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The Visegrad Group’s Exit from Liberal Democracy

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It has become cliché to poke fun at Francis Fukuyama and his triumphalist heralding of the “End of History” in which liberal democracy conquers all challengers to be the ruling global paradigm. Yet one cannot but help to trot out this glaring example of myopic prognostication in the light of the fact that, so soon upon its delivery, history did have its revenge in the rise of Islamism. That ideology is a direct challenge to the global elite who had spent a decade of back-slapping congratulations and collecting fortunes by way of exploitative ‘shock-therapy’ treatments on the losers of the Cold War. With the USSR vanquished and the European Union passing the Maastricht Treaty, the future looked brighter than ever.

Fast forwarding to 2018 and one can only conclude that there is a significant crisis in terms of the legitimacy of liberal democracy spanning much of the globe. The Arab Spring, which was supposed to result in a democratic renaissance fizzled out unspectacularly or widened pre-existing chasms for undemocratic forces to rush in, leading to horrendous violence in places like Syria. Liberal democracy was always alien to this part of the world, a region where tribal politics still impede the graduation to nation-states, much less the next step: the post-national state.

A greater blow has occurred much closer to the continental home of liberal democracy, the European Union, one that has unsteadied the foundations of this organization.  This blow, or rather, alternative, has been labeled “illiberal democracy.”

Illiberal democracies are variously described as polities that have trappings of democracy but are not open societies, or ones that do not have a strong rule of law and limit civil liberties while still conducting mostly free and mostly fair to somewhat fair elections. The classic example used is Putin’s Russia, which refers to its own system as “managed democracy,” a system put in place during Putin’s first term as president wholly as a reaction to the chaotic situation and economic collapse of the Yeltsin Era.  With Russia challenging Pax Americana, its illiberal democracy allowed the USA and its allies to engage in ‘othering,’ whereby a new system that wouldn’t bow down presented an existential threat.

Yet while this new existential threat (whether real, fictional, or exaggerated) presented itself, Russia remained outside of western structures such as NATO and the EU. It was contained and therefore it was a threat that was manageable. Russia was perceived as a byzantine kleptocracy, backwards, and dying. Hardly anyone would or should seek to emulate it.

The year 2008 threw a spanner in the works. The global banking crisis resulted in austerity and massive bank bailouts where financial elites were saved and the bill was passed to the middle class and the punishment even worse for the lower class. This dissonance threw open the growing divide between political elites and the populace in Europe. Greece was being punished (although much of the situation it found itself in was their own fault), Europe’s South was battling massive youth unemployment, and technocrats in Brussels displayed their tin-ears in public by continuing to push ideas such as mass migration onto hurting states who viewed these elites as distant and out of touch. The sentiment began to spread from Southern Europe to the UK that the EU not only had no clue what commoners were thinking and wanted, but that the organization itself served little more than to bail out bankers and assist German manufacturers in exporting their goods, along with protecting French farmers.

Opposition to Elite Consensus

Running concurrently to the banking crisis in Europe was a growing migrant crisis that was engulfing a large part of the continent. Migrants had been trying to cross over into Western Europe for some time but a deal struck by Silvio Berlusconi and Muammar Gaddafi effectively cut off the North Africa-through-Italy route. When French President Nicolas Sarkozy and UK Prime Minister David Cameron conspired to overthrow the Gaddafi regime in Libya (with US President Obama “leading from behind”) one effect was to re-open this pipeline for migrants to take advantage of once again. Yet Europe was no longer the same Europe it was only a few years ago. Austerity, high youth unemployment, Islamist terrorist attacks, and rising social distrust between already-present migrants and the various indigenous Europeans were increasingly fragmenting the political landscape across the continent, leaving space open for populists who were able to exploit anti-migrant sentiment.

This sentiment ran counter to the ruling paradigm of liberal democracy, one in which the individual shorn of his attachment to his ethnos was paramount and one in which his civil liberties trumped those of his nation and people. Migrants were individuals just like he was, and served the purpose of boosting GDP, the almighty yardstick of the 21st century, which meant that he must make room for them in the post-national state where the EU sought to minimize or eliminate national differences altogether, and where individual member states were to become little more than branch offices for the bureaucrats in Brussels.

Nowhere was this more evident than in the UK and France. Both countries had seen successive waves of non-European migrants into their country during the Cold War (much more pronounced in France earlier on than in the UK) and especially after the victory of the West in that great ideological confrontation. The UK under Labour purposely engaged in social engineering by way of migration to keep itself in power by importing voters from abroad. ‘We won the Cold War, no wonder people want to come here,’ was a common triumphalist refrain. Yet the bill for the social cost was not yet in.

The rise of Islamist terror in Western Europe made this a political issue that could no longer be ignored. It provided a much-needed shot in the arm for France’s National Front and provided a powerful arsenal to the UK’s UKIP. Both began to vehemently attack Brussels for its open door policy which was roundly condemned as not only a benefit for big corporations seeking to lower wages by increasing job competition but also as a threat to national security. For the EU elites the growing antipathy towards these migrants from the voting public had still not yet registered. They simply could not grasp what was in front of their faces.

The Rise of the Visegrad Four

Meanwhile in the former Habsburg Crown Lands a different, yet similar, rebellion was brewing. An entire generation had passed since the fall of the Berlin Wall and these former communist states were still playing catch up with their fellow EU member states in Western Europe. The elite consensus was that with the fall of communism local elites would simply transfer their loyalty from the communist party and Moscow to Brussels and seamlessly adopt liberal democracy in toto. They were half right, in that many former apparatchiks did transfer their loyalties and became democrats and promoters of “open societies” overnight. Yet there was a growing unease with the undemocratic and distant EU bureaucracy that dictated to these new countries some unpleasant policies, particularly social ones.

George Soros, American billionaire financier and “the man who broke the pound” had quietly set up various branches of his Open Society Institute in post-communist Europe. His vision with his NGOs was to segue these countries as quickly as possible from authoritarian communist states to free market liberal democracies in which civil liberties were paramount and in which tradition stood in the way. He funded organizations and media that pushed gay rights, feminism, minority rights, mass migration, etc. and through these managed to either succeed or fail. If it failed he would use his massive media power to tar those states that refused to cooperate with the changes he insisted must be made. Due to his outsized influence in the corridors of the EU in Brussels and in the U.S. State Department many of these states felt bullied and were left to conclude that the EU was turning into a creature that they had known all too well, the Eastern Bloc.

The pushback began with Hungary. Hungary was ruled by the former communists who overnight turned into socialists that acted as Brussels’ lap dogs. Yet their rule was increasingly unpopular for many reasons, including the social changes that they sought to adopt despite the country’s strong social conservatism. They committed hara-kiri when prior to a national election they were caught on tape telling staffers that they would lie to the public about state finances that were crumbling. This presented an opportunity for Fidesz, a party of youth that was led by former Soros employee Viktor Orban, in an election which they went on to win handily. Fidesz immediately went to work striking a nationalist tone in legislation with a focus on ridding the country of its old communist elites. Since these old elites were so readily pliable by Brussels (and the USA) alarms were set off when Fidesz managed to remove old communist-era judges by lowering the retirement age for judicial officials. This allowed a new generation of judges to take the bench, a generation that was more independent than the last and more in line with the feelings of Hungarians who wanted to place Hungary first, even though they still viewed the EU positively.

Others too were beginning to veer off script. The Czech President Zeman was openly flouting accepted truths about global warming and the threat from Russia while Slovakia was firmly rejecting any Muslim migrants on its soil. Poland then threw out its pro-free market and hyper-pro-American Civic Platform Party and put into power the Law and Justice Party (PiS), a party that is very nationalist, very Catholic, and worst of all for Brussels, illiberal.

Merkel, Migrants, Brexit and The Challenge from the V4

Two political blunders occurred in rapid succession that fed the growing opposition to the EU elites in the V4: Merkel’s open door to migrants and David Cameron calling for the Brexit Referendum. Much of Europe watched in horror and disgust and Angela Merkel threw the doors to Europe wide open in 2015 to well over a million migrants from outside of the continent without so much as asking the other member states. Lauded by the media, leftists, liberals, corporations, and other elites Merkel gladly took ownership of this short-sighted policy which would result in catastrophic migrant flows that clogged up the borders of member states and much, much worse, led to the Cologne Sex Attacks on New Years 2015. To compound this gross error, terrorist attacks by individuals who arrived as migrants began to occur. A blunder of epic proportions is too light a phrase to attach to Merkel’s gaffe.

The rest of Europe stood in shock at what was happening and especially what was so easily preventable. The Hungarians quickly announced that they would defend their border from migrant flows and reject migrants for their own country. Others quickly followed suit and called Merkel’s bluff. The Slovaks passed a law forbidding the construction of mosques on their soil, which served to back up the Hungarians. The Poles then announced that they would not accept any EU dictates that would park migrants on their soil. The elite consensus was now being openly challenged by member states.

With the left jab of the rejection of EU dictates over migrant/refugee allocation came the right hook of Brexit. Widely seen as a referendum on migrants in their own country the Tories under PM David Cameron scored an own-goal when they underestimated the mood of the populace towards Brussels, especially on the topic of migrants where they felt that the UK was no longer able to exercise its own sovereignty. The people had spoken and they wanted out of the EU, thumbing their noses at their own national elites. The EU now faced two challenges: the upstart countries of the former Eastern Bloc and the populist revolt in the UK to its overreach on migration and sovereignty.

An Exit from Liberal Democracy

Emboldened by Brexit and the success of PiS in Poland, Hungary began to push back even harder against NGOs and media who were now in full force against Orban and Fidesz, publishing piece after piece after piece decrying Hungary and its government as being an autocracy, xenophobic, and fascist. Hungary challenged Soros directly by threatening his university in Budapest and is currently upping the stakes by way of its “Stop Soros” campaign. The campaign has played a central role in the run up to next month’s parliamentary election, which Fidesz will easily win. Orban and team are campaigning on a policy of keeping Hungary Christian and ‘unmixed,’ a direct challenge to Brussels’ secularism and pro-migrant stance.

Another exit from liberal democracy comes from Poland where PiS has successfully passed legislation to change how its judiciary is chosen. Even though these changes bring Poland into line with Germany, Denmark (and the USA), cries of ‘autocracy’ and ‘fascism’ have come from the media in the West. Poland, with its powerful economic growth was supposed to be the poster child of liberal democracy in the former Eastern Bloc, an example for Russians to emulate so that they could throw off Putin’s rule. Yet the Poles themselves have clearly rejected liberal democracy:

One factor in this change, they noted, was the influence on Polish society of young people returning from working in countries such as Britain. “So many young people travelled to work in western countries, and then came back and told their friends and families what was going on in western Europe,” said Krzysztof Bosak, of the ultra-nationalist organisation National Movement.

“They told them about the process of exchange of population, by which people of European origin are replaced by people from Africa and Asia, and about Islamisation.”

Aleks Szczerbiak, a professor of politics at the University of Sussex, said: “It was long assumed that young Poles would come to the west and become more secular, multicultural and liberal, and that they would re-export those things back to Poland. But instead their experience of the west seems to have reinforced their social conservatism and traditionalism in many ways.”

Poles abroad took one good look at what liberal democracy had done to large swathes of the UK, went home and said “you do not want this!”

The rebellion continues to spread as Austria has joined these countries in its rejection of migrant quotas (although not yet rejecting liberal democracy). It is quite telling that the first official meeting of a foreign leader for new Austrian PM Sebastian Kurz was Viktor Orban from neighbouring Hungary. This was seen as publicly supporting his stance on migrants vs. Brussels. Even more telling is the fact that Kurz’s party is in alliance with the far right FPÖ which largely campaigned on that very same issue. The presence of the FPÖ in government has not been sanctioned by the EU unlike the last time they were in a ruling coalition. This is a tell-tale sign that the European Union is no longer as united as it once was with respect to how member states rule themselves.

This leaves Europe in a situation where a sizable chunk of the EU is now in open rebellion against the core, offering a competing vision with not only wide popular support in these states, but also large constituencies in core states that are now looking to the V4 in particular to defend their national rights, traditions, and way of life from the excessive social engineering of the EU Bureaucracy. With the USA spiraling ever-inward thanks to the outlier of the Trump presidency an opening has been created for these rebels to solidify their political position in the coming showdown with Brussels over the future vision and direction of the European Union and its respective member states. Time will tell if liberal democracy is as resilient as its proponents claim it to be or whether the natural sentiments of nation, sovereignty and tradition prevail.

Niccolo Soldo is a freelance journalist and flâneur covering geopolitics, ethnicity, and culture with a particular focus on Central and post-communist Europe. Follow him on Twitter.