence’ or ‘Return to Europe’ is also all about one catch-up – and a very ambitious form of catch-up: overcoming deeply rooted east-west divide, which as Janos and others have noted, predates the Cold War division of Europe.  Enlargement and integration – and liberal reform in CEE generally –been sold politically on the basis that the poor, historically peripheral societies of CEE will (and after a painful process of adjustment) reap the full benefits of prosperity, social welfare, democracy and freedom enjoyed by core West European societies that had the good luck to stay out of of the Soviet zone of influence after WWII.

 If, in the long term, integration fails to deliver, there may be significant consequences both for the EU and for the fate of democracy and liberal institutions in Central and East European countries themselves.  As recent developments in Hungary show, liberal and democratic reforms are not irreversible or consolidated as once thought or hoped. If the European project fails to deliver catch-up – or the Western model CEE was busy catching up on with proves exhausted and unattractive – it will exacerbate both centrifugal pressures in the EU and erosion of democracy in some or all of CEE. There is the uncomfortable possibility that in his nationalistic rejection of liberalism, Viktor Orbán may be a leader rather than a laggard as far as the future direction of the region is concerned –  the Central European vanguard of the revolt against a broken Western model that Pankaj Mishra sees rippling out  from Asia. Read More…

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…