As part of ECFR's Reinvention project, we are running a series of blog posts looking at particular thematic issues facing Europe as it attempts to deal with the financial crisis. In the first in this series, Tibor Dessewffy examines the attraction of populist politics in Hungary.
In his paper on future scenarios for Europe, Mark Leonard convincingly argues that the major tensions in both the European and the domestic arenas are between technocratic and populist forces. The financial crisis has certainly led to a more integrated technocratic system of crisis management, but the uncertainty over whether measures to control the crisis will succeed is also creating support for populist forces.
The public reception to populist claims varies greatly across Europe. In Hungary, for instance, a speech was given in March arguing that “We will not be a colony”. This speech, however, was not given by a member of the extremist Jobbik party, but rather by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, whose party won a landslide victory in 2010. This also gave him a supermajority that allowed him to replace the constitution with the ‘Fundamental Law’.
But even with the supermajority Orbán is vulnerable to extreme populism (as Leonard quotes a Finnish cabinet minister, “The only way we can take on the populists is to clone them”). Behind closed doors he argues that he must use some radical rhetoric to prevent Jobbik from winning power. However I would argue that this is another dimension to this: Financial Crisis as a metaphor that embodies and reinforces three long standing European anxieties: 1. ‘Destruction of our way of life’ (violent changes, unnecessary reforms); 2. ‘Barbarians at the gates’ (immigration, minorities); 3. Robbed by globalisation (competition from the BRICS etc…). All three of these narratives can encourage political entrepreneurs from across the political spectrum to pander to the anxieties and adopt more populist positions (Orbán himself was formerly a liberal).
The European project is a natural place for these political populisms to manifest themselves. Politicians can turn to populist rhetoric, aimed at (distant) Brussels, in order to retain or win power domestically. This rhetoric is populist rather than simply popular when it involves inducing, manipulating, assisting or satisfying morally unacceptable or clearly irrational arguments in the pursuit of power.
New populism will inevitably conflict with the EU as it goes beyond rhetorical gestures to extremist voters and becomes a populist realpolitik of conditional cooperation. Leaders will play by EU rules only as long as their interests so dictate, and this is heightened by the sense that the crisis is sinking Europe as a whole. In Hungary, beyond the Fundamental Law, the parliament adopted more than 350 laws in one and a half years – an impossible speed in comparison to the leisurely pace of EU deliberation! Whether some of these laws mesh with the (vaguely defined) European Social Model is another matter.
Another dimension to the Hungarian case is that the government does not just ignore what it might see as the niggles of European concern and criticism, but instead verbally confronts Brussels at the same time as trying to secure an IMF/EU loan. Europe also has substantial leverage through various EU funds, yet Orbán’s calculation is clearly that such confrontation is in his interests.
This new populist realpolitik, based upon drawing off pressure from extremists and addressing the anxiety of populations, is likely to manifest itself elsewhere and create further centrifugal forces in the Union. As Orbán proudly proclaims,
"We have with us the silently abiding Europe of many tens of millions, who still insist on national sovereignty and still believe in the Christian virtues of courage, honour, fidelity and mercy, which one day made our continent great.”
When the financial crisis eases, reducing the need for EU support, Orbán’s notion of a Member State ‘finding its own way’ will become increasingly viable as a political strategy. Europe will be seen as a blocker and a hindrance to national progress. An accumulation of these tendencies will erode further European integration and (as Mark Leonard argues) probably lead to a two tier Europe with the inner core led by Berlin.
A possible response is for technocrats to present a common and popular narrative that has a sufficiently strong appeal to rival populist voices. That is easier said than done, but creating such a narrative is where pro-European forces must focus their energy.
Also in this series:
Jean Pisani-Ferry on the economics of the crisis - "Germany is reluctant because both a banking union and Eurobonds can serve as channels for transfers. This is a legitimate concern"
Hans Eichel on Franco-German leadership - "Merkande must avoid making Merkozy’s mistake (due in particular to the French part of the tandem) of publicly presenting the other European partners with faits accomplis"
Ivan Krastev on Soviet lessons - "it is Germany’s view of what is happening in the Union that will more dramatically affect the future of the European project than the troubles of the Greek or Spanish economies."
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