Can Europe Make It?

’It is also the economy, stupid!’ The rise of economic euroscepticism in Central and Eastern Europe

Along comparable lines to Croatia, Latvia’s economy has not fully recovered from the recession of 2009-2011. 

Vassilis Petsinis
23 February 2019
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Riga International Airport, 2016 – "safety valve"? Wikicommons/ Avio2016. Some rights reserved.

Throughout the last decade, Europe has been marred by both economic and ‘migration’ crises. This has triggered the emergence of various Eurosceptic trends across the Continent. In Central and Eastern Europe, Euroscepticism has been mostly propagated by the right. Regardless of whether these are parties of the populist and radical right (Hungary’s Jobbik, Latvia’s National Alliance and Slovakia’s ‘Our Slovakia’) or ‘radicalized’ parties of the centre-right (Hungary’s FIDESZ and Poland’s PiS), these actors have primarily embedded their Euroscepticism into identity-politics: gender-related themes (opposition to LGBT rights); the migration crisis (rejection of EU quotas for refugees); and, at an earlier stage, domestic minority issues (e.g. ‘Gypsy criminality’ in Hungary and/or Slovakia).

Nevertheless, recent years have also witnessed the dynamic emergence of new political actors with a paramount stress on economic Euroscepticism across the region. What has encouraged these parties’ steady growth of popularity? What are their prospects? 

Amidst crises 

The outbreak of the economic and the ‘migration’ crises decisively reshaped domestic as well as European politics. The former triggered public discontent with austerity measures, encouraged the dynamic emergence of leftist parties in the countries mostly affected (SYRIZA in Greece, Podemos in Spain) and engendered ‘centre versus periphery’ ramifications (narratives of ‘Germany versus the EU-south’). The latter was met by a wave of Islamophobia, as well as the orchestrated endeavor by the populist and radical right to capitalize on identity-politics. This engendered one more ‘centre versus periphery’ cleavage (the dispute between the European Commission and the Visegrad Four, later Italy, over the refugee quotas arrangement).

SYRIZA and Podemos had beenrepeatedlyaccusing Angela Merkel and Wolfgang Schäuble of promoting a brand of neoliberal capitalism which is disastrous not only for the EU-south but for the entire EU, including Germany(2010-2015). As an alternative, these two parties and other anti-austerity initiatives throughout southern Europe called for a ‘Europe of the Peoples’, where the main emphasis is on social equality and not on the voracious appetites of bankers and transnational capital.

In Central and Eastern Europe, Hungary was the country most badly hit by recession (2008). In response to these critical circumstances, Jobbikembedded the concept of so-called ‘Eco-social National Economics’ into its political programme (2010). In this platform, Jobbik called for the renegotiation of Hungary’s foreign debt, the establishment of a banking system free from the interference of multinational corporations, the state-ownership of sectors such as health and education and the long-term renationalization of various others. This campaign of pseudo anti-capitalism enhanced Jobbik’s appeal in those segments of society feeling most imperilled by Hungary’s economic stagnation. Random and less articulate ‘quasi-leftist’ standpoints on the economy also featured in the party-programmes of Ataka (Bulgaria), the League of Polish Families/LPR (Poland) and the Slovak National Party/SNS (Slovakia). 

At the other end of the political spectrum, the Slovenian United Left(nowadays ‘The Left’/Levica) evolved out of anti-corruption protests in 2014. The party opposes neoliberalism, endorses an anti-corruption/anti-austerity platform, has adopted a ‘horizontal’ intra-party structure and calls for a bottom-up, democratic socialism. Levica delivered a satisfactory performance in the latest parliamentary elections (2018) and won 9 seats (9.29%). 

Further to the northeast, in Poland, Razem/’Together’ espouses an equally anti-austerity agenda, opposes the promotion of national conservatism in Polish politics and maintains close contact including shared electoral ambitions with Yanis Varoufakis’ DiEM25 pan-European Movement. Nevertheless, ‘Razem’ has not yet managed to pass the 5% threshold and enter parliament. Overall, it might not be a sweeping generalization to contend that left-wing (soft or hard) Euroscepticism remains rather weak in Central and Eastern Europe. This, in turn, has provided an opportunity structure for parties with a non-ideological profile and agendas of economic Euroscepticism in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe that were most negatively affected by recession. 

(Non-ideological) anti-establishment mavericks

Croatia’s entry into the EU brought some economic advantages for the country. Nevertheless, this is only one side of the coin. Despite its steady recovery, Croatia’s economy had been burdened by a six-year recession (2009-2015) and the purchasing power of Croatian citizens within the EU remains relatively weak. The collateral damage of free mobility within the EU space often corresponds to the emigration of highly-qualified personnel out of Croatia and an ensuing brain-drain. Moreover, more peripheral and less developedparts of the country do not seem to have taken adequate advantage of the EU Cohesion and Structural Funds: their technical infrastructure remains outdated, and employment opportunities remain scarce.

The entirety of Croatia’s largest parties converge around the conviction that EU financial aid remains of vital significance for development and tend to understate the aforementioned side-effects. This has emboldened smaller actors to aim at filling this particular vacuum in the country’s political map, capitalizing on economic grievances among the electorate.

Under the leadership of, political activist, Ivan Vilibor Sinčić and initially set up as Savez za Promene/Alliance for Changes (2011), the party of Živi Zid/Live Wall is currently represented by 4 deputies at the Sabor (parliament). Fashioning themselves as an ‘activist-political organization that consists of humanitarian and non-corrupt individuals who fight for social and economic justice’, the party promotes an agenda of economic Euroscepticism. Živi Zid holds that ‘the EU is not run by the elected representatives of the people but by an impersonal bureaucracy and corporations’. The party-manifestofurther contends that the EU is structured according to a ‘neo-feudal and neocolonial principle’, rejects austerity measures and emphasizes that while ‘we do not desire Croatia’s isolation, however we would not desire our country to become a colony of foreign interests, to the detriment of its citizens’.

These programmatic principles, in combination with Živi Zid’s espousal of ’global neutrality’ and endorsement of parties such as Podemos, brings the party’s agenda rather close to the orbit of left-wing Euroscepticism. Nevertheless, a closer look reveals that Živi Zid also: (a) objects to its classification along the right-centre-left axis and, instead, is self-designated as a (non-ideological) ‘humanitarian party’; (b) stands for the reduction of certain taxes and the abolition of others in order to encourage domestic entrepreneurship; (c) pledges to safeguard ‘national values’ and proposes the formation of a ‘third’ Croat entity in Bosnia. It is this syncretic scope that aims at accommodating heterogeneous demands within society which largely accounts for Živi Zid’s rapidand steadyrise in public appeal throughout 2017 and 2018.

Along comparable lines to Croatia, Latvia’s economy has not fully recovered from the recession of 2009-2011. At first, emigration to the west (usually Scandinavia, the UK and Ireland) was deemed a way out from financial turmoil. Nevertheless, remittances from abroad have not sufficed to reverse the aftermath of the crisis. To this one should add the persistent impact of depopulation and poverty (especially in the southeast region of Latgale) which cuts across the Latvian/ethnic Russian divide. One of the latest Eurobarometersurveys (no. 89, Spring 2018) found out that a large percentage of the Latvian public remain highly vexed about social security, unemployment and the cost of living inside Latvia. Therefore, it appears that Riga’s airport as a ‘valve’ for releasing social pressure cannot be looked to for an indefinite period of time. 

Under the leadership of, former actor, Artuss Kaimiņš, KPV was officially launched on May 6, 2016. Fashioning themselves as a ‘non-ideological and anti-establishment organization of political activists’, along the lines of Italy’s Five Star Movement, the party platform lays  considerable weight on the economy, including a touch of economic Euroscepticism. Conforming to predominantly pro-EU inclinations across the party-spectrum, KPV does not promote a platform of hard Euroscepticism, yet contends that EU budgetary policies cannot guarantee Latvia’s full recovery from recession; and that Latvia did not benefit from the introduction of the Euro because the cost of living has dramatically increased.

Economic grievances and anxietiesabound in Latvian society and KPV has succeeded in filling in this particular vacuum in the country’s political map. KPV’s high appeal among Latvian, mostly blue-collar, immigrants in western Europe, throughout the span of its existence as a party, is indicative of the financial insecurities within society as well as the toll of the recession as a whole. Consequently, KPV duly jumped to a percentage of 14.25% in the last parliamentary elections (2018) making it Latvia’s second largest party in its own right. 

The increasing public appeal of parties such as Živi Zid and KPV  hints at the growing relevance of economic Euroscepticism not solely for anti-austerity initiatives in southern Europe but also for a new generation of ambitious, anti-establishment, parties in the crisis-ridden parts of Central and Eastern Europe. The platforms of the two parties over the management of the economy do not necessarily converge in that Živi Zid, generally, displays a more pro-welfare disposition in comparison to KPV. 

Nevertheless the operation of both parties as ‘all-inclusive’, non-ideological, umbrella-movements benefits both Živi Zid as well as KPV, since they can extract votes from target-groups who: (a) have been affected by economic malfunction but, as a result of the two countries’ political pasts, do not trust left-wing initiatives; (b) cannot or do not want to cast their economic grievances under the auspices of the populist and radical right (e.g. a certain fraction among Latvia’s Russophone community). 

The forthcoming elections for the European parliament (May 2019) may turn out to be a crucial testing ground for the consolidation of these two parties’ popularity, as well as their future prospects to inspire likeminded initiatives elsewhere in the region.      

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