Europe’s unprecedented challenge from the authoritarians in the east

Jon Henley* – The Guardian

How the EU deals with members flouting core western liberal norms and values could overshadow Brexit wrangling in 2018

In 2017, Europe survived the crunch Dutch, French and German elections that – after Brexit and Trump – many predicted would mark the beginning of its end. In 2018, the biggest threats could come from the east.

When Poland and Hungary joined the EU in 2004, the integration of the former communist bloc countries was seen as critical to the bloc’s post-cold war advance. Barely a decade later, they risk becoming its first rogue states.

How Europe deals with members deliberately flouting the core western liberal norms and values it strives to embody – social tolerance, respect for free speech, an independent judiciary – could dominate 2018 far more than Britain’s exit.

Brussels this month triggered a process likely to lead to an unprecedented formal warning to Poland that “fundamental values” are at risk as relations with the EU continue to sour over the determination of the country’s de facto leader, Jaros?aw Kaczy?ski, to push through plans to seize more control of the courts and media.

The European commission also took Hungary to the European court of justice (ECJ) over prime minister Viktor Orbán’s ongoing assault on political freedoms and the emblematic Central European University (CEU), founded by the billionaire George Soros, and referred Hungary and Poland to the ECJ for refusing point-blank to take in refugees as part of the EU’s mandatory quota system.

A protracted, politically charged conflict looks increasingly likely. With unassailable poll ratings, weak and divided oppositions and their countries’ economies booming, Kaczy?ski’s increasingly authoritarian Law and Justice party and Orbán’s all-powerful Fidesz appear in no mood to back down.

It is Poland’s duty, Kaczy?ski said at his independence day speech in November, to “show the sick Europe of today the path back to health, fundamental values, true freedom and a stronger civilisation based on Christianity”.

Orbán, who appears to be cruising comfortably to a third consecutive term as prime minister-strongman in elections this spring, has been calling for the defence of Europe’s “Christian culture” against a “Muslim invasion” since 2015, and is taking his demonisation of the US financier Soros to shocking levels.

Confronting countries that want the benefits of the EU but thumb their noses at its core values looks set to become an increasingly pressing question in 2018, arguably undermining the European project more significantly than the departure of traditionally doubtful Britain.

The formal warning to Poland, recommended by the Commission subject to the approved of at least 22 EU member states, is the first step of article 7 proceedings, the so-called “nuclear option” whose ultimate sanction is to deprive a member state of its EU voting rights.

That, however, is seen as unlikely because it requires a unanimous vote of all member states – including, Hungary, which has already said it would not back it. It also carries a risk of backfiring by alienating still fundamentally pro-EU populations.

But calls to make EU funds – of which Poland and Hungary are among the largest net recipients – conditional on upholding the rule of law will certainly grow louder. Germany, France and the Nordic states back them. The new Dutch government even wrote them into its coalition accord.

Working out how to handle its troublesome central European members is not, of course, the EU’s only concern in the coming year. Besides Hungary’s vote, potentially tricky elections are due in two other member states: Sweden and Italy. And the dust from last year’s German poll is still far from settled.

The populist Eurosceptic insurgents – with the exception of Germany’s AfD – fared less well in last year’s polls than they had hoped. (Austria’s far-right Freedom party re-entered government, but its vote share was down on previous highs.)

But the populist threat remains. At 14%, support for the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats is similarly down from its 2015 peak, yet it could still have enough clout to stop either the centre-left or centre-right blocs forming a government should they fail to reach a majority in the September elections.

In Italy, where elections are expected in early March, a new law allowing parties to fight elections as coalitions has been criticised as a coup d’état by the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, currently tied second in the polls with the ruling centre-left Democratic Party.

Both, though, lag behind a potential rightwing coalition of Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, the anti-immigrant Northern League and far-right Brothers of Italy. With no one bloc looking strong enough to secure a majority on its own, concerns about the fate of Italy’s massive debt pile – 130% of GDP – are mounting.

As so often – even after French president Emmanuel Macron’s vault on to the world stage – Europe will be looking to Germany to pull its weight next year. But after the collapse of three-way “Jamaica” coalition talks, and with the Social Democrats wary of renewing their partnership with Angela Merkel’s CDU, Berlin cannot yet do so.

Whatever happens, it is unlikely that there will be a new government in Berlin before February or even March, and if talks between the CDU-CSU and Martin Schulz’s SPD on a new grand coalition (or at least cooperation) fail, there will be fresh elections.

With Macron champing at the bit to launch major eurozone reforms and push on with a common defence force, much in Europe is, for the moment, on hold. The continent’s economy is faring significantly better than it has in years, but tangible progress remains out of reach.

Meanwhile, it faces an unprecedented challenge from the authoritarians in the east. Italy’s teetering economy, weak banks and complicated politics may yet implode. The migration crisis could erupt once more, and the populists are just biding their time. Europe is not out of the woods yet.


*Jon Henley is the Guardian’s European affairs correspondent. He was previously a foreign correspondent most recently in Paris, where he was the paper’s bureau chief for nearly a decade, and senior feature writer. 


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