The EU cannot prevent the rise of Populism

By Felix Nicol

“Let’s preserve the peace and security of Hungary” poster from Orbán’s election campaign. Photo: Raketir / Shutterstock. Source

The spread of populist movements in Europe in recent times has become an increasingly problematic issue for the European Union, especially when observing the democratic backsliding in Hungary. Recent news that the EU may look to suspend funds vis-a-vis Hungary as a result of the country’s illiberalism shows the commitment of the EU to ensuring the return of liberal, democratic values to Hungary. As a reply the Hungarian government has put forth two anti-corruption laws it intends to put in place. Though seemingly promising, a deeper analysis would suggest that these laws are insufficient in suppressing Orbán’s illiberal democracy. In fact, it should be doubted that the EU has any coercive power in returning liberal values to its illiberal member states.

Though the EU funding in question makes up 9% of the Hungarian GDP, it is clear that Orbán does not find himself particularly threatened. In fact, when looking at Hungary’s proposed anti-corruption laws, it needs to be understood that the democratic institutes of the country are often only democratic on the surface. In this regard, the effectiveness of the EU’s leverage of funding comes under question. Even if they were to have stronger requirements as recommended by some, it is unlikely that further institutional reform will change the situation of the country. For this reason, the EU likely needs to look for further leverage to truly get Orbán’s regime under control.

Yet what does the EU have left to leverage? When taking in the historical context, the options look even murkier. In discussions with potential members, the EU is known for using their “carrot and stick” methods, using membership as a key driver of political reform. Hungary is no stranger to this, as prior to its own accession to the EU, reform in the country was certainly driven by potential membership. It is also important to understand in this context that the EU already has a set of laws, the acquis communautaire, that potential states must adhere to in order to be truly accepted into the Union. Under this understanding, the implications of Hungary’s move towards an illiberal democracy underlines key flaws in the underlying democratic framework of the Union, which should look to protect and continue its own democratic values. That is to say, despite having respected all of the requirements the EU put in place for candidacy, Orbán’s populist movement was still able to move away from the liberal democratic institutions that were put in place. If the EU was unable to ensure Hungary remained democratic through its acquis communautaire, what tools does it have left?

Furthermore, it is important to recognize that with the rise of other populist movements, it may become increasingly difficult to even apply restrictions towards Hungary. While Poland has long held good relations with the country, the rise of more populist movements in the EU could suggest increased leverage in the EU for populists. With Italy’s Giorgia Maloni showing ties to Orbán, as well as Sweden’s radical right-wing party with neo-Nazi roots show that support on an EU level is present. With the growing support of populist movements, the abilities of the EU to effectively fight these movements is put into question even further. In this regard, with the questionable viability of the EU’s legislative abilities in preventing the rise of illiberalism, reconsideration is in order if it wishes to retain its liberal democratic ideals.

Despite the focus on Hungary for its particularly pronounced departure from the liberal norms of the EU, it should not be assumed that it is alone in its departure from these values. The previously mentioned Poland has aligned itself with Hungary precisely because of their similar values, providing each other with a partner in antagonizing the Union. Furthermore, in a world where the labeling of parties like Orbán’s FIDESZ as “‘fascist’, extremist or far-right” does nothing to delegitimize them, reconsideration of the tools used to ensure continued liberal democracy are in order. A step away from tools like the EU’s acquis communautaire and financial incentives is necessary, and perhaps more effort in remedying the root causes of populism are in order. Recognition of certain factors such as anti-immigrant sentiment or economic insecurity as underlying factors for the growth in populism is important, but consideration on how these might be improved is necessary. Otherwise, liberal democracy risks pushing an increasingly diverse group towards the populist movements it looks to prevent.

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