Could an Illiberal Europe Work?


Populist rightist parties have made dramatic gains over the past two decades. They are effectively in charge in Hungary, Poland and Italy and have joined a number of other governing coalitions. About a fifth of the current members of the European parliament belong to these parties and they are well positioned to make additional gains at the May 2019 elections.

Many populist leaders have changed their attitude to the European Union in recent years. While they used to wish to destroy the European Union or at least wanted their countries to leave the European Union and the Euro, they now advocate continued membership in a Union fundamentally transformed according to their wishes.

Their policy pronouncements are patchy and often incoherent, but it is still possible to identify the main elements of their vision for the EU. They would want the EU to continue to deliver economic benefits but return competencies to the national level. Member states should regain their full sovereignty, free from outside interference. They would cut the European Commission and the European Court down to size and eliminate their supervisory roles. They would keep migration policy as a national prerogative, but would turn the EU into a “Fortress Europe” that keeps refugees and migrants out. They oppose comprehensive trade arrangements and would allow nations to do their own bilateral deals with outside powers.

Closer examination shows a number of contra­dictions in their approach: Populists would like to preserve the benefits of the internal market but do away with the powers of EU institutions to guarantee the rule of law. They ignore that by rejecting these constraints they undermine the mutual trust across the EU – and thereby also the functioning of the internal markets. Likewise, the populists wish to restore national sovereignty is an illusion in a globalized, interdependent world. Far from making economies more independent, attempts to weaken the European Commission’s lead role in trade and standards reduce the EU’s collective power internationally. That exposes Europe to greater pressure from external forces—from rising powers like China and India to tech monopolies like Facebook and Google.

Populists believe that national interests come first. Therefore, they are intrinsically suspicious of demands for solidarity and compromise. But a purely transactional approach to EU membership will not work. The EU needs a minimum degree of solidarity to function because member states are so deeply integrated. Zero-sum nationalism makes sustained cooperation impossible.

An illiberal Europe of the kind promoted by populists would destroy itself through its own internal contradictions. It relies on free-riding on the legal order and stable institutions built at the EU level over sixty years and ignores the fact that chipping away at the rule of law and solidarity would ultimately destroy Europe’s prosperity and stability.

2019 European Parliament Elections Will Change the EU’s Political Dynamics

Parliamentary democracy at the EU level has long suffered from a structural deficit. While national governments have given the EP power over far-reaching legislative and budget decisions, the national political elites have been unwilling to create a pan-European democratic space. European parliamentarians are elected from national lists, according to each country’s election laws, and national political parties have kept an iron grip on the electoral process. Thus, EP elections have more resembled twenty-eight national elections than transnational contests.

Two key elements for genuine parliamentary democracy at the EU level are missing: first, given the size and complexity of the EP, it is almost impossible for voters to assess the performance of individual MEPs, Second, there has never been a change in regime, as a Grand Coalition of center-right and center-left parties has long dominated the EP. The absence of these elements makes it difficult to explain to the public why EP elections matter. Voter turnout has therefore declined from 62 percent in the first elections in 1979 to 42.6 percent in 2014.

Attempts to “Europeanize” the election process through the introduction of transnational lists have been blocked and the new concept of lead candidates for the presidency of the Commission (“Spitzenkandidaten”) is unlikely to have much more impact in 2019 than it had in 2014.

Still, both the elections and the dynamics in the future parliament could be significantly different from the past, as the ongoing transformation of party politics will finally arrive on the European level. Many voters have been abandoning the traditional mainstream parties over the past decade. Populists on the right and the left have gained ground, but also new centrist forces such as Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche have appeared on the political scene. According to most predictions, the European People’s Party and the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats will not be able to establish a majority in the future parliament, which could greatly enhance the clout of other party groups, especially the Liberals and Greens.

As a result, the EP could look more like the Dutch or Danish parliaments, with more parties and coalition options. The EP legislative process might become less efficient, but the overall effect on EU-level democracy could be positive. The opening up of the political process to more, diverse participants could result in a more flexible system of shifting coalitions. Majorities would have to be built across party lines and include some non-establishment parties. According to most polls, there will be more populist MEPs, but they will remain a significant minority. Historically divided across several party groups, they will aim to unite forces in the new parliament. This is unlikely to fully succeed, however, because most of these parties find each other’s company hard to bear.

On most legislation, the EP needs an absolute majority to amend or reject the position of the Council of Ministers. By themselves, the populists will not achieve such a majority, but they could influence the forming of one.

To what extent the division between pro- and anti-EU forces will dominate the work of the future parliament will depend on the relative success of the populist radical right. The influx of a large number of EU-phobic members would make the tone of debates harsher and more confrontational. The dominant dividing line of the new parliament could become a contest between politicians who want to find common EU-level solutions to current challenges and those who favour safeguarding national sovereignty. The parliament could turn into a major battleground between competing visions for the future of Europe.

The Emergence of a European Political Space

Up until about 10 years ago politics on the national level and politics at the European level formed distinct spheres, which followed very different dynamics: National politics was marked by the competition between ideologically diverse political parties. Governments and political direction changed often. Domestic concerns specific to each country dominated politics and the political discourse was full of polemic and passion. EU level politics couldn’t have been more different. Here a grand centrist coalition ruled permanently. Open confrontation and ideological clashes were generally avoided. Contentious political issues were submitted to long technocratic negotiations resulting in complex compromises without clear winners and losers.

In the last few years, however, the divide between the two spheres is breaking down and each is beginning to resemble the other. This is due to two processes taking place simultaneously: the “nationalisation” of EU politics and the “Europeanization” of national politics. The current institutional cycle of the EU has still been marked by the customary dominance of the EPP and S&D. Yet, this period seems to be coming to an end in 2019. As cracks emerge in the traditional duopolistic system, European institutions will look increasingly like their counterparts in most member states: a plurality of diverse actors involved in complex coalition building. Politics will interfere more and more with the traditional method of preparing EU decisions through technocratic discussions outside the public sphere.

Increased volatility at the national level is also impacting the European scene. A few years ago, discussing national politics in Brussels was often frowned upon. Nowadays, national developments form an important part of the daily Brussels discourse, as they affect the EU’s work more than ever before. Changes of the composition and the orientation of the national political leadership can rapidly reshape the constellation of forces in the EU. And long delays in forming governments and coalition crises can seriously disrupt the EU’s agenda.

However, it is not just national politics that matter more and more at the EU level, a reverse process is also taking place in parallel across domestic contexts. The EU was founded as a top-down project at a time when citizens seemed readier than today to trust the wisdom of political elites. However, this “permissive consensus” was already fading in the early 90s as the EU entered into sensitive policy areas, such as border control or monetary policy. The financial crisis drove the politicization of the EU to new levels. Large parts of the population in Southern European countries resented the austerity policies imposed by Brussels and many in the North complained about the use of taxpayer money for bailing out struggling economies. The refugee crisis of 2015/16 triggered widespread concerns about security and loss of control over external borders and thus raised the political heat further. In the absence of an effective EU level response early in the crisis, calls to take back control over key national dossiers gathered ground.

Eventually, as national parties and political movements, from the far right to the left, mobilized against international agreements such as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US or the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) with Canada, even trade policy, long seen as the Commission’s ultimate technocratic instrument, was affected by the politicization of EU actions.

This growing intrusion of EU issues into domestic political debates had an impact on national political trends, resulting in the rise of populist and EU-sceptical movements, which accuse the EU of undermining national sovereignty. In response, also mainstream politicians were forced to articulate their positions on EU policies more clearly and actively than before.

As national and EU politics gets more and more intertwined, the dividing lines between the two spheres are fading away and a common European political space begins to slowly take shape. There are many constraints on the development of a European political space such as language barriers and the fragmentation of most European media along national lines. It is still too early to grasp the full consequences of this development. Increasing volatility of national politics could complicate EU decision making and make blockages more likely, but it could also introduce fruitful new ideas into European politics.

The prominence of EU issues in national debates could bring about an eventual convergence of political cultures across member states, but it could also at times result in nasty nationalist backlashes. It seems safe to say, however, that at a time when the constitutional route towards full political union appears blocked, practical politics at EU and national level are becoming more and more integrated. This is likely to profoundly influence the future of the European integration.

Europe’s East-West Divide: Myth or Reality?

Fifteen years after the EU’s big bang enlargement, one would expect the dividing line between old and new member states to have faded away. But according to media reporting and academic commentary, the opposite appears to be the case. In the last few years, the rift seems to have widened again and is often perceived to be one of the biggest challenges for the cohesion of the EU.

Unlike the North-South divide, which dominated EU politics during the financial crisis and set the Northern creditor countries, with their insistence on fiscal discipline, against the Southern debtor states demanding solidarity, the East-West divide lacks a single focus.

How to deal with refugees and migrants may be the most politically divisive item. But the crisis of democracy in Hungary and Poland and rule-of-law deficits there and in other Eastern countries are also major factors of alienation. And there are disputes about the financing of structural funds and agriculture, the mobility of workers, environmental standards, and food quality.

Frustrated about a perceived lack of commitment to integration from the newest member states, some Western politicians push for a two-speed Europe, in which the willing and able (Western) countries could move ahead, leaving the rest in an outer circle. Some of their counterparts in the East see their countries as victims of persisting discrimination. They complain that the West wishes to turn the CEE countries into permanent rule-takers and denies them a fair deal, which would enable economic convergence.

Many of the claims about the EU’s East-West divide do not stand up to closer inspection. Much of the divide exists more in politicians’ rhetoric, newspaper columns, and think tank articles than in concrete EU policy. This does not mean that the problem should be taken lightly. Even if the divide is more psychological than substantive, it nonetheless affects the relationship between older and newer member states and has an impact on policy decisions.

Lack of knowledge of the complex and highly diverse developments in CEE is a large part of the problem. With the exception of the Nordic states in the Baltics, Western European states have not developed enough know-how and familiarity with the region to understand what is going on and respond intelligently. Investing more diplomatic and cultural resources and promoting academic and civil-society exchanges could make a difference.

The relative low intensity of communication between the two sides is another important factor. In the enlarged EU, there is a tendency to consult primarily within established regional frameworks. More consultations and joint initiatives across the divide could help bridge the divide and extend the common ground.

The perception of a deteriorating relationship in recent years is also due to the policies of Warsaw and Budapest. In Western European public opinion, these policies are frequently conflated with those of the V4; and these, in turn, are frequently seen as representing all the post-communist member states. The problematic behaviour of a few therefore turns into an image problem for the entire region. The other CEE countries could help dispel this impression by distancing themselves clearly from the illiberal policies of Budapest and Warsaw. But Western European politicians and journalists could also do more to resist unfair generalizations and typecasting.

A reality check of the experience of the past fifteen years demonstrates that altogether, the EU’s Eastern enlargement has been an impressive success story. But the sense of alienation that has crept into relations between West and East in recent years is nonetheless worrying. As they mark the fifteenth anniversary of the big bang enlargement in May, EU leaders need to remember that the reunification of Europe celebrated in 2004 was not completed at the moment of accession. Like most human relationships, it will continue and deepen only if it receives constant care and engagement.

The article gives the views of the author, not the position of the "Europe’s Futures–Ideas for Action" project or the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM).