Andrius Kubilius. Populism In The New Europe: The End Of The Beginning Or The Beginning Of The End?

2023-11-08 | European Union, Lithuania

In 2024, we will celebrate the 20th anniversary of the “New Europe” – on 1 May, it will be 20 years since eight Central European and Baltic States became members of the European Union. Romania and Bulgaria joined a little later, and Croatia was the last.

Someone in the US named all these newcomers “New Europe” because of their differences from “Old Europe”, and the title “New Europe” has stuck.

The New Europe, with its membership of the European Union, its access to the much richer EU Single Market and its billions in financial support from EU funds, has managed to grow rapidly over these two decades and to catch up with the economic development of The Old Europe.

In the light of the sad historical experience of the last centuries in the New Europe, such a leap in the region’s fortunes in recent decades could be generally regarded as a miracle. The New Europe should be the European Union’s greatest enthusiast, never ceasing to celebrate this post-war invention of the Old Europe.

However, this is not the case. Over the last decade, the New Europe has become a region where anti-European populism, disrespect for the European rule of law and democratic rules and traditions, and the development of a culture of “veto” blackmail have spread rapidly in the ruling circles. Orban’s Hungary, more recently Kaczynski’s Poland, a little before that Babiš’s Czech Republic, and now Fico’s Slovakia have been, and are, the flag-bearers of such populism, which is frightening the whole of the European Union. A few years ago, ideas of Karbauskis (leader of the Greens-peasants Union) for Lithuania were also along the same lines. In Lithuania, they continue to float, in ever-changing forms, between the Daukantas Square (President’s Palace) and the current opposition in the Seimas.

It is therefore worth looking much deeper into the causes of the New Europe wave of populism and where the whole of the New Europe is at the moment: is it at the beginning of such a wave and is the peak of the wave yet to come, or are we already witnessing the beginning of the ebb? And what are we to do about all this in Lithuania, being a part of the same the New Europe?

The results of mid-October elections in Poland make it possible to be more optimistic not only about Poland, but also about the prospects for the whole of the New Europe, especially Central Europe, in combating the pandemic of populism in the New Europe in this period. Not only has Poland returned to Europe, but it is likely that Europe is returning not only to Poland but to the whole of Central Europe.

Why am I so cautiously optimistic?

To answer such a question, it is first necessary to look a little deeper into the causes and methods of such populism in the New Europe.

Firstly, one has to answer the question why and how the demand for populism arose in the New Europe, and secondly, the question of why such a populism became the anti-European populism in the same New Europe?

It is clear that populism is no stranger to today’s democratic world. There are many examples of it both in Europe and in the United States: Le Pen in France, the AfD in Germany, and the Trumpists in the United States are all enjoying considerable electoral success, using the same formula for populist “success”: primitively telling the less educated part of the electorate who their “enemy” is, and then showing how that enemy is and will be fought.

There is a familiar list of such “enemies” on the standard menu, which has been successfully used for a long time and is constantly being updated: the global Jewish, Masonic or gay conspiracy, neo-liberalism, globalisation and the European Union. The historical experience of the populists shows that the naming of these “enemies” and the supposed fight against them is quite effective in mobilising large numbers of voters.

This formula for success was formulated in the first half of the 20th century by the famous German political philosopher Carl Schmitt, who argued that the most important function of politicians is to identify enemies and to fight them. This formula for the essence of politics, discovered by Carl Schmitt, was favoured by Hitler, admired by the Russian philosopher Ilyin, who escaped from the Bolsheviks, and whose works are now admired by Putin and the Kremlin elite.

This arsenal of populism, tested by Putin in Russia, has also been put to reasonably effective use in the New Europe. This does not necessarily mean that it was spread in the New Europe exclusively by the Kremlin (although the Kremlin was happy to spread it in both New and Old Europe). Poland’s Kaczynski cannot be suspected of being favourable towards Kremlin, but the Kremlin’s discovery of the methods of propaganda against Russia’s main “enemies” – against gay Europe and Western liberal democracy, or the supposed fight for traditional family values – was quickly adopted by the New Europe’s populists. This includes not only Poland, but also Lithuania.

In the New Europe, such a populism was exclusively the populism of political leaders. Political leaders gifted for such populism have claimed and instilled in their societies such a perception of “enemies”, and have concentrated ever greater powers of control over the media and the necessary finances for such a propaganda. Broad sections of New European society were prepared to submit to such indoctrination of the propaganda. This became an effective way of seizing power and holding on to it for long enough.

The first signs of this appeared already around 2000, and it began to take hold around 2010 with V.Orban, who first discovered G.Soros as the “enemy”, and then the entire European Union and liberal democracy. This was soon followed by Kaczynski and PiS in Poland, who already in 2015 declared that Poland’s biggest enemies, besides LGBT people, were Germany, the German-dominated European Union, and D.Tusk, who serves Germany. In 2017, A,Babiš, one of the richest businessmen in Czechia, notorious for his conflicts with the European Union, became its Prime Minister. A month ago, R.Fico returned to power in Slovakia, this time loudly declaring his anti-Ukrainian and thus anti-European stance. Anti-European populism guarantees political longevity in the New Europe: Orban, Fico, Kaczynski are the record holders for terms in office in the New Europe, while Babiš is again enjoying the status of the most popular politician in Czechia.

Lithuania has been no stranger to such populist trends over the last twenty years. The first to successfully use the traditional instrument of populism was R.Paksas (the impeached President of Lithuania), followed by a period of populist success by V.Uspaskich (a businessman with ties to Russia, who later became a minister of economy and now is a Member of the European Parliament). R.Karbauskis, using the same formula of populism, was successful in the 2016 parliamentary elections. The arsenal of “enemies” he named was wide – from V.Landsbergis and A.Kubilius to globalisation and the concept of a global Lithuania, to the bureaucrats of the European Union and Brussels, to neo-liberalism, the Istanbul Convention and LGBT, and even to the letter “w” or McDonald’s signs.

Looking at the Lithuanian history of anti-European populism, it is easy to see one tendency: it was and is primarily linked to those political leaders who were also leaders of big business. And such businesses in Lithuania were built up not only on the basis of contacts in Russia, but also on the basis of large-scale support from the European funds.

Very similar links can be found in the Central Europe: Czechia’s Babiš is not only a billionaire, but has also been the subject of a number of investigations by EU prosecutors regarding corruption related with the use of EU funds for his business, while Orban has long been known for building a business and media empire of friends and associates that helps him to monopolise power, and to distribute EU funds. Mr Kaczynski and PiS have used EU funds to exclusively strengthen their favoured sections of society. This phenomenon has been dubbed by some New Europe academic scholars the “grand” corruption, to distinguish it from “normal” corruption, where someone in a position of power takes care of their business. In 2018, Fico was forced to resign amid justified suspicions that a prominent journalist, Jan Kuciak, and his girlfriend had been murdered because the journalist was trying to investigate the large-scale corruption in the distribution of EU funds linked to the PM’s circle. Now Fico has regained power in order (as he proclaims) to drive out all the prosecutors and investigators who are still ruining his life.

Thus, the root cause of the wave of anti-European populism in the New Europe is the European Union’s own funds and money to support the development of the New Europe itself. Such money and the possibility of distributing it tempts some to seek power at any cost and at the cost of any populism, and then to use such money also to maintain power. In the new Europe, the most popular and effective populism for taking or keeping power is the anti-European populism. And so we have a paradox: the generous European Union itself is the main cause of anti-European populism in the New Europe. And we will continue to see waves of such an anti-European populism in the New Europe until the New Europe itself becomes a financial donor. Then the temptation to use populist methods to get into power in order to access EU funds will end. Just as the period of seeking power for the sake of “prikhvatisation” (the concept combining “privatisation” and the Russian language verb “прихватить(to grab), and meaning the usually dodgy privatisation process, where the state property was appropriated by persons/entities close to organized crime) once ended. There will be other temptations to populist power-grabbing, but it is safe to assume that there will be fewer direct business interests involved, and therefore less political power. And therefore it will be less dangerous.

Meanwhile, we in Lithuania are not far from the dangers of anti-European populism. Although the wave of Karbauskis’s populism seems to have receded, this does not mean that there will be no signs of a new wave of populism and anti-Europeanism during the next year’s elections. The European money is not over yet, the next Seimas and the Government and the President will have until 2027 to negotiate in Brussels the EU’s new macrofinancial perspective for the period of 2027-2034, which will define how much money Lithuania will receive and for whom. It may seem to some, including in Lithuania, that during the period of such negotiations it is better for Lithuania to have a more talkative, more “self-interested” government than the current government of “untalkative” conservatives and liberals.

How will this be attempted?

Once again, someone will have to harness the mobilising power of anti-European populism. The instruments for this are in place: members of marches for family, with Kremlin agents behind them, the you-tube videos of former and self-proclaimed journalists, and the goodwill of the Daukantas Square – everything will be used for this. The entire political arsenal of the left will be actively involved, no matter what they call themselves today: peasants, democrats or social democrats, or simply Žemaitaičiai and Gražuliai. All of them will, in one way or another, be under the wing of G.Nausėda and I.Vėgėlė, even if the latter will pretend that “they have nothing to do with all of this”.

The battle in the next elections will not be between the choices of the political left and right, but between populism and anti-populism. The populism will lean very strongly towards the anti-Europeanism. In the presidential elections, we will see not so much a fight between G.Nausėda and I.Šimonytė, but a duel between empty populism and constructive anti-populism.

Since the 1990s, anti-populism in Lithuania has been, is, and will continue to be a characteristic of only a healthy centre-right, even though it too has to continually rein in anti-European temptations within itself.

Finally, I must answer the question why I wrote at the beginning of this text that I am cautiously optimistic about the long-term prospects for anti-European populism in both New Europe and Lithuania?

It is because I think that next year’s elections in Lithuania may be the last elections in which the European anti-populism will have to compete with the region-wide anti-European populism. After that, the space for waves of anti-European populism is likely to begin to recede sharply.

Why do I think so?

First and foremost, because by the end of this decade, especially if Ukraine becomes an EU member before then, Lithuania will have moved from being a recipient of the EU aid to an EU donor. At the same time, there will no longer be such a strong temptation for somebody to rush to power and, in the name of that, to “wash” people’s minds with all the anti-European rhetoric. Then it will become clear that the majority of Lithuanians are really happy to be members of the EU and they want to live according to European rules, traditions and understandings, including on human rights issues.

Secondly, because the elections in Poland have shown that the younger generation is no longer “buying” all the anti-European rhetoric and threats to traditional values from Brussels. It is likely that we will also see in Lithuania a greater resistance of the younger generation to the populist bacillus.

By the end of this decade, the New Europe and the Old Europe are likely to finally converge: anti-European populism and pro-Kremlin idiocy will be present in some quantity everywhere, but it will no longer be dominant. Unfortunately, such a dominance still exists today in some parts of the New Europe.

Lithuania, together with the new Poland, can be at the forefront of the recovery of the New Europe from the pandemic of populism. Let us wish ourselves that!

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