Rising Eurosceptical narrative, Anti-Islamism and European Identityl

Sedef Asli Topal, Master of Arts in International Relations – Legal and Business Perspective

The University of Szeged, Hungary

Belgrade, Serbia- december 11. 2016: About 1,000 migrants find shelter from rain and cold weather in an abandoned warehouse behind the main railway station in Belgrade. Serbia. – Editorial credit: Zeljko Sinobad / Shutterstock.com

The democratic transition process of the Central and Eastern European Countries (CEECs) has been completed, but democratic consolidation, in particular, the countries such as Romania and Bulgaria still continue. What’s more, there is a tendency from liberal democracy to illiberal democracy within the EU according to the social and liberal democrats. Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic are considered as among the countries in which this tendency is most remarkable. It is obvious that the Central and Eastern European Member States (CEEMSs) have developed their own type of democratic governance that is different from the Western democracy. Eastern European democracy cannot reflect all the criteria of what the EU expects in terms of liberal democratic principles.

Firstly, the CEEMSs couldn’t have a long-term experience to establish liberal democratic governments as the Western Europe could catch a chance to have. They were geographically close to the Soviet Union; which made them highly vulnerable against the expansion of communism and despotic internal policies directed by the external interferences.  Secondly, because of the EU pressure to execute a short, but effective transition process; they couldn’t absorb the Western democratic values efficiently. Most of them were deprived of a political tradition with a strong culture of rights. Polarisation, corruption, human rights violation, highly politicised civil service, weak rule of law and low level of civil society participation were the common characteristics of post-Soviet countries during the 1990s.

Liberal democratic principles were imposed on the CEECs by an external power, the EU. Democracy was perceived by these countries as a requirement they had to meet for the EU membership rather than a national priority because there was no very remarkable and direct public demand for the acquisition of democratic rights. “The legacy of social guarantees under communism had been an inclination to view human rights as equated not with the individual, civil and political rights, but largely with economic and social rights…” (Kaldor and Vejvoda 1997, 68) National security and transition to market economy were prioritised during the negotiations of the EU accession whereas the establishment of effective liberal democratic institutions was subordinated. Public demand had accompanied the EU’s demand later in the democratic transition process. Top-down and bottom-up models had functioned together in the course of transformation. As a consequence, they created their own understanding of democracy which was ‘less public-centric’ and more ‘power centralising’ (Kaldor and Vejvoda, 1997). In other words, they could only achieve the most basic standards (the minimal standards) of democracy – a formal democracy – during the pre-EU period.

It is certain that most of the CEEMSs could deal with the most critical problems in holding free, fair and competitive elections, guaranteeing civil rights and liberties via constitution and depoliticising civil service to a large extent after they joined the EU. The EU’s supranational mechanisms discouraged them from re-shifting towards autocratic and anti-democratic regimes. However, it is disputable whether these mechanisms always work well in practice today. The CEEMSs continue to suffer from corruption, polarisation and low public awareness and inactive civil society despite all the other achievements in consolidating democracy. The leaders of Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria have been accused of undermining the rule of law and centralising all political power in their hands. The political tradition in which the power is highly centralised still seems to maintain its existence in particular areas of their governmental systems.

I think that this may be one of the main reasons of rising Euro-scepticism and recent tendencies toward illiberal democracy in CEEMSs. A democratic system centralising the power may strengthen the authoritarian and extremely nationalist and populist political parties who are Euro-sceptics under the appropriate economic, social and political conditions. Undoubtedly, corruption and polarisation are everywhere regardless where the country is located in – if it is Western or Eastern European – but how the people react to corruption and undemocratic attitudes of governments and whether the rule of law is strong or weak are the critical points. The political apathy – or the lack of a political culture with a high public awareness and well-organised civil society – in the CEEMSs may give the politicians a broad space to manoeuvre in politics. Within this space, they may restrict the control mechanisms over the government such as the rule of law and free media through constitutional amendments without considering public will by relying on their majority in the parliament.

The refugee crisis and Radical Islamic terrorism may have created the necessary conditions for illiberal democracy and Euro-scepticism to increase in these countries. Polarisation has peaked in the CEEMSs due to the combats between the pro-European and Euro-sceptic politicians. A democratic system in which the majority dominates the minority, and in which one side always accuses the other one of betraying its own country has occurred. European leaders have already realised how these populist movements could be dangerous for the sake of the EU’s political integration because the Euro-scepticism is also rising in Western Europe too. The upcoming Brexit that has deeply harmed the union’s prestige and legitimacy is the most obvious proof of this inclination in the West.

On the other hand, the Western Europe is deemed to be more immune to populism, illiberalism and Euro-scepticism than the Eastern Europe thanks to its political culture with a higher political awareness, ‘more stable and public-centric democracy’ (Kaldor and Vejvoda, 1997) and relatively stronger rule of law. The Euro-scepticism has a spill-over effect in Europe and is expected to spread in the countries which are most badly affected by the refugee crisis and radical Islamic terrorism such France, Italy, Germany and Greece. Until now, except France, the other three countries haven’t shown a radical reaction as a result of rising Euro-scepticism and Islamic terrorism. In the case of France, the result of Presidential elections in May 2017 showed that French people have preferred to have a pro-European government rather than extremely nationalist and Euro-sceptic Marine Le Pen. Despite the terrorist attacks in Nice and Paris and rising Islamophobia, the extreme right wing could only reach 35 per cent at maximum in its history.

In contrast, paradoxically the Euro-scepticism has at most increased in the least affected countries such as the CEEMSs. The CEEMSs hosts the least amount of refugee and immigrant from the Third World, but they at most oppose to the resettlement of the refugees in each member state fairly with its population size and financial capacity. According to my opinion, this also results from their strict conservative social structures and political cultures. For example, religion is an important internal dynamic which shapes the domestic and foreign policy of Poland. For this reason, anti-Islamism and intolerance towards Muslim refugees and immigrants are significantly high despite the very low number of Muslims living in the country, and that it is one of the most Euro-sceptic countries in the EU.

The protection of minority rights and tolerance towards ethnic, religious and cultural diversity are two fundamental principles of liberal democracy and main components of European identity. The Western European Member States (WEMSs) are more tolerant towards the refugees from the Middle East, Asia and Africa in that they have already hosted many of them for a long period of time as labour force due to their colonial past. Western Europeans have experience of living in a multi-ethnic, religious and cultural society. Thus, the WEMSs support the idea of resettling the refugees even though they are going to host three or four times higher number of people than them whereas the CEEMSs oppose to the idea of resettlement.

Only two decades ago, there were serious discriminations against even the European minorities sharing a much more similar culture with them in comparison to refugees in the CEEMSs. Hungarians in Slovakia, Poles in the Czech Republic, Russians in Baltic countries and Roma people living in almost all the CEECs were encountering critical problems in achieving equal economic, social and political rights with nationals. For this reason, it is not surprising that they refuse to compromise on a resettlement agreement when their self-enclosed social structures are considered.

I presume that the distinctions between the democratic governance of WEMSs and CEEMSs have become more explicit when the refugee crisis broke out, which proved that European identity has not been completely internalised yet by the CEEMSs. Along with the fact that without a common European identity it is very challenging for the EU to reach its goal of political integration, the Euro-scepticism is directly threatening its recent formation. The main argument of the Euro-sceptics is that the EU has been eroding national sovereignty of the MSs. The Chapter Four has already revealed the other existing obstacles the EU has to overcome to complete the last step of its integration. Firstly, it doesn’t have common European constitution; secondly, it hasn’t built a common external security force, a military; thirdly, there is a problem of democratic deficit in its decision and policy-making mechanism. To cope with these challenges, there must no trust issue or suspect concerning the EU’s legitimacy.

At this point, the EU must control the illiberal democratic tendencies and rising Euro-scepticism in Europe as well as promote the substantive democracy. In parallel, for achieving a substantive democracy, the CEEMSs require developing a more tolerant and egalitarian social structure and a more liberal political culture with a higher level of public participation in politics via non-traditional democratic ways. Also, the WEMSs should not allow its strong liberal democratic tradition to be influenced by rising populism and illiberalism. Otherwise, nevertheless, it seems not possible at the moment, apart from the Brexit, there might be new exits from the EU that will result in the fragmentation of the union in the long run if these populist and illiberal block can occupy more and more seats in the national parliaments. Almost nobody expected that Donald Trump was going to be 45th President of the USA, but he became.

Consequently, it would not be wrong to claim that the characteristic differences in political culture and democratic governance between the WEMSs and CEEMSs have remarkably decelerated the EU’s political integration process. Even it has made it impossible to come true in the near future once the security concerns which stem from the refugee crisis and spreading terrorism started to invade Europe for last two years. For this reason, I believe that the establishment of the ‘European Union of Liberal Democratic States’ is vital, and should be the priority of the EU as long as it aims to reach a political unity or else.

© Copyright 2017, Sedef Asli Topal.

This article is the second in an ongoing series of scholarly or academic papers to be presented on the Global Geopolitics net site. Scholars and journalists are welcome to submit papers with more in-depth analysis for publication as part of this series.