“Right-wing extremism is on the rise in Europe” – Mitchell Orenstein and Daniel Kelemen

October 12, 2016

“One thing Brexit shows is that it is not really fruitful to try and appease these kind of right-wing, anti-EU, Eurosceptic movements, which (former British prime minister David) Cameron tried to do. In fact, one of the concerns that stopped the EU and the commissioners from doing more against Orbán earlier was that interference in the internal affairs of a government will pour fuel on the fire for Brexitiers. That battle is lost now. So hopefully they will regain their confidence to stand up for the values the EU was built up on.” – Daniel Kelemen, Rutgers University professor of political science and law

“What the EU has been brilliant at is bringing together the large states and the small states in a union where everybody feels comfortable and everybody’s rights are respected.  A great power Europe is really a recipe for disaster for the small states.” – Mitchell Orenstein, Professor of Central and East European Politics, University of Pennsylvania.

The spread of rot

“Right-wing extremism is on the rise in Europe” warn University of Pennsylvania’s Mitchell Orenstein and Rutgers University’s Daniel Kelemen.

Although reluctant to label various political movements as “fascist”, Orenstein says there is a “family resemblance” between the “alt-right” (a segment of right-wing ideologies that rejects mainstream conservatism in the United States), the “Christian national right,” Hungary’s Fidesz/Jobbik right and fascism.

“These are right-wing extremist parties that share certain elements: xenophobia, leadership principle, authoritarian governance style, attempt to control the media, a kind of organic nationalist version of who is in the state and who are not, a kind of ‘in group, out grou’ speech where you are either with us or a traitor,” says the Orenstein, Professor of Central and East European Politics at the University of Pennsylvania.

Rutger’s University professor of political science and law Daniel Kelemen is concerned about the “spread of rot” from Hungary to other EU Member States.

“Hungary as a democracy is lost for now.  That is not to say democracy cannot be restored one day.  The battle there has been lost and Fidesz has taken control.  They are running a single-party state,” says Kelemen, adding that in Poland “the battle is (still) being fought.”

A terrifying vision

Orenstein warns that Poland’s Justice and Law Party (PiS) is attempting to turn Poland into a “nirvana of nationalist feeling” to be run “as a dictatorship.”  He warns that the current Polish government is extremely conspiracy-minded and that it believes the Third Republic of Poland is “deeply corrupt” and “polluted” as a result of compromises made at the 1989 Round Table Talks and that “you need to tear up every law and create a fourth republic.”

Dan Kelemen says the “Orbán playbook” was adopted by Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydło and Polish President Andrzej Duda, pointing out that PiS chairman Jarosław Kaczyński met with Viktor Orbán after the election to “compare notes on autocracy and how to play cat and mouse with the EU.”  Kelemen says that, having been voted out of office once, this time PiS party chairman Kaczyński is determined to go after institutions that can stand in his way.

Undermining the EU

On the subject of EU membership, Kelemen says he cannot imagine either Poland or Hungary leaving the EU so long as both are net beneficiaries of EU fiscal transfers.

“These regimes depend very heavily on EU transfers,” he says, pointing out that most investment projects in Hungary are co-financed by the EU. “They cannot run their government without it,” says Kelemen, who says Orbán “relies on doling out EU money to cronies of the Fidesz regime.”

Orenstein says that while Kaczyński claims to support the EU, “in fact what he is doing is undermining the EU at every single turn.”

Better tools are needed

Orenstein and Kelemen agree that there is not much the EU can do against democratic backsliding in Hungary and Poland, and that “better tools are needed to intervene if the rule of law and democratic norms in a member state are dramatically undermined.”

Orenstein points out that major EU Member States like Germany and France are “under threat,” and “the EU is on shakier and shakier grounds in terms of what it can do to eliminate this problem.”

“The EU put into place a couple of years ago this Rule of Law Mechanism based on the experiences and lessons with Hungary,” says Kelemen, noting that “they haven’t deployed that mechanism against Hungary but they have deployed it now against Poland.” He says the European Commission has told the government of Poland that it needs to “stand down” in its conflict with the Constitutional Tribunal, reinstate judges and publish court decisions, but that the government has yet to respond.

“The bigger challenge will come soon when a right-wing government comes to power in Austria,” warns Kelemen.  Whereas EU institutions shunned Austria’s Freedom Party the last time it was in government, the Rutgers’ professor does not know whether the same thing will happen this time because “too many right-wing governments are in power.”  Furthermore, “this time it is a majority of Austrian voters expressing their preference.”

The role of the European Peoples Party in all of this

Kelemen says the EU could and should have done more as the situation deteriorated in Hungary under the second government of Orbán, but that “Orbán has always enjoyed, and still enjoys today, the protection of the European People’s Party.”  He says the reason for this is that “Fidesz, although it is in fact a far right xenophobic party, maintains its membership in this group of Center-Right parties at the EU level, which is the largest party and includes Merkel’s Christian Democrats, as well as Donald Tusk’s Civic Platform.”  Kelemen further notes that, whereas members of the European Parliament and European People’s Party leaders took “active measures” to protect the Orbán government against sanctions, Kaczyński and PiS “don’t enjoy that level of protection” because they belong to the European Conservatives and Reformists party” and that many of those in the EP who voted against applying the rule of law mechanism to Hungary voted in favor of doing so in the case of Poland because “they do not rely on them for votes in the European Parliament.”

Kelemen says the problem is that the final step of punishment mechanisms require unanimity in the end.  “Orbán is always going to step in to defend his fellow autocrat.”

Orenstein warns that as more and more right-wing parties come to power, Europe is threatened with a return of the kind of right-wing nationalism and xenophobia characteristic of the 1930s.

The demise of neoliberalism

“The last 30 years has been a period of neoliberalism in Europe which came with a lot of economic policies that a lot of people didn’t like,” says Orenstein.  Accompanying neoliberalism was “a kind of political liberalism of spreading democracy” says Orenstein, noting that “the EU has been very good at spreading democracy to countries that want to join the EU, although there have been reversals in Hungary and Poland.”

“What is happening now is a new trend fueled by a decline in neoliberal thinking,” says Orenstein.  He says the financial crisis of 2008 served to discredit 19th-century ideas associated with laissez-faire economic liberalism, and this, in turn, helps account for why the British people “didn’t listen to business and corporate leaders with regard to Brexit.”

He says the demise of neoliberalism creates a “loud space for the alt-right or nationalist right movements to rise” which claim to have answers to modern problems of migration and terrorism, adding that “they’re not pretty answers, but for the voting public they are the ones who are coming out and saying ‘this is what we should do.’”

“What you see is the center right parties kind of following their lead” as in the case of Hungary, where the governing Fidesz-KDNP political alliance has co-opted much of the radical right wing Jobbik’s political agenda.

A house divided

Kelemen does not see the Visegrad 4 (Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Poland) emerging as a powerful bloc. “At the end of the day there are still differences that divide them” says Kelemen, noting that “they are weak and dependent states ultimately.”  He points out that unity among the V4 broke down in Bratislava as Slovakia “was not willing to heed Orbán’s call for treaty revisions.”

Kelemen says “Orbán would like to create a kind of counter-revolution, and certainly what is happening in Poland can show how rot can spread from one state to another.”  Nevertheless, he remains optimistic in his belief that “the center will hold in the EU against these forces”.

Standing up for values

Kelemen points out that “one thing Brexit shows is that it is not really fruitful to try and appease these kind of right-wing, anti-EU, Eurosceptic movements, which Cameron tried to do.”  He says one reason the EU and the commissioners failed to do more against Orbán earlier was “concern that interference in the internal affairs of a government will pour fuel on the fire for Brexitiers.”

“That battle is lost now, so hopefully they will regain their confidence to stand up for the values the EU was built up on” notes the Rutgers professor.

A recipe for disaster

“As much as Putin likes to criticize fascists, he actually supports fascists and quasi-fascists throughout the European Union primarily because he sees those weakening the European Union,” warns Orenstein.

“Make no mistake, Putin’s main goal here is to destroy the European Union as an effective organization” warns Orenstein. He says that Russia perceives the European Union as an economic and political threat. “Putin sees democracy promotion that the EU engages in as a direct threat to his own regime, which is not a democracy and could possibly be overturned by democracy protests,” he says.

“In a Europe dominated by the EU, Russia is always a second-class citizen,” says Orenstein.

“It’s the biggest country that can’t.  It can’t become a democracy. It can’t become a market economy. It can’t succeed at modernization. If you get rid of the EU, and go back to a great power Europe, where there’s Russia, Germany, France, Britain, then Russia can hold its own.  Because it is a great power in the European space,” one that can make “arrangements with all these different states” says Orenstein.

“The problem with that is it is at the expense of all the smaller states of Europe” says Orenstein, noting that he EU has been “brilliant at is bringing together the large states and the small states in a union where everybody feels comfortable and everybody’s rights are respected.” He notes that “a great power Europe is really a recipe for disaster for the small states.”

A confluence of interests

“The election of Donald Trump would do irreversible and serious damage to our relationships with Europe,” warns Kelemen, going that as a populist nationalist with “warm views of Putin and Russia,” Trump would not support the EU as an institutional organization “because it does not gel with his vision of national sovereignty and power.”

“He’s made it clear that he doesn’t view our security relationship and our NATO Article 5 commitments with Europe through the same lens that the leader of either party has in the past” notes Kelemen, warning that “he says we’re going to be like a private mall cop and charge by the hour for our security guarantees.”

By contrast, Kelemen believes Hillary Clinton would be much more within the “traditional mold of solid trans-Atlantic relations.”

Orenstein agrees. “She’s the one that obviously supports the current institutions of the international system that have been pretty effective since the end of the Second World War.”

Democracy on the back foot

Observing that democracy is “a little bit on the back foot now,” Orenstein points out that we are seeing “the rise of autocrats” that “want a kind of illiberal state with a strong elected leader to be the only true voice of the people.” The University of Pennsylvania professor says this is “precisely what Trump stands for” and that as President, Trump would do “permanent damage to the idea of liberal democracy.”

Orenstein observes that Trump is “extremely pro-Russia.”

“We don’t know why that is, but presumably it is because there is a confluence of interests between Putin and Trump because of similar personalities and similar world views.” He says that if Putin wants a “great power pow-wow,” Trump will “be on board with that because it fits in with his authoritarian style, his personalistic, dictatorial ambitions, his idea about how to run the world as a series of deals rather than as a series of institutions that have been tried and work with the EU.”

“Trump doesn’t seem to like institutions,” observes Orenstein.  “He doesn’t respect the institutions of the US government like the IRS.  His concept of deal-making is a reversion to the great power world that existed in the 19th century” he says.

A dangerous world

The problem with a world order based on deals among great powers rather than institutions, warns Orenstein, is that “the small guys got crushed” and end up “throwing bombs into the carriages of great power leaders,” thereby triggering a major conflict.

“That is the world we’re headed for if Trump is elected,” warns Orenstein.  “I believe it is dangerous world,” he adds.

“My read of history is that that is not a world that has ended very well.  Very often it has ended in war because the small guys can still make a very big impact.”