Conservatives should keep in mind that the historical Europe of nation-states was not friendly to open markets, liberal democracy, or limited constitutional government. This and more is the opinion of research fellow of Foreign Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute Dalibor Rohac in an interview with the Budapest Beacon in Washington, D.C. last week.
The importance of distinguishing between the various forms of populism
Populism can be understood as a specific political platform, a specific set of claims about policy, or a specific ideology, but it can also be understood as a style of politics, Rohac says. In this respect, all politicians are populists because they craft their political message based on what they anticipate their audience will want to hear.
“The distinguishing mark of the era we are living through is the authoritarian dimension of populism, both in Europe and, unfortunately, on this side of the Atlantic; that is to say the idea that the will of popular majorities can trump constitutional constraints and other limits imposed upon the government, that we can circumvent the political process and the normal operation of checks and balances, independent judiciary, the media, et cetera, if there is a large majority legitimizing all that,” Rohac says.
“We have this in Hungary, where one party [Fidesz] has essentially colonized the entire public administration, including those branches of government that have been normally independent of day-to-day politics. We have also seen this most recently in Poland. We’ll see what happens in the United States. But if that’s the trend, and if that’s what authoritarian populism looks like these days, I think we are in for a few really dark years, not just for Europe and the European Union but also liberal democracy.”
How can a rise in authoritarian populism in EU Member States change the European Union as a whole?
“The interesting thing is that there hasn’t been that much pushback against the rise of authoritarian populist governments in Central Europe,” Rohac continues. “To the extent to which there was a standoff between Brussels and, say, Hungary or Poland, it was over the refugee issue. The rule of law procedure pursued against Poland at the moment is unlikely to result in sanctions, termination of membership, or anything that would have a lasting impact on day-to-day politics. So I don’t see this wave as creating an immediate risk of the EU’s unraveling. But I see this potentially diluting what should be the essence of the EU: commitment to shared values, good governance, democracy, economic openness, and cooperation. As long as the current trends continue, there might be an EU existing in name ten years from now, but many of the real tangible goods that the European integration process has brought about might be gone.”
Prime Minister Viktor Orbán heralds this tumultuous time as the dawning of a new era. How can the EU stay intact in this new era?
“The problem isn’t populism per se, not even the authoritarian streak to populism, but rather the zero-sum game mentality that these streams of political thought carry with themselves. We see it with [US President Donald] Trump, we see it with some of the people that had advocated the UK’s exit from the EU, that is, the notion that there was this self-serving bureaucracy in Brussels essentially imposing unnecessary norms, rules and regulations on a hapless British population. And we see it in Central Europe with politicians, such as Viktor Orbán or [leader of the Polish Law and Justice party] Mr. Kaczyński — this notion that there really are no gains from political cooperation across European countries.
“If people start to believe that there are no gains from cooperation, from the pooling of sovereignty, from adopting common standards, common rules, doing things together in certain areas, then cooperation will become more difficult. And we are already seeing that. If nothing else, the past five years in the EU have been a certain reaffirmation of national sovereignty, a reaffirmation of the role of the nation-state. It’s no longer taken for granted that the EU will continue on its path towards deeper integration. More importantly, it’s not even clear whether the EU will remain in its present form in the coming years and decades.”
Does the EU need to be changed?
“I started my intellectual journey very much as a Eurosceptic in the sense that I have long recognized that the EU is an organization that is highly ineffective and flawed in some ways. It’s not a federation. It’s not a unitary state. It’s not even a well-functioning confederation. It has all these attributes of overreach and under-delivery in certain areas, building up expectations that then come to be really bad. I think we need to be able to talk honestly about these flaws. The Eurozone crisis is one manifestation. The Schengen system put in place without the common asylum and immigration policy is another. So, I’m more than willing and more than keen to recognize all the flaws, but at the same time I think it’s important to also just reflect for a moment on the incredible achievements, the unbelievable achievements of the past 70 years.
“The fact that Europe is at peace, democratic, prosperous, and more economically open than ever before is not something that we should take for granted. By historical standards, it’s an absolute and complete anomaly, something that we should really stand in awe of and take very seriously.
“If you are of any kind of conservative disposition, you should be extremely careful in how you try to tweak and play with the existing arrangement. If you believe that the EU has nothing to do with today’s prosperity and peace, you should be extremely careful in how you try to rebuild or let unravel the existing institution or arrangements, partly because we don’t really understand how complex systems operate. There is a certain hubris, I would argue, in the claims of those who say we don’t need the EU, that we can just go back to the Europe of nation-states that would just cooperate on an ad hoc basis. We have lived in such a Europe in the past and it hasn’t worked out too well.”
The EU has offered a continent with nation-states otherwise at each others’ throats a period of prolonged peace unprecedented in the modern era.
“That really was the historical baseline in Europe. The Europe of nation-states, this fantasy that some of my Eurosceptic conservative friends have of nation-states, sovereignty, and self-governance, I think has very limited validity outside of the Anglo-Saxon world. People sort of look at the UK as the model of an island nation, a self-governing nation for many centuries, but that’s not what nation-states in Europe looked like.
“First of all, there is much more fluidity in terms of the formation of these countries. It’s not like France or Germany or Slovakia have been some God-given entities that have been around for years. No, these are products of 19th-century nationalism. The processes through which these countries evolved and interacted were often times brutal, and often times involved war and protectionism. That Europe was not friendly to open markets, liberal democracy, or the limited constitutional government that conservatives should care about.”
What should national governments and EU policy makers do to salvage the best of what remains of the European Union?
“I think it’s important for people to understand what is at stake, to internalize, in a certain sense, the urgency of what is happening. We have seen protests in D.C., Budapest and Warsaw, but I think it’s important for people to realize that protests are not enough. I think people need to become involved politically instead of becoming resigned as people have in Russia, Turkey, or elsewhere have become resigned, because becoming resigned is what helps authoritarian governments to become entrenched. As long as there is a vibrant civil society, as long as there is an understanding on the part of the population that there is no viable alternative to open society, open markets, and liberal democracy constrained by a strong set of rules and civil society, independent judiciary, et cetera, then I think the future of the Western world is not altogether bleak.”