Behind the mask: Euroscepticism at the elites’ service

In the last few years, the Visegrád four (the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia and Poland) have experienced a sharp rise in Euroscepticism. All these countries have been questioning the European Union’s legitimacy, engaging in controversies with Brussels on a wide range of topics. The reasons behind this phenomenon are a complex mixture of internal and external politics, economics and culture, and its implications extend far beyond the national borders. While the European Union is dealing with difficult Brexit negotiations and with the delicate matter of Catalan separatism, Eurosceptic forces in East-Central Europe question not only the Union’s stability, but also its identity.

A political game violating fundamental rights

The Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Poland offer a list of countless examples of what is meant by Euroscepticism, starting from the person who has become the face of Euroscepticism in Central-Eastern Europe, Viktor Orbán. For the Hungarian PM, currently at the end of his second mandate and waiting for 2018 elections (for which he’s one of the favorite candidates), criticizing the EU constitutes a key element of a political strategy. His strongly anti-immigration rhetoric is accompanied by a constant line of criticism towards Brussels. One of Orbán’s specialties is the ‘national consultation’, a survey presented as a neutral questionnaire to gather citizens’ opinion, but which is in reality a tool for political mobilization.  The questions, apparently neutral, clearly present Hungary’s action in a positive light and do not leave too much space for choice. In April 2017, Orbán decided to distribute one of these consultations entitled ‘Let’s stop Brussels’. The European Commission has responded denying all the statements regarding the Union that the Hungarian government has made in the survey. Among the topics of the questionnaire, Orbán included an issue on which he built one of his most lively battles: migration. A battle which reached its peak when the country rejected the quota system proposed by the European Union and when the authorities decided to build a wall along the country’s external EU border. Although the lawfulness of this fence has been assessed by the Commission itself, several concerns have been expressed by NGOs and EU representatives on the violence used by the officials in charge of guarding this barrier. On top of this, the construction of this fence has resulted in the application of summary mechanisms for the evaluation of asylum seekers’ claims. As a result, many people in actual need of protection might be left out of the country. Since part of the European Union identity was built on promoting human rights inside and outside its borders, Hungarian policies and decisions in the field of migration constitute severe threats to the Union’s identity. But migration is not the only realm where Orbán has taken decisions which threaten European fundamental rights and freedoms. Other (in)famous examples are the law which applies restrictions to foreign-funded NGOs and the law introducing new requirements for universities to operate in Hungary. Both these initiatives seem to be directed towards the activities of the Hungarian American billionaire George Soros, notably considered a political enemy by Orbán. In Hungary, many NGOs are in fact funded by Soros, who also founded the Central European University in Budapest. The Hungarian PM has openly declared that Soros’ political plan is to allow hundreds of thousands of migrants in Europe and that he intends to fight the billionaire’s strategy. Both these controversial reforms have triggered European infringement procedures, following the concerns expressed by Brussels on their implications on some fundamental rights such as freedom of association and freedom of expression.

‘Law and Justice’ against democracy

When it comes to violating rights at the basis of modern democracy, Hungary is definitely not alone. In Poland, the last two years have been characterized by political actions which stand against the principles promoted by the European Union and which have been strongly criticized by Brussels itself. In October this year, a man set himself on fire in front of the Warsaw Palace of Science and Culture protesting against what he claimed to be unacceptable violations of civil and political rights in his country. This strong gesture reflects the controversial situation which Poland has been facing in the last few months, during which the European Union has repeatedly invited Poland to establish an open dialogue, criticizing the country’s reform of the judicial system, which consistently reduces the independency of Polish courts. More specifically, Brussels has expressed its concerns on the implications that this reform would have on the fundamental principle of the rule of law, included in the Copenhagen criteria as a necessary requirement for the obtainment of EU membership. In fact, the reform would threaten the fundamental principle of power separation on which modern democracy is based. What makes anti-EU sentiments in Poland peculiar is the nationalism which has characterized Polish culture for the last century. This strong nationalism shows its face every year during the Independence Day march on November 11th. This year, the country celebrated the 99th anniversary of the declaration of independence, which entered into force in 1918 after 123 of division and rule by Prussia, Russia, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The success of the Law and Justice Party (PiS) can be found in the combination between this nationalist sentiment and a set of unprecedented welfare policies. After the fall of the Soviet Union, no government had in fact invested in welfare plans, but things changed in 2015, when PiS consistently increased government spending conquering Polish voters. Although the party enjoys wide support, being the first Polish party since the fall of the Soviet Union which could govern without the need to form a coalition, the above-mentioned reform triggered numerous protests across the country. This mobilization shows that the authorities might have crossed a line and gone further than allowed by their mandate.

Media and politics: a close relationship

Different and far less ideological are the Eurosceptic movements which govern Czech politics. Anti-EU forces have seen a stronger rise in the most recent parliamentary elections in October 2017, when the ANO movement (the YES movement) – which already gained 18.7 % of the votes in the 2013 election – registered a sharp win. The party is led by Andrej Babiš, a billionaire already Minister of Finance in the previous center-left government coalition who owns large shares of the media sector and Agrofert, a giant of the food tech industry. Already in 2013, he bought the media group MAFRA, which counts among its members two of the most read newspapers in the country. Since then, the soon-to-be Prime Minister has also acquired a radio station and a widely visited internet portal. Babiš has defined the ANO movement nature as pragmatic, driven by common sense and problem-solving. Even if the political traits of this party are difficult to label, the rhetoric that it has used so far is filled with populist features, clearly anti-immigration and against any further European integration. The irony which surrounds Babiš is well expressed by the anti-corruption campaign he claims to run, while being investigated for fraud. The fraud accusations are based on facts which took place nearly 10 years ago, when Babiš allegedly separated an Agrofert subsidiary in order to have access to a European fund intended for small businesses. The Czech Parliament has decided to lift Babiš’s immunity and forced him to face accusations. On top of this, audio recordings of him expressing the intention to use his mediatic influence to fight the opposition were leaked, shading further doubt on the viability of a fair democratic process under his government. But the ANO movement is not the only Eurosceptic force in the Czech Republic. At the same time, in fact, the recent elections have resulted in a sharp rise of the SPD, an extreme-right party led by a half Japanese half Czech entrepreneur with a marked anti-EU and anti-immigration attitude, well exemplified in its political campaign poster “No Islam, no terrorism”.

And then there were three

More encouraging from the Union’s perspective is the situation in Slovakia, where Robert Fico, the social democrat Prime Minister, has shifted to a more EU friendly attitude in the last months. Prior to this, Fico encouraged a rhetoric filled with anti-EU sentiments developed around the topic of migration and especially against the quota system established by the European Union. Recently, the Slovak attitude seems to have changed. In the last few months, Fico has stated that Slovakia’s primary interest is the EU and has called for deeper European integration. Considering Slovakia’s situation, this could be read as a very pragmatic choice given the small size of its economy and the close commercial ties that the country has with the EU. It definitely serves best its interest to stick with the Union, especially considering that the country is also part of the eurozone. This wider openness of the Slovak PM marks an important change in the political landscape since the 2nd largest party is strongly Eurosceptic and that the 4th one, the People’s Party Our Slovakia, is a far-right movement which makes use of nazi symbols, basing its discourse on a racist narrative. The People’s Party Our Slovakia recently lost a consistent amount of support, having to give up two governorships after the regional elections held at the beginning of November. Even if these elements suggest an actual shift in the government’s action, the memory of a Eurosceptic Slovakia is still fresh.

False claims and real threats

Although these countries are characterized by different historical backgrounds, cultures, population size and economic situations, all four of them have some elements in common which represent a threat to some of the founding principles of the European Union. As mentioned in the previous paragraphs, the actions of these political forces represent violations of principles such as freedom of expression, freedom of association, the rule law and human rights protection. On top of this, two specific elements make the situation even scarier. First, the rhetoric used by these parties is often based on distorted arguments, such as the national consultations organized by Orbán. This rhetoric is also evident in these movements’ anti-immigration narratives. In fact, looking at the numbers, it is easy to see that Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Poland are among the countries which not only host the lowest numbers of migrants in absolute terms, but also a very insignificant number if compared to the size of their population. This shows that what claimed by these parties might be based on misrepresentations and might mislead citizens’ opinion. These misrepresentations might not be easy to detect if the political system is interconnected with the media sector, as it is the case in the Czech Republic. Second, these countries have been experiencing what seems to be a power grasp in the hands of few. In the Czech case, fair, impartial and democratic political debate is threatened on the one hand by the dangerous connection between Babiš and the media sector, and on the other by the conflict of interests that an entrepreneur-Prime Minister could face. In Orbán’s case, the laws restricting the activities of NGOs and universities seem to pursue a government’s political battle and threaten freedom of association and freedom of expression. Finally, in the Polish case, the Law and Justice party seems to be increasingly concentrating the power in its hands by limiting the independence of the judicial system. The recent developments leave Slovakia out of the equation, but the country has been facing similar dynamics in the last years, especially in its battle against the quota system.

In this context, Euroscepticism represents a powerful tool to divert attention from the internal political scene to the international landscape, while more and more power is concentrated in the hands of few. The situation becomes even scarier when considering that the claims at the basis of this dynamic are often built on misrepresentations of reality. In this way, governments continuously increase their power, justifying their actions through national interest arguments often based on false allegations. Apart from repeatedly condemning these anti-democratic initiatives and triggering infringement procedures, European authorities have taken very little action in this respect. As a consequence, Euroscepticism might become a powerful tool also in the bargaining process between these governments and Brussels. In other words, taking advantage of the delicate unity in place and counting on the fact that the Union will not take any action, Eurosceptic movements are proceeding on this dangerous path.

Defending the Union

From the Union’s perspective, reducing the power of these political forces is thus not only necessary to protect unity, but it’s a matter of protecting the Union’s identity as defined in the Treaties. Eurosceptic movements are often exploited to serve what are the interests of political elites. Concentrating power in the hands of few goes against the basic principles governing modern democracy and, again, governing the European Union.

In this context, the European Union has to defend its founding values. When talking about Euroscepticism it is easy to think about unity and lose the focus from what’s actually being questioned: identity. If what stated in the Treaties holds still, no violation of basic principles such as those mentioned above should be tolerated, since the European Union has defined them as core elements at the basis of its existence. This becomes even more true when Euroscepticism is exploited as a misrepresentation of reality for the interest of few.

 

Author: Ljuba Ferrario

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