Dancing with danger? Europe’s populists ‘waltzing into the mainstream’


Central Europe’s populist revolt against the EU isn’t about safeguarding the West, notes Dalibor Rohac, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. It’s about rolling back freedoms and cozying up to Russia, he writes for Foreign Policy:

Despite the Visegrad countries’ membership in the EU and NATO, their place in the West is not settled for good. Even if popular majorities in Central European countries, perhaps with the exception of the Czech Republic, are strongly pro-EU, public opinion is shifting …. Even if one believes that Brussels has overreached and the populists’ pushback against the EU is justified, it is a grave mistake to overlook the true nature of Central Europe’s anti-establishment “rebels.” Their policies are increasingly authoritarian, and their geopolitical allegiances are to Moscow, not the West.

Europe’s populists are waltzing into the mainstream, The Economist warns.

Instead of outright denying the democratic nature of populist movements, there is value in conceiving of them as instances of “illiberal democracy,” notes Benjamin A. Schupmann, a lecturer at Yale-NUS. The legal rise to power of these extremist movements uncovers a tension within everyday notions of what democracy consists in, a tension at the heart of liberal democratic states, he writes for the OUP blog:

The tension is that, not only do democracy and liberalism have no necessary relationship to one another, they can even be inimically opposed. A democratic will expressed legally can pursue deeply illiberal legal goals. It can seek to enact laws overturning individual and minority protections as well as constitutional limitations on its power. To be sure, liberal constitutionalism and democracy combined tend to strengthen the values each promotes individually. And both are important values in their own right. But they are not the same.

By resisting the urge to subsume liberalism under democracy conceptually, politicians, jurists, and political scientists instead confront a dilemma. That dilemma is over whether democratic procedures or liberal values have higher constitutional authority….The first horn of this dilemma leads to the same conclusion as above: liberal democrats must accept the outcome of democratic procedures, no matter how undesirable it may be.

Deciding for the other horn of this dilemma avoids the paradox of the problem of democratic suicide. It results in constrained democracy and constitutional mechanisms that limit democratic legal change when directed at the fundamentals of liberal constitutionalism.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Hungary and Poland were heralded as among the most successful cases of liberal reform of the former socialist countries in Central and Eastern Europe, the National Endowment for Democracy adds.

Yet two and a half decades later, authoritarian politics have reemerged in the public life of both countries. How can this puzzle of post-socialist illiberalism in Central Europe be explained?  Some observers claim that countries in the region have never been truly democratic, and their recent turn merely fits an historical pattern. Others argue that the success of illiberal politics is rooted in the clever political maneuvering of authoritarian politicians.

In a forthcoming presentation, political economist Gabor Scheiring will offer a third explanation. Based on new data and case studies, he will argue that it is impossible to understand illiberalism’s role in Central Europe without analyzing the rightward shift of the working middle class and the political mobilization of the national business elite. His presentation will shed light on the socioeconomic roots of the authoritarian turn in Hungary, while also offering comparative insights into recent developments in Poland and the Czech Republic.


Gabor Scheiring

Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow

with comments by 

Christopher Walker

Vice-President for Studies and Analysis

National Endowment for Democracy  

moderated by

Sally Blair

Senior Director, Reagan-Fascell Fellowship Program

Wednesday, February 14, 2018
3:00 p.m.–4:30 p.m.

1025 F Street, N.W., Suite 800, Washington, D.C. 20004
Telephone: 202-378-9675


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