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Europe Must Not Allow Enemies of Democracy to Choose the Next EU Commissioner
The illiberal leaders of Hungary and Poland falsely claim Frans Timmermans would divide Europe. What they really fear is his commitment to the rule of law.
To know a powerful man’s character, find out who his enemies are. Flatterers and opportunists will hang on his coattails; his opponents are a surer path to truth. The loudest opponent of the Dutch diplomat Frans Timmermans in the race to become the next president of the European Commission is Hungarian strongman Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Orban insists that picking Timmermans would divide the European Union between East and West. This is blackmail and bluff. Anyone who wants the EU to succeed must ensure that Orban’s gambit fails.
This May’s European Parliament elections showed how the familiar battles about the governance of the eurozone are receding; a new one setting nationalist demagogues against the rule of law and the fundamental rights of Europeans is taking shape.
During the elections, I ran a project investigating information warfare deployed during the campaign for the Institute for Strategic Dialogue in London. We didn’t see many blatant bot armies following the orders of foreign states, but we saw nationalist political parties across Europe using tactics from the Kremlin’s playbook. They used outlandish rhetoric to manufacture division, they delegitimized political opponents as traitors, and, where they had it, they used state power to turn public service media into government propaganda. Together with shrill campaigns against the judiciary, civil society activists, and investigative journalists, they are mounting an attack on all the instruments Europeans have developed since World War II to protect democracy from the ravages of nationalism and majoritarian populism.
This assault on democratic norms has been met by a liberal revival and a green surge, but it left the center-right European People’s Party (EPP), the largest single group of national political parties in a fragmented European Parliament, exposed. Under what’s called the spitzenkandidat process, the new European Commission president is supposed to be chosen from among the nominees (or spitzenkandidaten) of the parliamentary groups.
Another convention holds that the largest group’s candidate gets the commission presidency, with smaller groups having a shot at the slightly lower-ranking presidencies of the European Council and the Parliament, or the high representative for foreign affairs. Had the results this year been similar to those in past years, the EPP’s candidate would have been a shoo-in to run the commission.
Timmermans, the spitzenkandidat from the second-place center-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) group, has a chance, however, because the EPP and S&D both suffered in the elections (as their member parties lost votes to nationalists, greens, and free-market liberals), and the EPP picked a mediocre candidate.
Instead of a centrist figure able to cut a deal with the liberal Renew Europe group—renamed from the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Group after it joined forces with French President Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche!—and the center-left, it chose the staunchly conservative Manfred Weber, best known for resisting members of the EPP who wanted to expel Orban from their ranks. Though Weber has since accepted the decision to invoke the EU’s Article 7 disciplinary procedures against Orban’s government, the contrast between his wishy-washy conversion and the position of Timmermans, who is currently the EU commissioner covering the rule of law, couldn’t be clearer. In the main battle to come, Weber is stuck on the wrong side.
This doomed Weber’s candidacy from the start. According to a deal hammered out on the margins of last week’s G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan, he would have to make do with the Parliament presidency, which is much weaker—for example, while the commission president can dismiss commissioners, the president of the parliament has to work with 14 vice presidents. Meanwhile Timmermans, though from the slightly smaller S&D group, would get the commission. Crucially, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, though coming from an EPP party, threw her weight behind the Dutchman rather than her fellow German and sister-party colleague Weber.
This provoked alarm in Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Austria. The first three, which, together with Slovakia form the Visegrad Group, are all run by leaders contemptuous of the rule of law. Austria, until the Ibiza scandal—in which the then-leader of the far-right Freedom Party was filmed plotting a Hungarian-style takeover of an Austrian tabloid with an undercover operative posing as the niece of a Russian oligarch—had been run by a coalition among conservatives, and the far-right Freedom Party saw itself as their ally.
All five countries are now mired in scandals. Poland has been on the receiving end of European Court of Justice rulings against its attack on the independence of the judiciary. Hungary’s government has been censured by the European Parliament for its dismantling of democracy. Slovakia’s ruling Direction-Social Democracy party hasn’t recovered from the murder of the investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his partner, Martina Kusnirova, in 2018—though a pro-European president, Zuzana Caputova, has been elected head of state, the country has a parliamentary system and is still governed by an appointee of populist Robert Fico’s party. Weekly anti-government demonstrations, the biggest since the fall of communism, have rocked the Czech government.
Now Orban and his allies claim Timmermans would redivide Europe into Eastern and Western blocs. This argument is specious. Though there are some fairly strong divisions on substance between Eastern and Western Europe, these are divisions that Orban and de facto Polish leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski are continuing to stoke: Just two weeks ago, they blocked a common EU net-zero carbon 2050 target date in a probable boost to the Polish coal industry and the growing climate denialism across the European hard right.
Nor do the Polish and Hungarian governments speak for all their people. Orban and Kaczynski have polarized their societies into equally divided pro- and anti-government camps. They hold power not because of their own universal popularity but because of divisions in the opposition and manipulation of the system and the media. Even in Hungary, where, according to Zselyke Csaky of Freedom House, in addition to state media, the pro-government KESMA media foundation “unifies more than 400 media products, and exhibits in plain sight the astonishing domination of government-friendly media in Hungary,” only 49 percent of Hungarian voters supported Orban’s Fidesz party in 2018. Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party scraped together a parliamentary majority on 38 percent support. Fidesz and Law and Justice have a reasonable claim to govern their countries, but they don’t speak for the whole of the societies they rule. Poles and Hungarians are as likely to cheer Timmermans as oppose him.
Moreover, the national populist threat to liberal democratic institutions is strong in Italy, where interference in public broadcasting is increasing, with the current affairs show Che tempo che fa canceled and a long-running radio station, Radio Radicale, defunded. It is also seen in Belgium, where the hard right Vlaams Belang made major gains in the Flemish-speaking regions in May’s elections.
Liberal democracy in Europe is under attack not just from without, but also from enemies of democracy within. Orban and Kaczynski’s claims that Timmermans would divide Europe are a trap to save their own skin. The lesson of European history is that the longer nationalist demagogues get to corrupt democratic systems, the harder it is to get rid of them. If Europe’s leaders care about European democracy, they need to call the Visegrad Group’s bluff and support Timmermans’s candidacy.