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