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A New, Harsher Vision of the EU Takes Shape
Populists still want to be part of the European Union, even in Hungary and Poland. Just a far less inclusive one.
BRATISLAVA, Slovakia—Nationalists who mistrust the European Union and internationalists who still embrace its mission can find a common path forward to save it—they just have to agree to allow in a lot fewer people.
That was one of the stark conclusions to emerge from GLOBSEC, Bratislava’s annual security forum, which drew prime ministers, presidents, and more than a few Trump administration officials earlier this month. A poll from the GLOBSEC think tank shows that Poles and Hungarians largely want to stay within the EU. They just don’t want to share it with outsiders, and they’ve won enough seats at the ballot box that the rest of Europe has to listen.
But while fear and hate-stoking disinformation have helped fuel a rise of anti-immigrant, isolationist populist leaders in Europe, the word from Slovakia, the home of the Velvet Revolution that swept out communism 30 years ago, is that liberal democracy isn’t headed for the ash heap of history quite yet.
Only 13 percent of Central and Eastern Europeans polled by GLOBSEC would leave the EU if given a choice, despite the rise of nationalist parties in places such as Poland and Hungary. The vast majority of Poles surveyed, 87 percent, would vote to stay in the EU, and 83 percent of Hungarians support the EU, even though 57 percent of them said they don’t share European Union values.
They are among a sizable wedge of Europeans who want to change the EU from the inside, to allow them to turn back the clock on some democratic and human rights, and turn away refugees and migrants as both dangerous and undesirable—in part because they didn’t know how to thrive in the capitalism ushered in by the fall of the Soviet Union, and the EU hasn’t helped.
“We need a Europe that delivers for people, and people can feel it,” said Slovak Foreign Affairs Minister Miroslav Lajcak to a roomful of mostly grim-faced liberal democrats at the conference on June 8. He said they still need to serve those angry people who voted against pro-EU, centrist governments, so they “don’t feel left out of … European success.”
He and other Central European leaders came here to the banks of the Danube to lament the nationalist revolution that’s challenging human and civil rights and press freedom. Europe’s centrist parties have lost ground to the right and the left in last month’s vote for European Parliament—a voting Rorschach test akin to how Americans pass muster on a president’s performance by voting for Congress in the midterms.
And those populists have taken their rising success at the ballot box as confirmation they are on the right path, practically and morally.
“We do not represent mainstream. We always follow our national interest. We are not shy about that,” Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto told me after a combative session debating other European officials and thought leaders at GLOBSEC.
Szijjarto and his ilk attribute their success—his government has been elected three successive times and just won big in the European Parliament vote—to heeding the financial and security fears of his people.
It’s the same kind of angry earthquake that brought U.S. President Donald Trump to power, according to Trump’s EU representative.
“It’s not pretty to watch but … it might actually create a more responsive Europe than in the past, which has been very sclerotic, and very slow moving,” U.S. Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland told me, insisting the wave that brought the populists to power wasn’t from Trump but from the frustration of the people with out-of-touch leaders. “You couldn’t get an answer for anything … out of some of the old guard.”
At the forum, that “old guard” and its academic proponents took a step toward publicly owning the missteps they believe helped landed them here: gloating over the Soviet Union’s collapse instead of welcoming Russia into the new order and failing to provide a safety net or at least training wheels for the Europeans who got left behind when capitalism swept Europe after 1989.
“1989 opened the world to a globalized, financialized capitalism, which brought many benefits to many people, but also brought soaring levels of inequality—social, economic, and cultural,” said the prominent British historian Timothy Garton Ash in opening remarks that set the tone for the conference.
It also left the once-great empire of the Soviet Union in tatters and Russia humiliated, inspiring its patriots such as then-Deputy Mayor of St. Petersburg Vladimir Putin to vow publicly to defend the pockets of Russians now left scattered throughout Europe. That foreshadowed Putin’s 2008 invasion of Georgia and his 2014 invasion and annexation of the Ukrainian territory of Crimea, and it presaged Russia’s continuing disinformation attacks on the rest of Europe and beyond, as well as its support of some of the populist leaders trying to tear the EU apart from within.
Russia has found fertile ground in the frustration left in the wake of Europe’s own 2008 financial crisis, further compounded by the 2015 Syrian refugee crisis and a string of terrorist attacks, all of which left Europe’s population feeling besieged, unprotected, and uncared for by the union that was supposed to make them economically stronger and safer. That in turn led to a “what about me” shriek that has ushered in rising political movements from Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini to National Rally party leader Marine Le Pen in France.
The challenge for the EU old guard: trying to meet genuine needs of a struggling population while decrying and somehow neutering the rising racist, anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, anti-LGBT, anti-foreign, anti-anything-but-white-and-Christian rhetoric. Terrorists, fear-instigating bots and trolls, and the new break of nationalist and populist leaders have fed that fear.
Being responsive to the needs and fears of your people is one thing. With the populists, or nationalists as many prefer to be called, they’ve also used the extremism Europe faces as a reason to go back in time, to an era when Europe was whiter, more Christian, and more conservative.
Their leaders blend their economic solutions with unapologetic efforts to keep foreigners out, embracing a traditional Christian, heterosexual family as the preferred building block for their society.
“We do not interfere into the sphere of values in other countries, and they do not interfere into ours,” said Polish Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz, defending how his Law and Justice party has fought the EU in court as it seeks to remake the country in a more conservative, Christian-leaning mold, with same-sex marriage forbidden and abortion only available in rare cases.
And the way the EU works, where a unanimous vote is needed to censure a country for bad behavior like cracking down on the media, nationalist leaders have banded together to block it.
That prevented the EU’s executive, the European Commission, from formally censuring Hungary when it tried to set up a parallel judicial system that Hungarian judges complained would undermine their independence. The EU instead had to use the threat of trimming its funding to Hungary to get the ruling party of Viktor Orban to suspend the plan.
“The majority of countries shared our opinion, therefore there were no measures taken,” Hungary’s Szijjarto said. But Hungary is standing firm on saying no to refugees or migrants.
“We’d rather encourage families to have more kids than allowing migrants to enter our country,” he said, referring to Hungary’s practice of paying mothers a stipend per child.
“We consider migration as a threat to security in Europe,” Szijjarto added, citing “33 major terrorist attacks … by persons with a migratory background” who were allowed to enter Europe without background checks or screening. “That basically gave a huge chance to terrorists to send their fighters.”
“Parallel societies have been created,” he added, referring to the large communities of Muslims who have arrived so quickly, they have not had the time to assimilate with local communities—or they weren’t welcome to.
On this, the Hungarian and the Polish foreign ministers agree. Migrants are not welcome, period, and his country is also working to provide aid to the Middle East to help refugees from conflict stay where they are.
“Our position is, we have to accept them, but if we introduce peace in the Middle East, there will be no refugees,” Czaputowicz said, adding that Muslim refugees had changed “the proportion of the society” in Europe, contributing to a rise in violence and even anti-Semitism — a rich counterclaim with his own country experiencing homegrown anti-Semitism.
I asked both the Polish and Hungarian foreign ministers what they think the answer is, when U.S. intelligence is warning that climate change is leading to rising seas that could impact populous Muslim communities in places such as Bangladesh, or the thousands of islands that make up Indonesia.
Help them where they are, was the answer—just don’t let them come here.
“We don’t want to be source, or transit or destination of migration,” Hungary’s Szijjarto said. “We think we have to bring help where it is needed and should not bring problems where there are no problems.”
And now they have won enough support at the ballot box to better defend that policy, and just possibly export it to other members of the EU.