How should the EU stand up to the recurring temptation of ‘national democracy’?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Viktor Orbán [360b/ Shutterstock]

Over the last few years, support for right-wing national populists has increased substantially in more than half of EU member states. Adam Balcer asks how it undermines European identity and how this challenge can be overcome.

Adam Balcer is a political scientist at the WiseEuropa think tank.

A Polish and Hungarian case

Poland and Hungary are unique cases in Europe because they are ruled by single party governments of “soft” national populists, namely the Hungarian Civic Alliance (Fidesz) and Law and Justice Party (PiS) in Poland. After seven years of Orbán’s rule, Hungary finds itself balancing on the edge between being a ‘free’ and a ‘partly free’ country, to evoke Freedom House’s terminology. Moreover, Hungarian media were relegated to the latter category immediately after Orbán’s electoral victory and have continued to slide towards the category of ‘not free’. If Hungary slips into the category of “partly free”, it will be the first such case in the history of the EU.

Just one year after the PiS electoral victory in Poland, Freedom House issued a statement saying that “PiS has openly targeted Poland’s basic democratic institutions (…)”. Negative developments concerning the democratic system in Poland and Hungary stem mostly from PiS’s and Fidesz’ vision of an ethnically defined nation which, from their point of view, should be made even more homogenous.

Lessons to be learned

The lessons from developments in Hungary and Poland should serve as a ‘warning call’ for the entire EU because the victory of similar political forces in other European countries will gravely undermine European identity.

The first lessons are the negative consequences which the rule of national populists may have on European democracies. This politics envisages the ideal nation as a monolith and is, in the long-term, undemocratic. The assumption about the natural character of ethnic homogeneity does not accept the unprecedented social and cultural diversity of modern nations.

The second lesson is that national populists, by promoting ethnic nationalism, undermine the rule of law, which constitutes a basic foundation of the EU project and democracy. If the will of a sovereign nation expressed in elections is seen as the main foundation of democracy, the ruling party may have a serious problem reconciling the political system with individual freedoms. The will of such a sovereign nation should not be limited. Therefore, right-wing populists share a very negative attitude towards the rule of law, presenting it as undemocratic by nature (judges are not elected).

The third lesson concerns the importance of the politics of identity, merged with the politics of memory conducted by the state and political forces. The rebuilding of the present nation in order to maintain power in the future requires a cohesive and instrumental narrative about the past to legitimise the current politics.

The fourth lesson underlines that an ethnic national identity promoted by right-wing populists is by definition more exclusive than other forms of identity, so wide-ranging exclusion is inevitable at some stage. It builds an alleged unity through division. Within the politics of fear, it needs not only an external ‘Other’ but also an internal one by which to define itself. The xenophobia directed towards the external ‘Other’ feeds the hatred of internal enemies, including members of the same nation. If the very existence of the nation is presented by the national populists as being at stake due to, for instance, a perceived Islamic invasion, political opponents, allegedly undermining national unity, could suddenly become enemies. In consequence, the rise of ethnic nationalism can constitute a serious threat not only in a multi-ethnic country but also in an ethnically homogenous one.

European identity under threat

All those lessons demonstrate the lack of compatibility between the ethnic nationalism of right-wing populists and the European ideal as such. National populists try to present themselves as the defenders of nations against supranational and federal European utopias. However, the main ongoing confrontation is between ethnic nationalism promoted by national populists and civic nationalism constrained by the rule of law, which constitutes a major pillar of the EU and protects the rights of minorities and individuals. It means that the acceptance of the main proposals of national populists in regard to the definition of the nation will signify the beginning of the end of the EU.

The EU strikes back

EU institutions and mainstream political parties should react to the surge of national populists by seizing the initiative and pushing them into the corner. Many ordinary Europeans do not need the populism of ethnic nationalists to allay their fears. Such mimicry would not be credible or convincing, as Nicolas Sarkozy’s political fate showed. The EU mainstream should recreate its own attractive narrative about its history and identity. It has to combine the maturity to face its difficult past with the positive vision of the inclusive civic nationalism and the European identity, intertwined and both based on the rule of law, democracy and fundamental rights. Efficient prevention constitutes another crucial issue. In fact, the leniency of the European centre-right contributed substantially to the rise of Viktor Orbán. Therefore, the European Parliament’s resolution accepted in October 2016 to foresee the establishment of a binding and permanent EU mechanism to monitor and report annually on the records in the fields of democracy, the rule of law and fundamental rights in EU states is a step in the right direction. It is no accident that the PiS and Fidesz, together with “hard” national right-wing populists, voted against that resolution.

This opinion piece comes from the report Beneath the surface of illiberalism. The recurring temptation of ‘national democracy’, prepared and published in cooperation with the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Warsaw.

Subscribe to our newsletters