Recommended reading on the state of democracy in Central and Southeast Europe

EU diplomatic sources gave Reuters a sneak preview this week of new measures from the EU executive to better police democracy and crack down on countries such as Poland and Hungary that are accused of undermining judicial independence and media freedom.

In addition to new tools to ensure compliance with democratic norms, European Commission President-elect Ursula von der Leyen has vowed to introduce an annual rule-of-law review for each member state, Reuters reports. She also supports making EU aid conditional on good behaviour.

Details of the EU’s tougher line came as Poland drew fire on two fronts over its controversial judicial reform.

The European Commission announced it was taking the next step in one of its infringement procedures against the reform while the European Court of Human Rights said it would look into a case involving a sacked Polish judge, Politico reports.

In case you missed it, Piotr Buras explains the importance of the European Union’s infringement procedures — what he calls the EU’s “rule-of-law revolution”— in a recent Reporting Democracy commentary.

V4 blues

Such moves to police democracy are likely to put noses out of joint elsewhere in the Visegrad Four (V4), which recently helped torpedo the candidacy of rule-of-law champion Frans Timmermans for president of the European Commission.

While V4 nations basked briefly in their success in stymying their opponents during the tussle for the EU’s top jobs, they have failed utterly to advance their own interests, writes Dalibor Rohac, author of In Defence of Globalism, in The American Interest.

“For many in the West, Visegrad is no longer worth engaging with,” he says. “That impression can lead to a further fragmentation of the European Union into blocs of countries sharing only a veneer of common European institutions.”

The big snub, of course, was that not one Central European candidate came close to being considered for a top role in an EU institution, an omission so glaring that Brussels watcher Piotr Maciej Kaczynski asks if there is a “cordon sanitaire” against the V4.

“Ever since the famous European Council compromise package that did not include any politician from Central and Eastern Europe, there has been a heated debate in half of the continent about whether the deal represents the geographical variety of the European Union, and why not,” he writes in Euractiv.

The latest insult is speculation that the Commission will have three vice-presidents, none from Central or Eastern Europe, adds Kaczynski, a former researcher at the Centre for European Policy Studies.

He proposes to keep CEE candidates for fourth vice-president of the Commission, the European Ombudsman, the European Prosecutor and the Secretary-General of the European Commission. Time will tell…

‘Europe’s bad boy’

In Hungary, the Guardian’s Shaun Walker reports on how Prime Minister Viktor Orban is twisting Christian values to justify his anti-immigration policies.

“As Budapest has come in for increasing criticism from Brussels over rule-of-law concerns and democratic backsliding, Orban has wooed other far-right leaders who use Christian rhetoric,” he writes.

“He was the only EU leader to attend the inauguration of Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro in January, while he enjoys a warm relationship with the Law and Justice government in Poland.”

Al Jazeera has a portrait of Hungary: Europe’s Bad Boy in its “People and Power” series. The documentary by filmmakers Glenn Ellis and Viktoryia Kolchyna probes Orban’s transformation from crusader for freedom to nationalist demagogue.

“The sobering fact is that Orban’s brand of nationalist authoritarianism and anti-migrant xenophobia has proven to be wildly effective, and not only in Hungary,” writes Ellis in a piece accompanying the episode.

Luke Cooper, a fellow on the Europe’s Futures programme at the Institute of Human Sciences in Vienna, goes further, likening Hungary’s journey into illiberalism to “creeping fascism”.

“Part of the mobilising power of the new far right in Europe lies in the ‘memory politics’ of how 20th-century fascism is thought about today,” he writes in  the quarterly Red Pepper magazine.

“The new far right rejects any notion of national responsibility for fascism. They claim they are not in continuity with these historical movements, while drawing on an idea of majority-white victimhood that resembles classical fascist discourses: that a liberal elite is systematically disadvantaging white-native populations to the benefit of ethnic and religious minorities.”

Speaking of the far right…

Nationalists in arms. A far-right militant movement in Ukraine is forging ties with extremists beyond Ukraine’s borders — and Croatia, the newest EU member, is emerging as a key staging ground, a BIRN investigation reveals. Ukrainian and Croatian nationalists see much in common with their recent histories and both have a penchant for historical revisionism, writes Michael Colborne.

Fascists next door. What do you do if your neighbour is a far-right extremist? For one activist in small-town Poland, the answer is grab a megaphone and face them down. Stanislawa Kuzio-Podrucka typifies a new breed of campaigners in Poland who are mobilising outside the big cities in places long considered populist bastions or fertile ground for the radical right. Claudia Ciobanu profiles her for Reporting Democracy.

Short memory. The Slovak village of Ostry Grun was synonymous with the partisan uprising against the Nazis during World War II, and paid a heavy price. Three-quarters of a century on, it is a stronghold of a neo-fascist. How is this disconnect between history and modern politics possible, asks Reporting Democracy correspondent Miroslava Germanova in the latest in a series of stories on far-right extremism.

On the bright side…

Slovakia is the most EU-integrated of any V4 nation — at least according to Slovak President Zuzana Caputova, who came to power as a progressive newcomer earlier this year.

“Be it the presidential election, whose second round saw two clearly pro-European candidates, or the European Parliament election, they sent out a clear signal from Slovakia — that we see ourselves in the EU,” she told a press conference after meeting Polish President Andrzej Duda this week. 

A few days earlier, during a visit to Hungary, Caputova had called on Visegrad nations to protect the rule of law to avoid being seen as “weakening the European Union”, Emerging Europe reported.

Meanwhile, Slovakia is rocketing up the Future Brand Country Index, a measure of the “strength of perception” of the World Bank’s top 75 countries by GDP. Go, Brand Slovakia.

And in Prague…

Dogged by corruption allegations, a coalition crisis and the biggest street protests since the Velvet Revolution, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis is having a stressful summer. As Rob Anderson writes for Reporting Democracy, the fear is that he may seek solace in the arms of his right-wing authoritarian neighbours.

“Analysts say the risk now is that he will decide to join Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Jaroslaw Kaczynski, head of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party, in taking an even more belligerent position towards the EU, changing the balance of forces inside the Visegrad Group of Central European states.”

Looking south…

French President Emmanuel Macron dampened Serbian hopes of rapid EU membership, warning that the bloc cannot accept new members until it has been reformed. “The EU with 28 members is even now not functioning and cannot be expanded without reforming itself,” Macron said during a visit to Belgrade.

Macron does not speak for all big EU guns on the issue, however.  He has become increasingly frustrated by the polite refusal of Germany to back his demands for much closer integration in the EU, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel has contradicted his view that the EU cannot expand until it has its governance house in order.

Even so, a smog of ambivalence hung over an EU/Western Balkan summit in Poznan, Poland, earlier this month. 

“This continued ambivalence in the EU’s attitude to the Western Balkans will only serve the interests of those leaders in the region the EU is striving to reform,” writes Erwan Fouere, a fellow at the Centre for European Studies, on the European Western Balkans web portal.

“The more ambiguity there is in the EU’s engagement, the more it will be used by the entrenched political and business elites, not to mention the criminal networks who profit from weak rule of law and societies built on patronage.”

Ornaldo Gjergji takes a similar line in a piece for OBC Transeuropa. “If member states continue to instrumentalise the opening or the continuation of negotiations with Balkan countries, instead of genuinely working towards a Europe of 33, the region will be at risk of remaining closed off, at risk of being left to sink into a condition of permanent crisis, for which only short term solutions will be offered, to prevent brutal regressions and the repercussions on Europe as a whole.”

Don’t miss…

#MeToo. Female journalists in the Balkans are often subjected to sexist insults and misogynist harassment on social media aimed at humiliating or terrorising them for doing their jobs, while the perpetrators often go unsanctioned, writes Lidija Pisker on Balkan Insight. Zoom into North Macedonia, where women reporters are routinely exposed to insults — though they are a tough lot and don’t easily succumb to intimidation, writes Mirjana Chakarova.

#MeFirst. Everyone knows politicians are cunning and self-interested, but can we say the same about electorates? In an age of “cynical voters” who knowingly usher in morally bankrupt governments, the turn towards authoritarian populism starts at the top and trickles down, argues Slawomir Sierakowski, founder of the Krytyka Polityczna movement in Poland.

#WhatNext? After a decade of turmoil, Greece’ newly elected government is promising to put the country on the road to economic recovery — but its flirtations with populist nationalism and anti-immigrant rhetoric are causes for concern, writes Gazmend Kapllani in Balkan Insight.

Speaking of democracy…

Muddling through. In an interview in the Los Angeles Times, David Runciman, author of The Confidence Trap: A History of Democracy in Crisis from World War I to the Present, tries to assess the threat level to global democracy today.

“After the First World War, the world was going to be safe for democracy, but it wasn’t. After the Cold War, we’d reached the end of history; this was the triumph of liberal democracy. But it wasn’t.

“Democracy is this middling, muddling-through system and the big sweep of it over those 100 years, these lurches of optimism and pessimism, seem to even themselves out.”

And speaking of populism…

What’s in a word? Say the P-word and you will hear countless definitions. So what does populism actually mean? SwissInfo takes a valiant crack at pinning it down while highlighting “fuzzy rhetoric” and tales of misuse.

Populists versus Greens. Centrists in Europe are putting their hopes in Greens, believing their moment has come — but for the far right, they are enemy number one, writes Katrin Bennhold in the New York Times.

“If nothing else, the Greens now sit astride Europe’s latest culture war. With migration receding in the news, climate change has become a potent new front in the battle between green-minded liberals and populists.”


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