Conflicting Visions of Europe Come to a Head with Hungary Vote

Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban delivers his speech at the European Parliament in Strasbourg the day before a resolution was adopted placing political sanctions on Hungary. (AP Photo/Jean-Francois Badias)

In a September meeting in Strasbourg, the European Parliament (EP) adopted a resolution “on the situation in Hungary” inviting the Council of the European Union (EU) to determine whether Hungary was in “serious breach” of the EU’s founding values. The vote received wide coverage because it encapsulated the divisions in the European People’s Party (EPP), currently the biggest transnational party group in the EP, but also because it called for each of the EPP’s member parties to take a stance in favor of or against Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, and consequently, his conception of democracy and vision for Europe.

While the vote was divisive for the EPP, Euroskeptics were united in condemning it. Given the requirement of unanimity in the Council, it is unlikely that the EP’s motion will result in sanctions against Hungary. Though this may constitute a missed opportunity in the EU’s fight against illiberalism, it mainly signifies the failure of Europhiles to assert themselves against the tide of Euroskepticism.

Current debates on the challenges brought about by xenophobes and Euroskeptics across the EU overlook the fact that, until now, their ideas and tactics have gone largely unchallenged in an organized sense. It is the Europhiles alternating in government who have, for decades, supported European integration in the abstract while failing to agree on concrete plans about what the EU should become, which policies it should prioritize, and in which direction it should go. Much less coverage, for instance, was received by another EP decision—which was arguably much more important for the future of Europe than the motion against Hungary—to reject the initiative to establish a joint constituency with transnational lists for the 2019 EP election. At the very least, this development hinders existing cross-border pro-EU movements, such as Diem25.

This initiative, which was blocked by the EPP with the help of Euroskeptics, would have been a significant step for EU-level democracy not only because it would have allowed European citizens to vote on transnational policies, but also because it would have allowed party groups to be less swayed by the dynamics of national party systems. This is important because the members of the two biggest groups in the EP—the EPP and the Socialists and Democrats (S&D)—are under domestic pressure from electorally successful radical right populist parties. EPP members lose votes to radical right parties due to the securitization of immigration, while S&D members lose votes on the issue of welfare, which radical right parties have connected to immigration by advocating for “exclusive solidarity,” e.g., “natives-only” welfare. Thus at the voter level Euroskepticism connects to both socioeconomic and sociocultural issues: pro-welfare policy preferences and opposition to immigration.

The stance of the EPP on the EU-wide transnational party lists is also a representation of its reluctance to pursue EU-level integrative policies. This is in contrast to the EPP’s predecessors who launched the peace project of inter-state cooperation following the World Wars. That initially small European community gradually expanded in scope and membership, and even transformed into a transnational political system: the EU. By securing peace between former rivals on the continent, European integration enabled the rebuilding of post-war Europe. However, integration was pursued in predominantly “economic” terms in that it focused on the creation and regulation of a European market.

Steps towards economic integration generated functional pressures in many other policy sectors, where the transfer of competence to the EU level had not been foreseen or planned. Crucially, ever closer cooperation and integration enjoyed tacit and/or intangible support within the political mainstream across the EU—where it was considered a prerequisite for Europe’s successful rebuilding—while Euroskepticism was articulated by parties at the margins of political systems.

With ever more policies delegated to the supranational level and the strengthening of EU-level institutions, European integration has had important repercussions for domestic polities and policies, as well as for domestic politics in each of the EU’s members. However, in terms of democratic politics, namely the capacity of European citizens to decide over the policies that affect their daily lives, the EU has been relatively idle.

A Lack of Political Integration and Education

Unlike policy sectors, political party organizations have not “integrated” in the sense of creating strong, common fronts that send clear messages about their vision of the EU and their specific preferences about policies that need to be pursued at the EU-level. Unless they set transnational policy goals, political parties and the electoral contests that bring them to power, become increasingly irrelevant in the EU policy-making process.

In the EP, there is evidence of transnational competition and cooperation, yet the development of EU-level parties and a transnational party system has been sluggish. European-level parties have been unable to overcome the role of umbrella organizations that host mostly, but not always congruent national parties. Over many decades a related problem has been the lack of politicization of the EU and its policies. Politicization was nationally bounded, and controlled by national political parties that organize domestic and European elections.

Despite increasing policy transfers to the EU level and the empowerment of EU-level institutions, European citizens have largely been kept in the dark regarding how the EU functions, and which common policies are necessary and why. For instance, across member states the EU system does not constitute “standard” curriculum in schools, where young citizens typically learn about their political systems, constitution, and rights. At the same time, EU-level mobility programs have been targeting groups among the Union’s population who are already very likely to feel European, such as university students (e.g., via the Erasmus program). This means that most Europeans are unaware of both the opportunities, including their rights as EU citizens, and the constraints resulting from their country’s EU membership. Even worse, until the Eurozone crisis that followed the 2008 global financial crisis, the EU and its policies were absent from electoral contests across the Union. This was true for both direct and indirect channels of European citizens’ representation at the supranational level of decision-making.

The Effects of Depoliticization and Demonization

Elections to the EP are, of course, the direct channel of EU citizens’ political representation. For some time, however, EP elections have revolved either around domestic issues or around EU issues that were not under the EP’s purview. These elections are also influenced by each member’s national elections, which constitute the indirect channel of citizens’ representation and impact the composition of the Council of Ministers, which, until the Lisbon Treaty extended the powers of the EP, was the main EU legislator.

National elections also impact the composition of the European Council, which brings together heads of state and government and decides the general policy direction and priorities of the EU. Furthermore, elected governments influence the composition of the European Commission, the guardian of EU treaties, whose role is to promote the EU’s general interest. In sum, the design of the EU system means that the results of domestic and European elections influence who sits on EU-decision-making bodies and, consequently, the legislation produced in Brussels.

The structure of the system is also a major factor in the current political climate. For much of the EU’s history, the Council and the Commission were composed of pro-integration parties. Euroskeptic parties gained EU-level representation mainly through the EP, which was, until the Treaty of Lisbon, a much weaker institution compared to the Council. As long as the EU and its policies were not politicized in national electoral contests, political parties did not risk punishment for their EU-level performance. When party representatives in the Council did take decisions that were domestically unpopular they usually attributed them to “Brussels,” which ultimately led to its demonization. The depoliticization of EU policy and/or the demonization of Brussels helped keep potential costs—electoral losses and intra-party dissent—under control. However, this has also meant that pro-EU national political parties have consistently not assumed the responsibilities and functions that parties are supposed to play in representative democracies. They also created fertile ground for Euroskepticism to thrive.

Catalysts of Euroskepticism

It is in the context of the political reality between the EU and national member state levels that the catalysts of Euroskepticism over the last decade must be understood. Eventually, it was events outside the EU—namely the 2008 global financial crisis and the war in Syria—that triggered unprecedented and intense politicization of the EU and its policies. This did not coincide with a unified defense of European unity from Europhiles.

After the global financial crisis, not only did Europhile political parties across the Union fail to come up with a European response to the Eurozone and sovereign debt crises, but the EU even witnessed a “north vs. south” divide over austerity as a solution to the crisis. Alleged Europhiles from within the political mainstream resorted to nationalistic discourse, while failing to address the benefits of integration for their country. This approach strengthened the position of Euroskeptics and rendered electorates confused regarding the merits of EU membership. This holds even for countries like Germany, whose economy has profited from European integration in general and from other EU members’ sovereign debt crises in particular.

The so-called “refugee crisis” that started in summer 2015 allowed Euroskeptics to make further gains. The admission of refugees in large numbers into and accommodation within the EU reinforced divisions over what the Union is and what it should or should not do. In this regard, Prime Minister Orbán has consistently presented himself as the defender of Hungary and Europe against Muslim migrants. His stand against an EU that is, in his view, unable to contain the migration crisis and “protect Christian values” has been greeted by several other leaders with enthusiasm. Euroskeptics like France’s Marine Le Pen and Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini are trying to unite and create an anti-migration and anti-Islamic political movement to “save Europe.” While Euroskeptics articulate clear goals about the future of Europe, what is the alternative? Faced with the idleness of Europhiles, electorates seek the assured posture of Euroskeptics, who now even make part of national cabinets within the Union and thus have a stronger say in the EU institutions.

What matters now is how the parties that rebuilt Europe after World War II will respond to the challenges posed by Euroskeptic radical right parties, and whether their responses will be of a nationalist or transnational, European nature. While the upcoming 2019 EP election provides an opportunity in this regard, the rejection of transnational party lists by the EPP is not encouraging. Rather, it is evidence of the fact that considerable parts of Europhile elites that have been and are currently governing the EU have not transferred their own organizations’ “loyalty” to the EU level. Given that not very long ago Europe was devastated by nationalist antagonism and racial politics, the high likelihood that the Europhiles that built the Union may hand its future over to the Euroskeptics is alarming.

Zoe Lefkofridi is an Assistant Professor of Comparative Politics at the Dept. of Political Science at the University of Salzburg.