Viktor Orban at Plenary session of EPP Congress in Madrid, 2015. Demotix/Czuko Williams.All rights reserved.Devastating terrorist attacks, months of insecurity about the Eurozone, huge electoral victories for populist parties, an unprecedented refugees crisis... there is no doubt that 2015 was Europe’s annus horribilis.
Both the projects of the European Union and of European liberal democracy were challenged in ways we have not seen before. The real question for the coming year(s) is: was 2015 just a freak year, soon to be forgotten, or a transformative year, shaping European politics for years to come?
Whatever the answer to that question will be, 2015 was the year that everyone could see that the European emperor is not (not any longer) wearing clothes. Worse, the emperor didn’t even deny that he was naked!
Sure, European integration and liberal democracy had been challenged before. The 1992 Maastricht Treaty did not only create the foundations of the current European Union, but also gave birth to a slow but steady growing Euroscepticism. Populist parties have been stable features of some European countries since the late 1980s. And counter-terrorism has undermined liberal democracy at least since 9/11.
The months-long negotiations between the Eurozone and the new Greek populist government of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras was probably the most traumatic period for Europe’s left. Many progressives saw in Tsipras the man to end austerity within Europe, but soon found out that they had both overestimated Tsipras’ competence and underestimated the EU’s stubbornness. As a consequence of the Greek drama, many on the left lost their faith in the European project and in the left populist alternative.
As soon as a Grexit was prevented, Europe was faced by a refugees crisis that saw one million refugees, mostly from Syria and Afghanistan, made their way to Europe. Frustration over weak external borders and no longer existing internal borders led to a strong anti-EU response within Europe’s right. This was worsened by the terrorist attacks in Paris, particularly when irresponsible journalists and politicians claimed a link between the terrorists and the refugees. Across the continent mainstream and populist politicians called for the suspension of the Dublin Regulation and the Schengen Treaty, two absolute pillars of the European Union and of the fundamental values of European integration.
What stands out in both crises is the complete ideological vacuum at the heart of the European political elite. What stands out in both crises is the complete ideological vacuum at the heart of the European political elite. No one was really able to make a convincing defense of the fundamental values of the neoliberal austerity policies during the negotiations with Greece. In the end, the conflict was decided by the practical competence and experience of the Eurozone elite and, even more so, the incompetence of the left populist alternative – blinded by the moral imperative of its case and the narcissism of its ministers.
Unfortunately, the situation with regard to the refugees crisis is different. Not only is the ideological vacuum even more pronounced, there is a much more powerful ideological challenger. Despite the striking national and regional electoral victories of the usual suspects of the far right – mostly established far right parties like the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ), the Danish People’s Party (DF) and the French National Front (FN) – the leader of the far right challenge has been a politician from Europe’s political mainstream: Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
In many ways, 2015 is defined by Orbán’s transformation from political outcast to political savior. In many ways, 2015 is defined by Orbán’s transformation from political outcast to political savior. When the Hungarian premier used the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo in January to attack Europe’s embrace of multiculturalism, condemnation was almost universal – with the predictable exception of the European far right. But when Orbán declared that he wants to preserve, “Europe for the Europeans and a “Hungarian Hungary” at the start of the refugees crisis, few EU elites were there to condemn him. And when he spoke at the Madrid Congress of the European People’s Party (EPP), equating the “immigrants” with “an army”, he was met with great applause. And that was even before the Paris attacks of November!
The coming year(s) will have to show whether the European liberal democratic parties can still offer an alternative to Orbán. Merkel tried, defending a Europe open to refugees (if strict on immigrants), but found few supporters among other European leaders, and even vocal opponents within her own party.
At the same time, Orbán was echoed by political leaders throughout East Central Europe, from Czech president Miloš Zeman to Slovak premier Robert Fico, and was recently joined in his open attack on liberal democracy in Europe by the new Law and Justice (PiS) government in Poland.
Perhaps the clumsy policies of the new Polish government could trigger a center right response, given that the PiS is not protected by EPP membership, but it will look hypocritical if it doesn’t also target Orbán’s Hungary, and it will remain without any long-term effects if it is not rooted in a strong, rejuvenated, liberal democratic ideology.
There is an acute and growing tension between the concern for safety and the protection of our freedoms. How do we handle this? Read more from the World Forum for Democracy partnership.