1. The great schism in the EU
BSSB.BE newstatesman.com 25.10.2018
* Europe is once again divided – this time between liberalism’s defenders in the west and north, and states in the south and east who increasingly reject it.
Contest is under way for the future of Europe and the battle lines have been drawn. From the east, Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, is spearheading a popular revolt against the EU’s ancien régime. And in the west, France’s Emmanuel Macron is leading its defence. Ahead of next year’s European Parliament elections, the Hungarian has thrown down the gauntlet to his rival, who has responded in kind. “If they want to see me as their main opponent, they’re right,” Macron said in August.
- This is an ideological war about the true nature of Europe. In one camp are the defenders of the old liberal order, who see themselves as the bearers of Europe’s Enlightenment legacy – its commitment to democracy, the rule of law, liberty and rights, rational enquiry, cosmopolitanism, the open society and economic freedom.
- They pride themselves in having successfully faced down the forces of prejudice, superstition and nationalist fervour, presiding over an unprecedented period of stability, freedom and prosperity since the end of the Second World War.
- In the other camp are the challengers to the liberal order who claim to embody the “true Europe” – its Christian inheritance, its mosaic of national identities and the traditional family structure on which the continent’s society is built. From their perspective, liberals are destroying Europe with their promotion of alternative lifestyles, their attack on the nation state, and their suppression of liberty by an authoritarian bureaucracy and a stifling culture of political correctness.
Crucially, this ideological fault line is also geographical, dividing the EU’s core in northern and western Europe from its periphery in the south and the east. This division emerged at the start of the decade when Hungary, reeling from the impact of the financial crisis, elected the charismatic Orbán, leader of Fidesz, for his second stint as prime minister on a manifesto to correct the defects in an imported liberalism and restore stability.
- In a flurry of activity, he brought strategic sectors of the Hungarian economy, such as banking, energy, utilities and food production, back under national control. He created new laws to protect and promote the family.
- And Orbán has repeatedly changed the constitution, enshrining the pre-eminence of the Hungarian nation, while effectively barring immigration from outside the EU.
Subsequently, almost every state in eastern Europe has adopted a form of Orbánism, which fits better with its social needs and traditions than the alien doctrine of liberalism, imposed by outsiders in the 1990s.
Notionally, the governments in Slovakia, and Romania are left-wing, Poland is pursuing a 21st-century form of Catholic-infused Christian democracy and the prime minister of the Czech Republic is a maverick businessman. But the differences are secondary to what they have in common.
Across the region, a discredited form of liberalism is in rapid decline and a form of popular national conservatism based on family, faith and flag is the dominant mode of government. From here, the new politics is spreading to the adjacent states of Austria and Italy, on the back of a refugee and migrant crisis.
This situation contrasts starkly with the state of politics in the north and west of Europe – France, Germany, Benelux, Ireland and Scandinavia – where liberal parties have successfully held on to power. Unsurprisingly, liberalism has greater support in the region where it was incubated and whose needs it was designed to meet.
This is not to suggest that everyone in “core” Europe endorses the liberal status quo. On the contrary, its demos is divided between defenders and challengers, just as the south and east are also internally divided. But the numbers matter. In the rich and urbanised north and west of Europe, adherents of liberalism still constitute a majority; in the poorer and more rural south and east, rejectionists do, and this has consequences at election time. Where once Europeans were separated by faith, empire and superpower rivalry, they are now split by ideology. Europe is once again divided in half.
Belatedly, the battleground for this conflict has become the European Union, the continent’s central authority, which sets the ground rules for its members and determines what constitutes the true Europe.
This was not always the case. Prior to the financial crisis, eastern and southern Europe were happy to abide by the liberal precepts on which the EU was founded – its promotion of open trade and investment, the free movement of peoples across borders and the dilution of national sovereignty. Although liberalism was an untested novelty in the old eastern bloc, its promise of good government and prosperity was eminently preferable to a Soviet-imposed socialism.
Even after the onset of the financial crisis and the start of the Orbánist backlash, the EU was marginal to the drama. Aside from some grumbling by MEPs about democratic backsliding, the EU largely ignored the political transformation taking place in countries such as Hungary and Slovakia.
Not only was the bloc distracted by the need to deal with the eurozone crisis, but its officials were slow to realise that countries that had long been paragons of compliance were now in open rebellion – even more so since Orbán and his supporters consistently expressed their support for European integration. For as long as the EU left Hungary and others alone, they were content to do likewise, and a facade of unity was maintained.
The turning point came mid-decade following the EU’s tortuous stand-off with Greece; the migrant crisis and the subsequent breakdown of the Schengen arrangements; the election of the Law and Justice party in Poland in 2015; and the Brexit vote in 2016. Many at the heart of the European project acknowledged the risk of the EU collapsing.
However, with the election of Macron, and a return to economic growth to buoy their spirits, the EU’s establishment belatedly embarked on an effort to reverse the decline. On the one hand, the attempt at revival involved a bold new phase of liberal integration that would make a success of the EU’s existing projects, especially the eurozone.
France and Germany initiated a European military capability (PESCO) and the Commission took steps to demonstrate the EU’s relevance by cracking down on tax avoidance by American multinationals. On the other, revival meant disciplining those states that had openly defied the EU’s ideological foundations.
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