Unfortunately, this article is a little dated already. I first alluded to this divide back in June in an article about the PIIGs but then got pulled in a myriad of directions and topics. The evidence of this divide has grown since.
The recent demands of the Polish and Hungarian leaders for a greater say in running the European Union, particularly in the areas of budget and immigration, at a joint press conference was what reminded me that I not returned to this topic in some time. The image above of both men standing strong and divided will play well with their electorate, as well as populists across Europe.
I still think it is worth discussing now as it may be a key factor in the European Union in the near to medium term. There is a clear gap opening between the western EU states clustered around France and Germany and the Eastern states led by Poland and Hungary.
This is not a simple “them and us” divide and both camps do not neatly fit into sides. However, there are factors that are worth looking at. The easiest way is probably to look at the different tensions between the West and Hungary and Poland respectively, while looking at how they have aligned their interests in the meantime. Finally, identifying where they can find allies in the rest of Europe.
Viktor Orban is the combative, outspoken leader of the conservative Fidesz party. He has been Prime Minister since April 2010, though he was also previously Prime Minister from 1998 to 2002. He has passed a number of controversial laws, including an article in the constitution in support of traditional marriage.
However, the real fissure between himself and the many members of the western states stems from his views on immigration. In 2015, at the height of the migrant crisis, Hungary erected a border fence between itself and Serbia so that it could monitor the immigrants entering the country.
Prior to this, Orban had rejected the conditions of the Dublin Agreement in June and prevented immigrants being returned to Hungary. A year later he caused further controversy when he claimed that
“Hungary does not need a single migrant for the economy to work, or the population to sustain itself, or for the country to have a future,”
“every single migrant poses a public security and terror risk”….“For us migration is not a solution but a problem ... not medicine but a poison, we don’t need it and won’t swallow it,”
While deemed deplorable by numerous political commentators, this language resonates well with many across Europe, as the relative success of Marine Le Pen and Nigel Farage in France and the UK indicates. Orban also highlighted the fact that the western states did not have to face the “invasion” in the same way, as they were far away from the migration path.
Poland was initially, at least partially, supportive of the EU’s immigration measure and voted Yes in the European Union Justice and Home Affairs Council majority vote to relocate 120,000 refugees in September 2015.
In October of that year, the Law and Justice party came to power. It is also a socially conservative party, though it wasn’t perceived as quite as euro-skeptical party as Orban’s Fidesz party. It has publicly stated its admiration of the Fidesz party with one its founders Jarosław Kaczyński previously claiming
“a day will come when we have a Budapest in Warsaw.”
The Polish government, under the Law and Justice party, came into conflict with the European Union in 2017 over its plans to check the supreme court’s independence and to assume control of the appointment of judges. The proposed legislation would have immediately fired the majority of the sitting eighty-three judges on the supreme court subject to being re-appointed.
The attempted removal of the separation between the legislative and judicial elements of Polish society was met with a fierce rebuke by the European Commission. The vice president, Frans Timmermans, said;
“Judicial reforms in Poland mean that the country’s judiciary is now under the political control of the ruling majority. In the absence of judicial independence, serious questions are raised about the effective application of EU law,”
The crisis reached a crescendo in December with the EU threating to invoke the most serious sanctions possible, including suspension of voting rights and blocking financial transfers.
This would have required the backing of all other member states. Viktor Orban declared at the time that Hungary would veto this under any circumstances. A defiant message to the Commission that they can’t bully member states into submission.
Looking forward, there is no doubt that both governments will work together on a number of strategic aims.
On immigration, they can find allies in nearly all oppositions across Europe (fortunately, Ireland does not have a far right, anti -immigration party, the reasons for which I hope to explore soon). The recent success of Freedom Party of Austria (FPO) which allowed them to enter Austrian government as the junior coalition partner is a boon, particularly for Victor Orban. While the FPO are a lot less bellicose about their opposition to immigration, there is certainly common ground to explore and expand upon.
EU interference in domestic issues is particularly irksome to both governments and it plays well to both electorates when they effectively tell the EU to “butt out”. Orban supported Spain’s Catalonian crackdown , claiming
“The Catalonian referendum is a Spanish internal issue, and accordingly Hungary is not commenting on the subject”.
The plans of Emmanuel Macron to further harmonize and integrate the European Union will be an area of opposition for both and they may be able to draw in allies here that would not necessarily agree on their views on immigration but feel threatened by further EU consolidation.
Ironically, the United Kingdom may have fallen into this category. Theresa May visited Poland in December to sign a military pact and it was notable that she claimed the judicial crisis was a domestic issue for Poland to decide.
The UK may still look to both nations for support in the latter stages of the Brexit negotiations. So far, the European side has shown itself to be united but any division would aid the UK’s negotiating hand.
In summary, a divide is opening up between the governments of some eastern and western EU nations. There are a number of challenges that need to hurdled. The European Commission and Parliament have to understand that dialogue is essential, while at the same time not pandering to populist, far right policies that threaten human rights or the rule of law.
Europe is finally enjoying a relative period of geo-political stability after a tumultuous decade. If this is to continue through 2018 and into 2019, a pragmatic approach is needed by all sides. I am not certain that this will be the case and will revisit this topic over the next eighteen months. Interesting times lie ahead…