Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy adviser to the Conservative Party.
Spin doctors for Marine Le Pen made a rather breathless announcement of a “rassemblement de patriotes”. Viktor Orbán’s followed suit . There is both more, and less, to this alliance than meets the eye.
Less, in that this particular declaration falls far short of a full European political alliance, and relates only to the Conference on the Future of Europe, which, after a year of the Covid pandemic, has begun debating changes to the EU’s institutions.
Unlike British Eurosceptics, who were wound up by waste and fraud in European financial institutions, the parties signing this declaration are rather more exercised by attempts, such as the European Public Prosecutor, to uncover and punish the abuse of taxpayers’ money. It is I’m sure a coincidence that Orbán’s father’s agribusiness is doing so well that he can afford to build himself an enormous country house, dubbed “Putin’s Palace” by Hungarian wags.
Putin himself is relevant to one of the alliance’s other aims: keeping national vetoes on EU foreign policy. Their presence has allowed Russia and China to delay and even block sanctions against them and their allies, such as Belarus’s Alexandr Lukashenko, while Le Pen’s own party put itself $11 million in debt from a Russian bank.
A third piece of the puzzle is their opposition, in the name of sovereignty, to the EU’s rather delayed efforts to protect the freedom of the press and the independence of the judiciary in Poland and Hungary.
A recent spat over a Section–28 style law in Hungary and “LGBT free zones” in Poland has stiffened the EU’s resolve, with Mark Rutte, Holland’s Prime Minister, hinting that Warsaw and Budapest might do better to avail themselves of Article 50 if they have a problem with the supremacy of European law built into the EU’s governing treaties.
But the danger of Huxit or Polexit is rather exaggerated. This is not so much an alliance of patriotes, as for the capture and diversion of EU funds.
Moreover, the national populists’ protector in the White House has gone, replaced by a man who considers Putin a “killer” and the restoration of liberal democracy a central part of his foreign policy.
Their domestic position is also rather less steady. Marine Le Pen’s party failed to impress in France’s regional elections. Law and Justice is on course to lose the next Polish vote, following the emergence of a new moderate-conservative Polska 2050 party. Even Orbán is behind an opposition alliance in the polls, with an election due next year.
This vulnerability is probably behind the anti-gay culture war, which is proving at best a damp squib domestically, and a strategic error at a European level. Hungary (and to a lesser extent Poland) have operated a bargain with Austria and Germany, whereby they gave Austrian and German manufacturing firms good conditions close to Western Europe’s old border, and in exchange Germany, in particular, has overlooked corruption and the dismantling of democratic institutions.
This had caused grumbling in the rest of the EU, but not, until now, much political will to address it. Whereas on migration Orbán and Law and Justice were able to count on sympathy from significant portions of the European public, on gay rights they cannot. Instead of dividing Western Europeans, this culture war unites them.
Second, the creation of a common post-Covid recovery fund, under which Poland and Hungary stand to benefit significantly, changes the calculus. Europeans don’t mind helping each other out of the Covid mess, but are asking: why should we pay for these bigots? Furthermore, the Commission this week demanded revisions to Hungary’s plan to spend the recovery fund, because of weak anti-corruption safeguards.
Weakening at home and friendless abroad, the populist alliance finds itself on the back foot. The five pro-integration political groups are pushing for democratic reforms: from making the Commission answerable to the parliament, extending voting rights in national elections to all Europeans, giving elected institutions more power over EU taxpayers’ money, and the EU more power over areas such as foreign policy and the rule of law. The national populists can dilute these proposals but, unless they can win national power in a large member state like France or Italy, they stand little chance of stopping them altogether.
The proposals that emerge will not be to the liking of Warsaw and Budapest (or traditionally Eurosceptic capitals like Copenhagen). Nevertheless there is impetus to go beyond the Lisbon Treaty in the name of “European sovereignty”, but also to ensure oversight of the new common European debt. Here the old dilemma between widening and deepening Europe reemerges.
Countries in the west, led by France, (a partially-accurate shorthand, because the Baltic states would also be keen) prefer to deepen, and would not mind if a sufficiently large coalition went ahead to build new structures into which the laggards could later be incorporated.
In central Europe, however, there is a strong stategic as well as economic interest in keeping the Eastern and Western halves of the continent together: that’s why Germany has so far been reluctant to meet Hungarian and Polish provocation head on, and is wary of a “multi-speed” Europe. But France also knows that a deepening project without Germany would not be viable, so some sort of compromise needs to be made.
The effect of the national populist alliance, paradoxically, is to define the minimum of what the new Franco-German compromise must contain: end of foreign policy vetoes, democratic oversight of funds, and effective mechanisms for protecting the rule of law and guarding against state capture. Their gay rights culture war risks giving Western Europe the political will to enact it.