An expert's point of view on a current event.

Poland Was Never as Democratic as It Looked

The EU’s membership conditions only dressed up illiberal societies in democrats' clothing. Now we’re seeing the fallout.


One election, it seems, really can change everything.

One election, it seems, really can change everything.

Once feted for having bucked both the populist trend and the global recession, Poland is facing international condemnation. Recent moves by the Law and Justice government have come straight out of the playbook shared by the likes of Hungarian strongman Viktor Orban. It’s moved quickly to neuter the constitutional court; to take control of the state media; to defund unfriendly NGOs or regulate them into irrelevance; to put its own people in charge of public institutions; and has given every sign of being prepared to ride out waves of protests and ignore international criticism. Recent footage of opposition deputies occupying the podium of the Sejm and chaotic and hastily convened parliamentary voting by government deputies in back rooms was more reminiscent of the crisis-hit democracies of southern and southeastern Europe than the democratic trailblazer once hailed by European Union heavyweights.

To be clear, Poland is not yet Hungary, the EU’s other major backsliding headache. Law and Justice has only a small parliamentary majority, not the supermajority needed for a Hungarian-style constitutional rewrite. Protesters have been more assertive and quicker to take to the streets. Nor does Poland have a powerful far-right party like Hungary’s Jobbik waiting in the wings to claim the role of “real” opposition if the ruling party falters. Poland’s opposition may yet manage to use social movements as a rough-and-ready substitute for weakened constitutional checks and balances — and may perhaps eventually make a winning return at the polls. But even in this (far-from-certain) best-case scenario, the country’s institutions are likely to emerge from this period badly damaged.

But the speed at which Poland’s and Hungary’s apparently successful democracies have unraveled points toward a problem that has tended to be overlooked amid the latest political developments: Contrary to appearances, liberal democracy was never solidly rooted in Eastern Europe.

The story we’re used to hearing about democracy in Eastern Europe is one that has focused on the transformative power of the EU. There’s some truth to it: From the late 1990s to accession, there’s no question that the European Union used its leverage to successfully shape the governing structures of various post-Communist states. Conditions for EU membership, which mandated democratic elections, minority rights, and a functional market economy, seemed clear and non-negotiable. The economic and political costs of being left out were so high that sooner or later governments fell in line and complied.

What this story misses, however, is that while political elites and their electorates may have responded to the EU’s incentives in the desired manner, this process told us almost nothing about whether or not the norms underpinning liberal democratic institutions were being embraced. A decade on from accession, we’re seeing the consequences of this hollowed-out incentivizing: The failure of the EU to foresee that institutional reforms in Eastern Europe had to be accompanied by policies aimed at instilling such norms as political equality, individual liberty, and civic tolerance has left liberal democratic institutions catastrophically vulnerable.

The EU’s democratization strategy for the former Eastern bloc countries was essentially a giant bet on the power of institutions. In line with rationalist institutionalist ideas prevalent in political science throughout the 1990s and 2000s, the hope was that with sound institutions constructed to lock in democracy, the embrace of norms would follow in time.

Such institutional engineering may be justified where elections or judicial frameworks are concerned; these domains are obviously about setting the rules of the game. Less easily justifiable was the EU’s evident expectation that liberal democratic political cultures could be developed and fostered by clever institutional design.

To be fair, in the years leading up to accession the EU was paying attention to the weakness of some liberal norms in Eastern Europe, such as ethnic inclusivity and an acceptance that a democratic society requires respect between those who hold conflicting values. But the way these concerns were “addressed” is telling. They were tackled through characteristically technocratic means — that is, the EU insisted that governments sign up to conventions in problematic areas such as minority rights. As long as these technical criteria were met in the legal sense, there was little scrutiny as to whether they were accompanied by serious efforts to validate them through open public debate.

At times, the EU’s seal of approval often even preceded the legal satisfaction of (democracy-relevant) political criteria. The EU’s language and rhetoric of tough, objective benchmarks on political issues during the accession period often concealed ad hoc reactions to short-term political developments such as changes of government. It was often enough for a coalition of self-proclaimed pro-Europeans to squeak into office for the EU to decide that a country was “on the right track” to fulfill the political criteria.

However, the weak monitoring of vague political criteria over the past few decades doesn’t explain the character of the present failure. Poland and Hungary are not faltering because of failures of institutional design — scholars rate both as excellent — but because political projects proclaiming illiberal identity are flourishing

The failures of this approach were compounded by an early misreading of the true pitfalls of post-Communist politics. When enlargement strategy was being put together analysts feared the main threat to democracy would come from nomenklatura (Communist power structure) elites teaming up with extreme nationalists, which occurred in Boris Yeltsin’s “Weimar Russia” and Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbia.

As a result, the democratic conditions it imposed on potential Eastern European members stressed minority protection and implicitly focused on states such as Romania, Bulgaria, and Slovakia, where there were large national minorities and where old Communist power structures appeared politically dominant. Poland and Hungary, which had strong but diverse opposition movements, relatively homogenous populations, and no signs of looming nomenklatura-based populist revenge, were considered less problematic. Politicians and political scientists (including one of the authors writing here) took Central and Eastern European conservatives like Fidesz and PiS as a rough-and-ready post-Communist “center-right” — a loose post-Communist variation of Gaullism or Christian Democracy — and Western European politicians welcomed them into the fold as committed democratic partners.

Most at the time, including EU policymakers, overlooked the fact that the region’s conservative nationalists were a more unsettled and unsettling group. As democratization and Europeanization unfolded, these parties could (and did) rethink who they were and what they wanted, turning against the 1989 roundtable settlement between opposition and regime that smoothed the way to democracy as a shoddy compromise with communism, rounding on liberals and liberal democracy and seizing the opportunities that big election wins gave them to attempt a nationalistic political reset. (Though Law and Justice and Fidesz have been hastily recruited into the ranks of “global Trumpism” or a “populist international,” their story is more one of establishment insiders “breaking bad” than a surge to power by outsiders or anti-politicians.) The worst offenders for democratic backsliding have been political parties that the EU once identified as allies.

In most cases, of course, there were clear warning signs that these (mostly) right-wing parties were less enthusiastic about making good on liberal norms than on passing laws that served only their own interests, and that the EU’s assumption that culture follows institutions, upon which the whole accession process ultimately rested, may have been a bad bet. When these groups complied with EU-mandated liberalizing measures they almost invariably communicated clear illiberal signals to domestic constituencies. Sometimes this “signaling” involved promoting mythologized versions of national history through school textbooks or building statues of contentious nationalist “heroes.” Fidesz has been doing this for years; Law and Justice is starting down the same road. Elsewhere in the region the signals have been subtler and phrased in plausibly “liberal” terms: the weaponizing of law-and-order measures in order to tap into authoritarian impulses or dog-whistle politics attacking those who place an economic burden on the state (read: Roma).

Could things have been done differently? At the time, the union clearly realized the need to set democratic and human rights conditions for Eastern European candidate states. In hindsight, it could have pushed harder for direct social change, giving the reform of high school history textbooks or positive on-the-ground outcomes for minorities the same priority as the detailed monitoring accorded to intellectual property, financial services, and veterinary regulations. Ethical criteria, to be sure, are not as easy to monitor as legal ones, and pressing for satisfying evidence of social change might have made the accession process longer and slower, and local nationalists angrier; in some cases there may have been no accession at all. But as illusions about the EU’s ability to accelerate and anchor democratization in Eastern Europe fall away, the divided union finds itself confronting these cultural conflicts anyway — this time from a position of far less leverage.

In the end, EU leverage succeeded brilliantly in shaping the formal legal and institutional landscapes of Eastern Europe and the superficial rhetoric of its politicians. But it did so at the price of turning a blind eye to values and actions in day-to-day politics that undermined liberal institutions. The fiction that democracy can be implemented and policed like farm subsidies or food standards — implicit in the language of “compliance” and “ratification” — undermines the EU’s efforts to be a force for democratization to this day.

None of this will be news to anyone familiar with ethnographic research on post-Communist Central and Eastern Europe, wherein the lack of real support for liberal norms in “everyday democracy” has been a recurring theme. Yet this has consistently managed to escape the attention of the EU and the experts charged by it with defining and measuring democracy. And, as is now painfully evident from Hungary, Poland, and beyond, institutions do not hold up well if they promote norms that too few people believe in.

For the moment the EU needs to work as best it can with the cumbersome procedure at its disposal, under Article 7 of the EU treaty that still gives it some bargaining power over governments gone astray. But it should not overestimate how well these measures will work. The union also needs to make smart and well-placed bets on domestic politics, where the fate of Polish and Hungarian democracy will ultimately be settled. It should also do more than simply cheer on liberal forces. It should look to how and where the modern, moderate social conservatism necessary to form the other half of any functional democracy could emerge in place of illiberal populists. Here, it would do well to listen to the lawyers and the economists, but also to the anthropologists and sociologists, who see the litmus test of democracy as rooted in day-to-day life and day-to-day politics, not just in what’s been put down on paper.

Photo credit: WOJTEK RADWANSKI/AFP/Getty Images

Seán Hanley is senior lecturer in the comparative politics of Central and Eastern Europe at University College London. He is author of The New Right in the New Europe: Czech Transformation and Right-Wing Politics.

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