National populism in central Europe is a serious threat to the European Union, deepening longstanding divides and harming the support citizens of the region give to the EU.
May’s European Parliament election saw national populist parties – a broad and internally diverse category – win more than 20 percent of seats. These parties’ popularity varies dramatically between European Union member states, but it is particularly strong in Hungary and Poland, the only EU member states ruled by national populists: Fidesz and Law and Justice respectively.
Under their governments, the state of the rule of law has deteriorated radically: at the beginning of 2019, Freedom House designated Hungary a “partly free” country – an unprecedented situation in the history of the EU. It has also warned Poland that may slip into the same grouping. Such national populists’ raison d’être is a permanent fight against external and internal enemies, whether it be Muslims, Roma, and neighbouring nations; LGBT people, ecologists, and feminists; liberal elites, Brussels, George Soros, Jews – on the list goes. But Hungary and Poland are hardly alone in this: leaders of the ruling left and liberal parties in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Andrej Babiš and Robert Fico, also deploy these tropes. Central Europe stands out within the EU because of this spectacular spillover of national populism into governing politics.
National populism took hold in Hungary and Poland for a variety of reasons, including an unhappy coincidence of social, economic, and political factors this decade. But there are structural factors particular to the four ‘Visegrad’ countries too: namely, the popularity of ethnic nationalism and the persistence of various phobias.
a) In an opinion poll published by Pew Research Centre (PRC) in 2017 the great majority of Czechs, Hungarians, and Poles agreed that “it is better for us if a society consists of people from the same nationality, and who have the same religion and culture” (55-65 percent). They by and large rejected the idea that “it is better for us if society consists of people from different nationalities, religions and cultures” (only around 30-35 percent agreed). The research showed the Visegrad region to be the most attached to homogeneity in central and eastern Europe.
b) Other PRC surveys and polls conducted by regional opinion polling institutes have revealed that the citizens of these four countries are deeply antipathetic towards the Roma and to the tiny and well-integrated Muslim minorities that live there. For instance, according to one PRC survey, almost 55 percent of Czechs do not even accept Roma as citizens of their country, and only just over one-third unequivocally approve of the idea. The Center for Research on Prejudice at the University of Warsaw, meanwhile, has found that nearly 60 percent of Poles subscribe to the opinion that “Muslims and their religion are so different from us that they should not have access to all positions” and only 15 percent rejected this view. A particular abyss divides the inhabitants of central Europe from most of western Europe when it comes to attitudes towards Muslim minorities. But it is not only western Europe: the citizens of the Visegrad countries also differ on this issue considerably from Romanians, Bulgarians, and Croats.
c) High levels of homophobia also distinguish Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia from western Europe. Czechs stand out in this case by their decisively better attitude towards LGBT people. That said, Eurobarometer polls conducted after the Brexit referendum revealed that Czechs are soon to succeed Britons as the most Eurosceptic people in the EU.
d) Poland is one of the most religious and conservative countries in the EU, including on attitudes to matters such as abortion. Evidence does suggest that Poles are in fact becoming increasingly more secular in their attitudes, leading the Polish left and liberal experts to present this a recipe for reversing the rise of ethnic nationalism. But they should place much less store by this: Hungarians are considerably more irreligious than Poles, and yet the popularity of Fidesz endures.
This cultural underpinning to national populism in the Visegrad region could, on its own, influence how strongly citizens there identify with the EU and all they perceive it to stand for. But when, on top of this, central European populists present themselves as defenders of national identity and traditions, the political leadership they provide is likely only to encourage cultural Euroscepticism in the country at large. The form this takes is an ethnocentric worldview shaped into a “sovereigntist” vision of the EU. Its proponents would welcome a radical reversal of European integration and support a Europe of nations based on veto powers. For instance, Law and Justice party ideologist Krzysztof Szczerski has proposed his “Polish repair initiative”, which would guarantee the primacy of intergovernmentalism in the EU. Beyond this, Szczerski’s target is the EU’s “attempts made by ‘a specific caste of people without features’ (the Brussels elite) to create a ‘unified Europe’, to impose a left-wing social model, and to rid the EU of Christian principles.”
This came clearly to the fore during the recent Polish general election campaign, where Law and Justice’s leader Jarosław Kaczyński argued that Poland constitutes an island of freedom, giving safe harbour to ‘true’ Western values. During the electioneering, Kaczyński said: “We must defend Poles against faith [sic] in what they are told: that if you want to be as wealthy, live as well as in many countries in the West, you must be the same as them. We don’t have to be the same. They are going through a serious illness today and a request from us to let us [get] infect[ed] with this disease is a request that goes too far.”
The national populist narrative today places western Europe as an antithesis to their own region.
In this way, the national populist narrative today places western Europe as an antithesis to their own region. Opinion polls conducted there in recent years already show that the region’s citizens often associate western Europe with LGBT people, Muslims, feminism, and ecologists. It may also already be having an impact at home: it is no accident that a dramatic rise in hate crimes against foreigners and minorities in the Visegrad countries often meets with inaction on the part of state authorities; and sometimes even with leniency. Moreover, Amnesty International and the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights have also identified an unprecedented increase in human rights violations committed by Visegrad state police and border guards against asylum seekers.
Central European populists’ exclusive ethnic nationalism is on a collision course with the EU ideal of civic national identity, shaped by rule of law, and protective of the rights of individuals and minorities. Indeed, the two sides have already been knocking up against each other on this. But the capture of the judiciary by national populists in central Europe, which undermines the rule of law, is a much more serious challenge even than the unsuccessful defence of kleptocracy and clientelism by social democrats in Romania, which has been another cause for concern in recent years. In central Europe, the roots run deeper: the dismantling of institutions in Poland and Hungary originates directly from the vision of a nation imagined by political leaders like Kaczyński and Viktor Orbán. They perceive nations as human beings that possess their own will, and that is expressed through the ruling party and is not constrained by the rule of law.
The EU and its member states need to urgently acknowledge that the character of national identities – ethnic versus civic – is set to be crucial to shaping the state of democracy and the rule of law in Europe. They must therefore become much more assertive in supporting inclusive civic national identities, assuring the protection of the rights of individuals and minorities through development of civic education, integration, and anti-discriminatory programmes, and consistently keeping up the fight against all forms of hate crime.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.