Soft Author­i­tar­i­an­ism and the Ambiva­lences of Euro­peani­sa­tion: What Role Could the EU Play?

Democ­ra­cy in Ques­tion? – Through a soft author­i­tar­i­an lens

In this com­ment, Jens Adam reflects on the lat­est episode of the pod­cast series “Democ­ra­cy in Ques­tion?” fea­tur­ing Tim­o­thy Gar­ton Ash. Jens argues that the role that the EU plays in cur­rent ‘author­i­tar­i­an attempts’ is deeply ambiva­lent: It is at the same time enabling and imped­ing soft author­i­tar­i­an trans­for­ma­tion in some of its mem­ber states.

Among the impor­tant top­ics addressed in this episode on the chal­lenges fac­ing polit­i­cal lib­er­al­ism is the role the EU could play in stop­ping the pro­lif­er­a­tion of author­i­tar­i­an pop­ulism across Europe. Does the Euro­pean Union have either the means or the polit­i­cal will to coun­ter­act the present trend towards author­i­tar­i­an­ism in some of its mem­ber states? Could it do more to pro­tect demo­c­ra­t­ic insti­tu­tions, the rule of law or free­dom of expression?

Tim­o­thy Gar­ton Ash argues that the EU has proven total­ly inef­fec­tive in pre­vent­ing Vik­tor Orbán’s sys­tem­at­ic demo­li­tion of Hungary’s democ­ra­cy. Over the last decade the coun­try has devel­oped into a ‘hybrid, com­pet­i­tive author­i­tar­i­an sys­tem’, he con­tends. The fact that the EU – a declared ‘com­mu­ni­ty con­sist­ing only of lib­er­al democ­ra­cies’ – con­tin­ues to accept as a mem­ber state, one ‘that is no longer a democ­ra­cy’ will con­sti­tute in his view as much of a chal­lenge for Europe’s future as the cli­mate change, post-Covid recov­ery or the pol­i­tics of Vladimir Putin bent on weak­en­ing the EU.

This is a per­sua­sive argu­ment. The inap­ti­tude, or unwill­ing­ness, of EU insti­tu­tions to hin­der elect­ed soft author­i­tar­i­an lead­ers dis­man­tling lib­er­al demo­c­ra­t­ic insti­tu­tions from the inside weak­ens its cred­i­bil­i­ty not only in the eyes of Euro­pean cit­i­zens but also in those of its inter­na­tion­al part­ners. The ques­tion I would like to raise in this con­text is about the extent this cri­tique rests on per­haps too nar­row an under­stand­ing of the course of Euro­pean inte­gra­tion. Author­i­tar­i­an pop­ulism seems to be cast here first and fore­most as the EU’s failed out­side. What if the cur­rent wave of ‘author­i­tar­i­an attempts’[1] is seen in part as a con­se­quence of the very process of Euro­pean inte­gra­tion and the divi­sions, inequal­i­ties and exclu­sions it engenders?

The ambiva­lences of Euro­peani­sa­tion become appar­ent in the creep­ing trans­for­ma­tion of new­ly mint­ed lib­er­al democ­ra­cies into more auto­crat­ic systems.

Social anthro­pol­o­gists work­ing on Europe have advo­cat­ed a per­spec­tive that includes such dis­junc­tures as part of the process of ‘Euro­peani­sa­tion’ as an ensem­ble of poly­mor­phic process­es in which ‘Europe’ in its con­tem­po­rary form has been pro­duced. Their fine-grained ethno­gra­phies have shown that Euro­pean poli­cies and reg­u­la­tions often don’t play out as intend­ed imple­men­ta­tions of clear-cut polit­i­cal blue­prints in Brus­sels. In fact, these messy and con­tra­dic­to­ry process­es lead to unin­tend­ed, often ambiva­lent, effects. This is part­ly a result of the fact that a dri­ving force behind process­es of ‘Euro­peani­sa­tion’ is a com­plex inter­play between supra­na­tion­al dynam­ics and the ‘reaf­fir­ma­tion of nation-state sov­er­eign­ty’[2] that brings about nov­el polit­i­cal con­fig­u­ra­tions. In such a per­spec­tive cur­rent forms of author­i­tar­i­an pop­ulism would not be seen as the EU’s failed exte­ri­or, but an intrin­sic part of the uneven­ness of inte­gra­tion process­es and trajectories.

The ambiva­lences of Euro­peani­sa­tion become appar­ent in the creep­ing trans­for­ma­tion of new­ly mint­ed lib­er­al democ­ra­cies into more auto­crat­ic sys­tems. I sug­gest, there­fore, that going beyond a cri­tique of EU’s pas­sive­ness in the face of this trans­for­ma­tion, we need to trace instead how the EU unwit­ting­ly both enables and also impedes the soft author­i­tar­i­an trans­for­ma­tion in coun­tries like Poland and Hungary.

Let’s begin by con­sid­er­ing the EU as a con­di­tion of pos­si­bil­i­ty for ‘author­i­tar­i­an attempts’. The con­stant influx of EU-funds could serve as an exam­ple to sup­port such an argu­ment. For para­dox­i­cal­ly it is this easy access to supra­na­tion­al monies that enables soft author­i­tar­i­an politi­cians to repo­si­tion the nation-state as not only a potent but also as the only rel­e­vant polit­i­cal unit. This applies to EU-funds direct­ed to infra­struc­tur­al invest­ments: new roads, faster train con­nec­tions or bet­ter air qual­i­ty are used to revi­talise the old imag­i­nary of the nation-state as the effi­cient mod­erniser, and thus, of its lead­ers as great achievers.

More­over, the con­tin­u­ous inflow of Euro­pean monies pro­vides a relief to nation­al bud­gets that opens the space for redis­tri­b­u­tion poli­cies to help secure vot­ers’ loy­al­ty. In Poland, for instance, the PiS-gov­ern­ment intro­duced the ‘500+-programme’ to sup­port fam­i­lies with chil­dren in 2015. This scheme was wide­ly per­ceived as a par­a­digm shift com­pared to the ‘small-gov­ern­ment-approach’ of its lib­er­al-con­ser­v­a­tive pre­de­ces­sors and turned out to be a high­ly suc­cess­ful cam­paign strat­e­gy in suc­ces­sive elec­tions. Although ‘500+’ is not financed direct­ly using EU-funds, I would argue that the influx of sig­nif­i­cant addi­tion­al monies into the state bud­get indi­rect­ly cre­at­ed the scope for financ­ing such social poli­cies. Thus, exter­nal funds are indis­pens­able for the sur­vival of soft author­i­tar­i­an regimes in east­ern and cen­tral Europe, as Gar­ton Ash right­ly points out. This cri­tique has been voiced by schol­ars in the region too. Andrea Pető at the Cen­tral Euro­pean Uni­ver­si­ty has argued, for instance, that the reg­u­lar influx of EU funds direct­ly or indi­rect­ly not only enables the fund­ing of redis­trib­u­tive poli­cies that shores up sup­port for the nation­al gov­ern­ment in Hun­gary, but it also con­tributes to cov­er up the ‘lack of vision’ of illib­er­al pol­i­tics.[3]

Cur­rent­ly we are wit­ness­ing a polit­i­cal game on the razor’s edge as ‘exter­nal inter­ven­tions’ from the EU can strength­en rad­i­cal nation­al­ists argu­ing in favour of leav­ing the Euro­pean Union all together.

Now let’s con­sid­er the oppos­ing stand­point: the EU as a de fac­to bar­ri­er and imped­i­ment to author­i­tar­i­an ten­den­cies among its mem­ber states. In an ear­li­er episode of the pod­cast Mary Kaldor points to strong evi­dence in sup­port of such a posi­tion. On issues like cli­mate change or civic rights, she argues, EU-bod­ies often pro­mote more pro­gres­sive posi­tions than the mem­ber states. EU bod­ies are also in a posi­tion to put pres­sure on nation­al gov­ern­ments to address these sug­ges­tions. And civ­il soci­ety activists can then take up these poli­cies and trans­form them into pub­lic issues in their respec­tive nation­al are­nas. Civic activists all over Europe today have now real­ized that they need the EU in this respect. Euro­pean net­works, funds, pro­grammes, or insti­tu­tions are indis­pens­able resources to cre­ate aware­ness and mobi­lize on these issues, which many mem­ber states would be like­ly to disregard.

The EU’s record in pro­tect­ing the inde­pen­dence of courts in Poland or Hun­gary might seem inad­e­quate at first glance. But in the Pol­ish case the infringe­ment pro­ce­dures of the com­mis­sion and the sec­toral rul­ings of the Euro­pean Court of Jus­tice seem to have slowed down at least the tem­po and the extent of the planned ‘judi­cial reforms’ by the PiS gov­ern­ment. Though insuf­fi­cient to stop the trend, the steady pres­sure due to EU mon­i­tor­ing and stric­tures forces the nation­al gov­ern­ments to jus­ti­fy their actions not only to their civ­il soci­ety crit­ics but also to crit­i­cal judges and even to mod­er­ate scep­tics inside their own camp.

Cur­rent­ly we are wit­ness­ing a polit­i­cal game on the razor’s edge as ‘exter­nal inter­ven­tions’ from the EU can strength­en rad­i­cal nation­al­ists argu­ing in favour of leav­ing the Euro­pean Union all togeth­er. The ongo­ing strug­gles inside the Pol­ish gov­ern­ment around the (non-)ratification of the post-Covid recov­ery funds, which are only mod­er­ate­ly linked to the com­pli­ance to prin­ci­ples of the rule of law, are a proof of such an inter­nal strug­gle. But the fail­ure of such an EU inter­ven­tion may fur­ther but­tress the self-aggran­dis­e­ment of soft author­i­tar­i­an lead­ers as polit­i­cal strongmen.

What could the EU do faced with these kinds of con­tra­dic­tions? It could accept that author­i­tar­i­an pop­ulism is part­ly a prod­uct of the ambiva­lences of Euro­peani­sa­tion;  slow down the author­i­tar­i­an trans­for­ma­tion through an array of insti­tu­tion­al and judi­cial actions; expand pro-active­ly an Euro­pean pub­lic sphere for civic action and polit­i­cal crit­i­cism; and push for­ward a con­di­tion­al­i­ty of trans­paren­cy attached to the use of EU-funds, cir­cum­vent­ing nation­al gov­ern­ments where pos­si­ble to also chan­nel fund­ing to munic­i­pal gov­ern­ments that are often run by oppo­si­tion par­ties. A com­bi­na­tion of such poli­cies might help to change the cat-and-mouse-game that soft author­i­tar­i­an politi­cians in east­ern and cen­tral Europe have become used to play­ing with the EU over the past decade.

[1] I am refer­ring here to Bálint Magyar’s dis­tinc­tion between three phas­es of an auto­crat­ic trans­for­ma­tion in Hun­gary: auto­crat­ic attempt, auto­crat­ic break­through, auto­crat­ic con­sol­i­da­tion. Masha Gessen gen­er­al­izes these as a mod­el in her book Sur­viv­ing Autoc­ra­cy (New York: River­head Books 2020:6).

[2] John Borne­man / Nick Fowler (1997): Euro­peaniza­tion. In: Annu­al Review for Anthro­pol­o­gy 26, pp. 487–514, p. 493.



Jens Adam

Jens Adam is part of the U Bremen Excellence Chair Research Group "Soft Authoritarianisms", focusing his research on Poland. Previously, he was deputy professor for "Cultural Anthropology and European Ethnology" at the Georg-August-University of Göttingen and for "Maritime Anthropology" at the University of Bremen. His work revolves around urban and political anthropology as well as the study of europeanization and cosmopolitanization.