The rise of populism in central Europe
Gideon Rachman discusses how the rise of populist parties poses a challenge for the European Union as a club of like-minded democracies with Neil Buckley and James Shotter.
Presented by Gideon Rachman and produced by Fiona Symon
Hello and welcome to this edition of World Weekly from the Financial Times. I'm Gideon Rachman.
Today, we're looking at the rise of populism in Central Europe following the sweeping victory in Czech parliamentary elections of a party led by Andrej Babis, who some people have labelled the "Czech Donald Trump." With Poland and Hungary already run by EU- sceptic populist parties, the European Union in Brussels has some cause to worry. So joining me on the line to discuss this is our Central Europe Correspondent, James Salter. And here in the studio, our East Europe Editor, Neil Buckley.
James, to start with you, you covered the election in Prague. Give us a sense of Mr. Babis and what he represents. Does the term "populist" cover it?
Yes, I think, I mean, people I spoke to in Prague would regard him as what they would call a "soft populist", I think. In that he ran a campaign that was very critical of the established parties that have dominated politics in the Czech Republic for the last quarter of a century. He is a man whose roots are in business. He only came into politics in 2011 and stunned the Czech establishment by getting into government as the second largest party a year later. And he sort of portrays himself as a businessman who can clean up an inefficient state.
He has similarities with some of the other figures in Central Europe, such as Jaroslaw Kaczynski in Poland, Viktor Orban in Hungary. And they surf the same sort of wave of discontent with the status quo. He also shares their sort of reluctance to join the Euro, their hostility to the EU's migrant policies, and their rejection of the idea of a two speed Europe.
So there are similarities there, but I think what makes him different from them is he's not ideological, which is obviously a big point of difference with Mr. Kaczynski who has this vision of reclaiming Poland from sort of a shift towards liberalism that he doesn't like. And Mr. Babis much more transactional according to people who have dealt with him. And the other big point, I think, to make is he's not a nationalist. He was actually born in Bratislava in what is now Slovakia. He speaks Czech with Slovak words thrown in here and there. So he is not someone who could credibly pose as a Czech nationalist. And I think that sets him apart from Orban and Kaczynski.
In terms of the comparison with the likes of Trump and Berlusconi. Berlusconi in some ways is an apt comparison in that Mr. Berlusconi obviously had big economic interests like Babis does. Babis founded Agrofert, which is one of the Czech Republic's largest private employers. He also has media assets, which is another similarity with Berlusconi. So I think that would be where I would see him on the spectrum of European populists.
OK, so Neil, although Babis in a way is a less alarming figure to people in Western Europe than say Orban with his very nationalistic rhetoric in Hungary or Kaczynski in Poland. There does seem to be a pattern setting in here and I think it's fair to say that they probably weren't pulling for a Babis victory in Brussels given his scepticism about European integration, tough words on migrant policies. Do you think that the heart of the EU, the conventional, the old EU, if you like, is now in danger of losing Central Europe, which was this great enlargement, it was a great achievement to the EU when these countries joined in 2004. They now seem to be in a very different place politically.
There is a danger of that. But I think it's important not to overgeneralise. Central Eastern Europe is a big place. There are 11 former communist countries that have joined the EU. And here we're talking about two, three, four of them. Now if we look at Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic, yes, there's been a rise of populism. But really what is at the heart of this is not voters being anti-EU per se. Voters in those countries actually, according to opinion polls, remain broadly in support of the idea of the EU and of Europe.
Well, it's been very good for them. I mean, they're allowed to migrate, they get a lot of money in terms of transfers, the governments.
Absolutely. They're aware of the benefits. But at the same time, they don't like the reality of the current EU as much as they thought they would. There is quite a lot of disappointment actually, that convergence in terms of wages and living standards has been much slower than people expected. So people expected, oh, well, soon we will be living as they do in the west and still they're not 25 years after the Berlin Wall fell.
So that has brought to power parties that are tougher, that are more Euro-skeptic, but people in these countries, they don't actually want to leave they just want a different kind of EU.
But from the Brussels point of view, what you hear increasingly is concerns that actually these countries are departing from the basic values of the EU, whether it's threats to the free press in Poland, or indeed in Hungary the rhetoric against minorities, and so on. Is that a real fear? Do you think that's actually happening?
I think that is happening. The problem is some of the Euro-skeptic parties that have come to power have then taken steps to entrench themselves in power by weakening some of the democratic checks and balances that have been established over the past 25 years and which remain because democracy is a relatively young, relatively weak and immature. So that is a big concern, especially in places like Hungary and Poland, the two prime examples where this is happening.
[INAUDIBLE] Babis's control of the media. You could see, I mean, Czech liberals are quite concerned about that, that concentration of power.
The dangers are absolutely there. Babis doesn't have, as James was saying, the same kind of nationalist and socially conservative views of the Hungarian and Polish leaders, but he has talked about running the country more as a business. So there is a danger, both that he's very dominant in business as well, and the media, and that combination may be dangerous for the country. But also if he starts to treat democratic checks and balances as something of an encumbrance rather than something that is necessary.
But what I would say is that there are a number of other countries that are unhappy with the way Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic are going. Slovakia, for example, Robert Fico, the prime minister there. And the other day described Slovakia as a pro-European island within an anti-EU sea or ocean, as he saw it. Now Fico was seen until quite recently as being pretty Euro-skeptic. But he seems to be taking the view that actually his country's interest is better served by getting closer to France and Germany. So at the moment, he's going a different way.
And some of the other Central Eastern European countries are also facing that dilemma and indicating they don't necessarily want to follow in the Hungarian, Polish direction.
And James, I mean, how important has the migrant crisis been in radicalising politics in Central and Eastern Europe?
It's definitely been important. I mean, if you look at the newspapers or listen to the press in Poland or the Czech Republic, this theme is constantly there and politicians use it to fire up their base. When I interviewed Babis a couple of weeks ago, this was a topic he raised. So it's very much a topic that is present in the media, you know, most of the time. Even though the reality of the situation in Central Europe is that they're actually, here in the Czech Republic and in Poland, very, very few migrants from places like Syria or the Middle East, which are the ones that the politicians hold up as the sort of the threat.
And of course, it's not just confined to this anti-migrant backlash. Isn't just roiling politics in the old countries that were behind the Iron Curtain. Another country you know well is Austria, where they've just had elections where very new, young chancellors emerge, but also the strongest vote for the far right for many years.
Yes, exactly. the [INAUDIBLE], the far right party in Austria with whom it looks like Sebastian Kurz from the [INAUDIBLE] People's Party will go into coalition, have been using this as a sort of rallying tool for years. I mean, I lived in Austria between 2006 and 2008, and during the election then their campaign posters were filled with sort of anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim slogans. And as you say, I mean, Austria has definitely shifted to the right in the wake of these elections. And their experience obviously of the huge flows of migrants that came through on the way to Germany, particularly in 2015, was definitely a big factor in that.
OK, so Neil, just to summarise as you've pointed out, it's a very fluid and complex situation. But it seems to me that perhaps sitting in Western Europe, you can be very preoccupied, certainly in London by Brexit, or you look at Spain and the crisis there. But that perhaps the developments in Eastern and Central Europe pose a more profound challenge to the EU, which after all is meant to be a club of like-minded democracies that share certain basic values that are on the same journey towards a more integrated future. It doesn't look like that at all at the moment if you take in what are a significant group of countries.
I think there is a serious challenge from that group of countries that you mentioned. And I think there is a danger that France, Germany, and the European Commission leader, Jean-Claude Junker, they are trying to push a much more integrationist vision.
There's a real danger they are not going to be able to carry some Central Eastern European countries with them in that vision. And you could end up with a very divided looking EU in the future. Now some people say, OK, that's fine. We'll have an inner circle that can pursue this closer integration, then an outer circle where those who don't favour that idea and will be much more loosely allied. But that's a very different kind of EU and that's even if those countries are prepared to go along with that kind of arrangement.
But actually I think the debate that's going on now about the future of the EU, there are a lot of changes ahead.
OK, well, with that thought, we'll leave it there for now. Thank you very much indeed to Neil Buckley here in the studio in London. And to James Salter in Warsaw and recently in Prague. That's it for this week. Until next week, goodbye.