Populism is undoubtedly on the rise in Europe and indeed the Western world. Seizing their opportunity in the wake of Brexit, refugee crisis, threat of Islamic terrorism and continuous erosion of trust in the traditional parties, populist movements and politicians have enjoyed much broader following and support than in the past.
This has been particularly notable in the group of states called the Visegrad Group. Consisting of the eastern European quartet of Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia, the Visegrad Four was established in 1991 after the fall of communism in Europe with the aim of cooperation, economic growth and gradual meeting of the criteria for accession into the European Union. All of the states did indeed join the Union in 2004 as a part of Union’s largest expansion yet.
The Visegrad Four, however, does still exist and meets regularly as a sort of loose alliance within the European Union with rotating presidency. The member states have gradually started to see the Group as a sort of platform that would amplify their voice in the European Union. The initial enthusiasm after joining was somewhat replaced by the sobering reality of the hard-reached consensus within the European Union. The Visegrad Four states have become more confident and established as their economies steadily grew, however, they have on occasions felt that their voices are not being heard in favour of original members and key players such as Germany, France or Belgium. After the soon-to-be departure of the most vocal critic of the EU and the closest ally of the Visegrad Group, the United Kingdom, the Four assumed the position of the most Eurosceptic members of the Union.
The Visegrad Four really came to prominence during the refugee crisis, namely during the proposed solution of imposing migrant quotas on every EU member state. This proposal, was aimed at reducing the pressure on the border states of Italy and Greece, which were struggling to cope with the influx of refugees. As much as that solution was imperfect, it was the staunch and stubborn refutation from the mainly ethnically homogenous states of the Visegrad Four (the four states have a very limited experience with migration, only being partly hit by the wave after the War in Yugoslavia and otherwise ethnically homogenous) that has forced Angela Merkel to open the German borders.
The Visegrad Four might seem as a solid block of countries united with a common purpose but a closer look reveals this unity to be quite absent.
Hungary with their prime minister Viktor Orban certainly falls best into the populist bracket. Orban, whose party Fidesz commands a comfortable majority in the parliament (having had a supermajority until two by-elections in 2014, which exposed the weakness of the unicameral parliament) has been seen as the rogue European leader in the recent years. His authoritarian tendencies, stoking nationalism and promoting national self-sufficiency, sovereignty have received extended exposure and media coverage. As controversial as Orban is, he still enjoys strong public support owing to praising values still present in the post-Communist Eastern Europe such as full employment and familialism, often appealing to the “resentments of the former peasant or working classes”. He does, however, propose European solutions on some levels such as security (he has actually spoken in favour of the Common European armed forces).
Somewhat close to Hungary stands Slovakia, although these two countries still carry a bitter historical rivalry. Slovakia currently holds the presidency of the council of the EU. Their prime minister, Robert Fico of SMER, a self-proclaimed social democratic party is now serving his third term as a prime minister. In the most recent election in March 2016, Fico has abandoned his previously social and leftist orientation for that of populism, using arguments as defending Slovakia’s culture and borders, prioritising national interest and stoking fears about the Muslim migration. The rhetoric did not resonate with the voters in the expected extent but Fico was nevertheless able to secure the victory, along with the prime minister chair. His tenure has been, however, plagued with corruption scandals and his tenure is no different.
The growing disillusionment of the citizens with politics have led to increased support of the far right, with the Peoples’ Party Our Slovakia (LSNS) entering the parliament for the first time after 2016 election.
Situation has been even more dramatic in Poland. The country once led by European figures of such significance like Donald Tusk and Radoslaw Sikorski, standing as a close ally to Germany and strong supporter of the Union has turned its back on the liberal, pro-European approach and instead gradually elected president Andrzej Duda and a conservative, right wing nationalist government led by PiS (Law and Justice) party. Although the prime minister is Beata Szydlo, suspicions have arisen that the party and indeed national policy is commanded by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, brother of the deceased Polish president Lech Kaczynski and currently the PiS party chairman, however, an unelected official with strong conservative views and bitter rivalry with Donald Tusk. They have indeed turned the country against its liberal and pro-European past, stating that “the EU benefit Poland and not the other way around”. These problems have been further reinforced by Constitutional court crisis, starting from 2015 and going on up until today, effectively paralyzing the Constitutional court and sending tens of thousands people in the streets to protest. Furthermore, not only a month ago the Szydlo-led government attempted to ban abortions in the strongly Catholic Poland. The proposed ban was later dismissed after once again mainly young people took to the streets. On the European level, Poland has lately pursued the path of nationalism and lesser integration, refusing the criticism from the EU institutions.
Czech Republic, then, seems like the most Europe-oriented country, however, they have been facing problems of their own. In 2013, the country elected its president directly for the very first time. The man in question, Milos Zeman, has shifted his previously social democratic views and strong support of the EU and NATO into unhinged populism raving, stoking fears around the migrant crisis and increasingly turning to Russia, with some intelligence reports continuously accusing him of warm relations towards Kremlin and some of Putin’s close aides. The president has no executive powers in Czech Republic, although he is formally the commander-in-chief. What is more worrying, though, is that this kind of rhetoric seems to resonate with the public, with Mr Zeman enjoying relatively high approval ratings. However, that may also change. On October 28, which is the Czech National day, thousands of people gathered in Prague to protest Zeman’s eastern orientation.
Czech parliamentary elections are coming up next year and even they pose a threat from populism. Polls are led by ANO 2011, a populist party which is run on almost a dictatorial basis by Andrej Babis, second wealthiest Czech and currently the minister of finance. It is no surprise that him and Zeman are viewed as the two most trustworthy politician by the public opinion polls. There have been accusations on abuse of state power by Mr Babis either for the benefit of his companies through unfairly obtaining state contracts or to hinder his business competition. Apart from his large agricultural holding Agrofert, the largest private employer in Czech Republic, he is also an owner of MAFRA, the largest Czech media house. Yet this apparent conflict of interests seems not to faze the Czech voters.
There is indeed little consensus and demand for specific policy among the Visegrad Group.
Lack of consensus shows especially in the foreign policy, namely the relationship to Russia. While Hungary and mainly a part of political spectrum in Czech Republic, concentrated around president Zeman and the Communist party exhibits strong links to Kremlin, Poland maintains a hard anti-Russian stance. However, in all four countries the populists now have the upper hand and it will require a strong effort both from the grass-root movements, traditional parties and the EU institutions to overturn that.
The plurality of opinions and discussion is central and absolutely vital to the idea of the EU. However, a continuous stubborn refusal without proposing an alternative solution is by no means helpful to the progress. Yet that was the attitude of the Visegrad Four during the critical points of years 2015 and 2016. Their leading politicians have enjoyed their popularity surge by blaming their shortcomings on the EU on the national level while being woefully unconstructive when trying to find a solution on the European level. Their proposal such as strengthening the border guard have been somewhat hypocritical, as the cost of that could not be borne solely by the border member states, yet it was these politicians who have repeatedly dismissed the idea of more integration and budget contributions in the question of the European security. Political leaders such as Orban, Babis or Szydlo use the EU as a scapegoat for their electorate, further eroding the already weak trust and faith in the European institutions.
It is important to realize that even though the rise of populistic driven parties such as FN in France, UKIP in the United Kingdom or AfD in Germany is alarming and certainly requires our attention, the Eastern European countries already have populist parties in a position of power. That is dangerous on the national level, as the populist do not have a full support of the public as recent demonstrations in Poland and Czech Republic have shown. It is, however, even more precarious at the European level because many decisions in the EU require a unanimous approval, which will be hard to achieve with parties that have built their mandate on Euroscepticism and anti-EU sentiment.
It is very much difficult to suggest a clear, functioning approach to tackle this issue. While the prerequisites for success are obvious – informed and strong civic society, renewed trust in institutions, both national and European and a solid performance by the traditional parties – it is hard to find the right way. Perhaps this article offers some sort of direction into the future.