The Great Unequalizer
The Pandemic Is Compounding Disparities in Income, Wealth, and Opportunity
Europeans love to celebrate anniversaries, especially those commemorating a terrible past overcome. This year will offer many such moments, marking as it will 100 years since the outbreak of World War I, 75 years since the beginning of World War II, and, most uplifting of all, a quarter century since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Such milestones are bound to make everyone feel good about European unity.
But another important anniversary is less likely to be celebrated, precisely because it would put a damper on those good feelings. Ten years ago, eight eastern European states joined the European Union, followed by Bulgaria and Romania three years later. Europe seemed to have overcome not just Cold War divisions but also deeper historical differences. The EU had brought East and West together, consolidating the fragile democracies that had emerged from the fall of communism.
Today, however, this supposed triumph is in serious doubt. Democracy is struggling: nearly all the countries that joined the EU during the last decade are experiencing profound political crises. And as western European leaders call for restrictions on free movement across the continent, new rifts are opening up. Instead of stoking the resentment of ordinary eastern Europeans seeking a better life in the west, EU leaders should learn from the mistakes of accession and enforce clearer boundaries on what political elites can get away with once their countries have joined the EU.
In 2004, observers hailed the EU’s “transformative power” and “invisible hand” for profoundly changing countries from within. Whereas the United States had bet on brutal military interventions to promote democracy, most recently in Afghanistan and Iraq, the EU had used ever-so-soft power to achieve the same end in its region, extending offers of membership that no country could refuse. Once governments gave in to the union’s power to attract, the wonders of EU conditionality -- making a country’s entry to the club and, perhaps most important, the disbursement of EU subsidies dependent on its compliance with what Brussels demanded -- did the rest of the work. In 1993, the EU’s then 12 member states formulated the “Copenhagen criteria,” which stipulated that candidate countries had to prove their liberal democratic credentials before being admitted. Candidates also had to demonstrate that they could operate within the union’s common market, which governs trade among the member states, and reliably apply EU law.
All the EU members admitted in the new millennium -- Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia in 2004; Bulgaria and Romania in 2007; and Croatia in 2013 -- seemed ready to follow the old pattern and, sooner or later, do the right thing. When, in 1998, Slovaks realized that their nationalist prime minister, Vladimir Meciar, was unlikely to lead them to EU-style prosperity, they duly ditched him. Even Bulgaria and Romania, states heavily burdened by corruption and communist legacies, eventually decided to play by the Brussels rule book in the run-up to their accession in 2007, reforming their judiciaries and establishing offices to fight graft. In Croatia, the latest country to join the EU, the same pro-EU politician who had kick-started the creation of independent legal institutions became an example of their eventual effectiveness: former Prime Minister Ivo Sanader is now serving ten years in prison for corruption.
Yet it has become clear that at least some of this success story was a fairy tale that many in the EU chose to believe despite a lot of worrisome evidence of its falsity. For such boosters, an ever-enlarging union seemed to demonstrate the world-historical importance of the entire EU enterprise, proving that, for all the Euroskepticism in countries such as the United Kingdom, Brussels was doing something right -- enough so that it kept attracting aspirants.
Today, that fairy tale has become impossible for all but the most starry-eyed believers to accept in its entirety. Although the EU remains attractive to many nonmembers, the problems with the union’s eastern European members have grown so numerous that they can hardly be dismissed as a matter of one or two bad apples -- much as Europe’s elites, preoccupied with the euro crisis, might like to do. The term usually employed to describe what is happening among the new members -- “backsliding” -- doesn’t quite capture things. That word originally meant returning to a life of religious sin, or deconversion. What eastern European states are experiencing today is hardly a simple lapse in morals, however. Nor are they returning to any previously known form of authoritarianism. Rather, something new is emerging: a form of illiberal democracy in which political parties try to capture the state for either ideological purposes or, more prosaically, economic gain. Some countries in eastern Europe are moving toward a model of governance that resembles that of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Like Moscow, the governments of these countries are careful to maintain their democratic façades by holding regular elections. But their leaders have tried to systematically dismantle institutional checks and balances, making real turnovers in power increasingly difficult.
Hungary has led the trend. In 2010, after the disastrous reign of a “reform socialist” government that combined the worst of all possible worlds -- the ruthless promotion of capitalism, rampant corruption, and ballooning deficits -- Viktor Orban and his right-wing party, Fidesz, returned to power (Orban had been prime minister from 1998 to 2002), winning almost 53 percent of the national vote. Due to the peculiarities of Hungary’s electoral system, this number translated into a two-thirds majority in parliament, allowing Fidesz to adopt a new constitution in January 2012 without the involvement of any other party, civic groups, or the public at large. Instead, Fidesz declared the 2010 victory to have been a “revolution in the polling booths” and pushed through a highly partisan charter created in its nationalist and populist image. Under the Orwellian label “System of National Cooperation,” it also attempted to purge the judiciary, the bureaucracy, and the media of nonloyalists. The party’s underlying moral justification was that Fidesz and only Fidesz truly represented the Hungarian nation. As Orban, whose first tenure as prime minister began in 1998, put it after his government was ousted in the 2002 parliamentary elections, the “nation cannot be in opposition.” The implication, of course, was that any opposition to Fidesz was illegitimate and not truly Hungarian.
The irony is that Hungary was once a poster child for the EU-led transition to democracy. During the 1990s, many Hungarians hoped that Budapest would soon become like Vienna (which is only a few hours away by train). During previous transitions, such hopes were eventually fulfilled -- formerly right-wing authoritarian Spain was admitted in 1986, and Barcelona really did become the poor man’s Paris. But for eastern Europe, the great investment boom ended around 2007. The public’s faith in democracy plummeted along with the economy; as Alexis de Tocqueville noted long ago, it is not a country’s objective economic situation that tends to generate serious political crises but the sense that legitimate expectations have been disappointed.
To be sure, Fidesz could not have done what it did on its own. It benefited from the way that left-wing postcommunist elites discredited themselves in the 1990s, allowing corruption to flourish while failing to ease the social transition to liberal capitalism. Fidesz managed to convince its supporters that the transition of 1989 was a sham, encouraging citizens not to blame themselves for the recent economic woes but to attribute their problems to the sins of those who negotiated the transition in 1989. The party also invoked traditional nationalism to legitimize the populist idea that checks and balances were unnecessary; in its view, only Orban could truly represent and carry out the will of the nation. As Fidesz rose, the political consensus that the Hungarian historian Balazs Trencsenyi had called “post-dissident” -- favoring the basic norms and institutions of liberal democracy -- broke down.
To be sure, not every new EU member has followed the same path. There are profound differences among the countries, just as there were always important idiosyncrasies in the Eastern bloc. But most of the region has suffered from deeply divided political establishments, with at least one side declaring the other one illegitimate and unfit to govern. And electoral volatility has remained high, as newcomers, such as the Czech billionaire Andrej Babis, whose party finished second in the October 2013 Czech general election, keep appearing on the scene to declare that the entire existing political establishment is immoral and needs to be thrown out. Even in countries where the recent power struggles have been less about ideology and more about grabbing state resources (Bulgaria and Romania being the obvious examples), a toxic mixture of culture wars and constitutional crises has become the new normal. One of the postcommunist transition’s former paragons, the Czech Republic, suddenly looks like Weimar Germany. When the country directly elected a president for the first time last year, that president, Milos Zeman, defied the Parliament by installing one of his own confidants as prime minister, thereby trying to grab new powers for the presidency.
The one great exception to this pattern has been Poland, the region’s largest state. The country has weathered the recent global financial crisis exceptionally well and is the only European state that has avoided a recession since 2008. Benefiting from close integration with Germany, it has tried hard to be viewed as a leader of fiscally responsible northern Europe. In the country’s 2011 election, Prime Minister Donald Tusk managed to get reelected by portraying himself as the only alternative to the arch-populist Jaroslaw Kaczynski, whose antidemocratic politics had already backfired during his tenure as prime minister from 2006 to 2007.
In any case, Kaczynski never had the kind of majority from which Orban has benefited. There is a good chance, however, that he will make a comeback in the 2015 elections. By then, Kaczynski may have learned from Orban’s example: don’t just make nationalist speeches deriding the previous establishment; rewrite the rules and reorganize the system in your favor. Although Kaczynski is unlikely to obtain a game-changing majority, the leaders of western Europe need to recognize the temptation of following Orban’s template -- and the significant chance of someone’s getting away with it.
Right-wing nationalists aren’t the only ones trying such moves; Orban’s lesson is one that the region’s left is taking to heart, as well. Zeman clearly studied Orban’s playbook before making his move on the Czech Parliament. And so has Romania’s prime minister, Victor Ponta. Since he won a two-thirds majority in Parliament in December 2012, Ponta and his party have been working on a new constitution that would severely limit the independence and oversight role of the country’s courts, decisively tilting the balance of power away from the judiciary in favor of Parliament.
As democracy in the region has come under sustained attack, the EU has done little. Part of the problem is that the Copenhagen criteria were never as effective as Brussels claimed. They were too general and were applied too inconsistently. EU elites presumed that if new members were capable of adhering to the rules governing the EU’s common market, they could be certified as full-fledged liberal democracies. Even countries that clearly weren’t quite ready for full EU membership, such as Bulgaria and Romania, were let in, and with few strings attached -- all in the hope that joining Europe’s club would turn seeming barbarians into good liberal democrats. Such hopes proved unwarranted, and now that these countries have been admitted, Brussels has even less leverage over them. The European Commission has occasionally had stern words for Orban, with its justice commissioner calling time and again on Budapest to adhere to “fundamental European values,” but it lacks the legal and political instruments to intervene. The commission does have the power to impose sanctions, but only when countries do not play by the rules of the EU common market. So at best, Brussels has been able to address political problems indirectly. In 2011, for instance, when the Fidesz government effectively decapitated Hungary’s judiciary by lowering the mandatory retirement age of judges from 70 to 62, the most the EU could do was sue Hungary for age discrimination. Brussels eventually won its case, but the judges were never reinstated, and the political situation remained as Fidesz wanted it.
Theoretically, an EU member state can have some of its membership rights suspended if it persistently violates “fundamental European values,” such as democracy and the rule of law. But it is the national governments of EU member states that ultimately decide whether to take such drastic measures, and they are unlikely to use this power in anything but the most dire circumstances. Their primary fear is of setting a precedent; what if someone comes after them one day? Unfortunately, the alternative -- having influential European leaders apply pressure behind closed doors -- has not had much effect. Public naming and shaming has helped even less; governments targeted for such criticism have responded by using it to stoke anti-EU sentiments among their constituents, as when Orban compared the EU to a colonial power in 2012, declaring a “war of independence” against Brussels.
Yet the EU has not lost all its normative power. In November, when Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, under pressure from Moscow, refused to sign an agreement that would have strengthened Ukraine’s trade and other ties with Brussels, tens of thousands of demonstrators took to Kiev’s streets. Orban’s “war of independence” has not proved popular at home, either. And although Hungary’s prime minister has flirted with the idea of turning to China and Russia in the future as alternatives to the EU, neither he nor any other leader in his neighborhood is seriously considering having his country leave the club. No country wants to refuse EU money, especially when the sums often amount to nearly two percent of GDP. All these states hope that they can misbehave badly without getting thrown out; ejection, in fact, is a legal impossibility, since one can only leave the EU voluntarily.
Clubs don’t function, however, unless someone enforces the rules from time to time, and the EU is no exception. Officials in Brussels are therefore now discussing how to craft new instruments that would allow the EU to set limits on whether and how EU member states can change their constitutions. Doing so would make good sense. So would stopping talk in western Europe about limiting migration within the union; such talk, which has come, most prominently, from British Prime Minister David Cameron, only stokes resentment among ordinary Bulgarians and Romanians exercising their EU-given right to move freely. The political scientist Grigore Pop-Eleches has pointed out that allowing all EU citizens to work and travel throughout the union might have a beneficial effect on the rule of law in the most troubled states, since returning migrants bring with them higher expectations of government and are more willing to take action against corruption.
In the end, the people of eastern Europe may prove better than their political establishments. So far, not one of the profound constitutional changes in the region has been popularly ratified. The Fidesz constitution was never put to the people, and a referendum initiated by Romania’s Ponta to unseat the president failed in 2012. Meanwhile, popular protests prevented the appointment of oligarchs to the Bulgarian government in 2013. On the streets of Sofia, students protesting the country’s oligarchs sang western Europe’s cultural anthem: Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.”
In 1989, ordinary people and political dissidents managed to (in most cases) peacefully overthrow the oppressive governments of eastern Europe in a series of “velvet revolutions.” Twenty-five years later, the people of the region must safeguard the legacy of their revolutions by once more showing such resolve -- and blocking attempts by Orban-style populists to now steal them.