The problem with illiberal democracy: a ‘new iron curtain’?


Poland’s turn toward authoritarian rule has set off alarm bells across the European Union and within NATO, notes Jan-Werner Mueller, Professor of Politics at Princeton University. But as long as critics keep using the phrase “illiberal democracy” to describe what is happening in countries like Poland, leaders like [Jaroslaw] Kaczyński will simply say, “Exactly!” he contends:

Far from being received as a criticism, the phrase reinforces such leaders’ image as opponents of liberalism, while allowing them to continue to refer to their actions as “democratic” – which, for all the disappointments over the last quarter-century, is still the most important prerequisite for inclusion in the geopolitical “West.”

Furthermore, the expression “illiberal democracy” confirms the narrative that democracy is the domain of national governments – and that it is the European Union that is pushing undemocratic liberalism. This allows figures like Kaczyński and Orbán to paint the EU as the agent of rampant capitalism and libertine morality.

“A new iron curtain in Europe, this time between liberal and illiberal democracies — is a grim prospect,” says Slawomir Sierakowski [right], founder of the Krytyka Polityczna movement, and director of Warsaw’s Institute for Advanced Study. “Although Poland is not a regional leader, it does wield influence, owing to its large and healthy economy and its strategic role as a buffer between Russia and Western Europe.”

So what should the EU do to halt this cascade of democratic backsliding? asks Daniel P. Vajdich, a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and former lead staffer for Europe and Eurasia on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee:

First, address the source of the problem: Victor Orban’s Hungary. Orbanism inspires those who want to build an illiberal democracy in their own country. What inspires them in particular is Victor Orban’s success. Take away that success and Orbanism won’t seem feasible and therefore attractive. For over five years now Brussels has failed to stop Orban’s assault on democracy in Hungary. This needs to change or the virus will continue to spread.

Second, Brussels must confront the new Polish government in a manner that is profoundly different from its timid, inconsistent, and ineffectual approach to Orban. The same mistakes cannot be made again. Poland is the largest and most successful country in Central Europe. Its transition to Orbanism would ripple throughout the region from the Baltic to the Balkans and beyond.

Finally, Brussels must create the institutional mechanisms to achieve all this. Article 7 is meaningless unless the EC credibly threatens its implementation, while the rule of law procedure is slow and simply leads back to the prospect of suspension under Article 7.

“At a time when Europe faces ostensibly existential challenges from the migration crisis to terrorist threats and Russian aggression, democratic backsliding in a number of EU member-states may seem trivial by comparison,” Vajdich writes for The Hill. “But this too is an existential threat. The future trajectory of Hungary and Poland will determine whether the EU can survive as a community of democracies.”

Poland challenges EU values, but don’t expect sanctions, analysts suggest.

The E.U. is unlikely to suspend Poland for several reasons, according to research from Florida State University’s Inken von Borzyskowski and the University of Chicago’s Felicity Vabulas:

  1. Institutional rules matter.

First, we find that when international organizations have high voting thresholds for suspension, it’s less likely to happen. In the case of the E.U. and Poland, suspension would require unanimity among the heads of government in the Council in at least one stage of the voting procedures. Hungary alone could block this suspension vote….

But it’s not just the final vote. When there’s a long process required to suspend a country – as there is in the E.U., which now has a three-step process that includes a Commission assessment, recommendation, and follow-up before the actual suspension vote — member states have to work hard to mobilize at each step in the process. Institutional rules matter.

  1. Precedent is important.

Second, precedent is important. International organizations are more likely to suspend violators when they’ve already done it before. The E.U. has other member states that have been eroding democratic principles, including Hungary (since 2010) and Austria (in 2000). Since the E.U. hasn’t suspended these or other violator states for any reason, it probably won’t suspend Poland.

In fact, the Polish government is probably betting on E.U. inactivity, specifically because Hungary and Austria weren’t suspended after similar concentration of power in the executive.

In contrast to the E.U., other organizations (such as the Commonwealth and the African Union) have repeatedly suspended recalcitrant states in the last three decades. That creates a more regular practice and precedent.

  1. Suspension is costly — not just for the suspended country but for the organization

Third, while suspension certainly hurts the violator state, it’s also costly for the institution and the member states that remain. That makes them less willing to suspend Poland.

The E.U. has branded itself as arguably the most democratically committed international organization. It invests heavily in screening applicants, requiring lengthy accession processes, conditionality clauses with standards for democracy and rule of law, and long catalogs of new regulations that must be in place before joining the club.

But once a country is in the E.U., it becomes closely intertwined with the other member states’ economies. And so suspending Poland – the sixth largest E.U. economy – would almost certainly have repercussions for other states. …..

Finally, of course, Poland might undo its recent legal changes, returning to more liberal democratic standards, thus nullifying the risk of suspension. The current threat – which stops short of actual suspension — might be the only push needed. That’s what the new three-step process is supposed to achieve.

“Suspending Poland is likely more trouble than the E.U.’s members think they need right now, especially given the difficulties with procedure, precedent, and disruption not just for Poland but for the rest of the E.U.,” they write for The Washington Post. “But if it doesn’t rein Poland in – by whatever means – can the E.U. continue to call itself committed to liberal democracy?”

The fact that Europe’s new authoritarians have come to power through free and fair elections does not lend democratic legitimacy to their efforts to transform entire political systems to their own advantage, argues Mueller, whose most recent book is Contesting Democracy: Political Ideas in Twentieth-Century Europe. Instead of describing them as “illiberal” we should be calling them what they really are: “undemocratic,” he writes for Project Syndicate.

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