At the weekend, Andrzej Duda narrowly defeated Rafal Trzaskowski, the liberal mayor of Warsaw, to be elected president of Poland. This was a more telling victory than the bare bones of its reality might suggest. Assisted by an increasingly partisan state-media, Duda ran a nakedly nationalist campaign.
At its centre, and the issue which crystallised the differences between him and his opponent, was Duda’s claim that “LGBT are not people; they are an ideology”. As such, it scarcely needed saying, gay people – and gay rights – were not merely un-Polish but a threat to Polishness. Emphasising the point – if such emphasis were needed – Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the leader of the governing Law and Justice Party, which supported Duda’s campaign for the presidency, accused Trzaskowski of lacking a “Polish soul” and a “Polish heart”. Naturally outside influences were corrupting the opposition too and, equally naturally, if some of these corruptions were of German origin others were, as they always must be, Jewish.
This is not the end of the story but, rather, the continuation of an older one. As the journalist and historian Anne Applebaum – who, though married to Radek Sikorski, an opposition politician, is a writer whose independence and liberal credentials stand for themselves – argues, the Polish government wishes “to build a system in which the opposition can never win a national election”.
If this means curtailing the power of local and municipal government, reducing the independence of universities and other institutions of civil society, then so be it. Above all, this requires the further harassment of independent judges and of business owners deemed insufficiently loyal to the government’s patriotic line and, of course, and vitally, the further marginalisation of independent media.
This storm has been brewing for some time. If it were a tempest confined to Poland it might be considered alarming and regrettable but, in the end, merely a matter for the poor Poles themselves. But there is already a precedent for this. Warsaw is on its way to becoming the new Budapest. Poland’s government seeks to do little that Viktor Orban has not already done in Hungary.
And, viewed from a certain jaundiced perspective, why would they not? What price, after all, has Orban paid for the steady elimination of Hungarian civil society? Precious little. If Hungary’s government disappoints or even embarrasses the European Union, that disappointment or embarrassment is not sufficient to require anything to actually be done. Instead there is much prating about European ‘values’ while doing nothing – nothing at all – to actually stand up for or insist upon these mysterious ‘values’.
From which a number of truths may be discerned. First, Brussels and the institutions of the EU are often rather weaker than many people imagine them to be. Second, that in the four, long, years since the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, some aspects of that decision have been over-interpreted. Whatever else he may be, Boris Johnson is not a Viktor Orban. He may be an opportunist and you may, depending on your view, think him dubiously lacking in convictions and surrounded by a cabinet longer on loyalty than ability, but there is little to be gained from stretching that appraisal beyond breaking point. There are limits to everything, including hyperbole.
Duda’s triumph, like Orban’s, is a further reminder that reality is a complicated mistress. Since the Brexit referendum there has been a tendency in some quarters to reinterpret the true nature of that vote. For some diehard Remainers, everything European is welcome and everything British – or Brexitish – utterly deplorable. Brexit must be seen to fail and fail spectacularly. As such, Brussels is invariably right, and London always deluded.
Sometimes this may indeed be the case and it would be difficult, I think, to make a convincing case that the British government has made a great fist of Brexit thus far. Nevertheless, most Remain votes were not – as is now sometimes imagined – cast from conviction or some belief in the glories of the European “project” but rather because, all things considered, Brexit was a risk too far and an unnecessary one at that. Millions of Remain voters were quite aware of the EU’s limitations and imperfections; voting Remain was often an ambivalent action. (This was so even in Scotland where, as is sometimes overlooked, almost 40% of the electorate – a sizeable minority by any estimation – voted Leave).
Not every claim made by the Leave campaign was baseless. The global economy will not be powered by growth in Europe. The further reaches of the planet will become more influential and Europe will, relatively speaking, become a smaller place.
But, again, one might argue that the EU is both too strong and too weak. British commentators have been predicting the collapse of the eurozone on at least a quarterly basis for a generation. For how long, they ask, can a single currency work for Germany and Greece? The simple retort to that is: “longer than you think”. But, while evidently true, this is also an inadequate response that does little to address the genuine tensions evident within the eurozone. It survives because it is a political project just as much as it is an economic one. But if that political will falters, what then?
And so, just as there is a divide between northern and southern Europe on matters fiscal so there is an evident and increasing divide between old and new Europe too. Poland and Hungary are not outliers so much as they are harbingers of a new era of European ethno-nationalism. To that extent, Warsaw and Budapest challenge the foundational principles of the European Union itself.
At present, they do so with impunity, for it is easier to wish such challenges away or pretend they are of only trivial, local, concern than to do anything to address them. If the EU is strong enough to place some of its members in a fiscal straitjacket, here it is also too weak to confront the challengers within it. The new populists of the east wish all the pleasures of club membership without the tedious need to abide by the club’s notional ethos.
None of which means that the EU is on the brink of collapse – a fever dream indulged by some Brexiteers whose convictions require the validation that would come from other countries deciding to leave the EU too – merely that we acknowledge that the divisions apparent within it are becoming deeper and more obvious. European co-operation remains, in many respects, one of the great successes of the post-war world; the limits of that reality, however, are becoming clearer than ever.
Written by Alex Massie
About Beyond the Street and Alex Massie
We are all guilty of being too inwardly focused sometimes, especially as we navigate these changed times. It is all too easy to be caught up in the problems close to home, and for overarching trends to pass us by.
To remedy that short-sightedness, Charlotte Street Partners has enlisted the ingenuity and talent of the writer and commentator Alex Massie. As our new correspondent at large, Alex will look at the bigger picture. We have challenged him to come up with something a bit different: broad, lateral thinking, thematic insights and a more global perspective.
Alex is a freelance journalist and commentator based in Edinburgh. Not only is he Scotland editor of The Spectator, but he also writes a political column for The Times and The Sunday Times. He features regularly on the BBC as a political commentator and has written in the past for The Telegraph, Politico, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, the New Statesman, The Observer, and TIME magazine, among others. He was also the Washington correspondent for The Scotsman and assistant editor of Scotland on Sunday.
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16 July 2020