COMMENT: Poland and the fragility of liberalism

COMMENT: Poland and the fragility of liberalism
By Mark Adomanis in Philadelphia January 8, 2016

Poland was supposed to be the staid, predictable, boring success story of the post-communist world. This time a year ago, the universal consensus among the Atlanticist community in both Europe and the US (which is to say, the opinion that was shared by everyone who had any chance of actually influencing policy) was that Poland was a “bastion of stability” in a continent that was being increasingly roiled by various kinds of economic, security and political crises. The Economist, that reliable conveyer of establishment conventional wisdom, was so bold that it declared Poland was in the midst of a “golden age” and that Poland had become one of the EU’s most important and influential members.

One should note that the “Poland as a star pupil” narrative alluded to above was most certainly not a partisan position. Democrats, Republicans, Tories, Labourites, Christian Democrats and Social Democrats: across all of the mainstream Western parties, Poland was hailed as the best example of liberal reform. When addressing Ukraine’s post-Euromaidan government, visiting Western diplomats and statesmen consistently pointed to Poland as the ultimate goal, as what ultimate “success” would look like.

This narrative had a fair amount of logic behind it. After emerging from a brief “transformative recession” in the aftermath of ditching communism, Poland went on an economic growth spurt that (as of yet) has never ended. It was the only EU country to grow during the global financial crisis, and it has continued to chug along as other previously white-hot emerging markets like Brazil and Russia have lapsed into recession.

However the optimistic upbeat narrative of “Poland as a simple, boring success story” now lies in ruins. No less a source than The Economist, which has long been one of Poland’s most relentless and unflinching boosters, admits that the new government “has made an awful start“ and that its ill-disguised attack on the constitutional tribunal are “courting disaster”. The new conservative Polish government is so blatantly disregarding established norms of conduct that the European Commission, in an “unprecedented move”, has announced that it will soon have discussions about the state of the rule of law.

Why does any of this matter? It is not simply to play a game of “gotcha” with the mainstream media, though goodness knows that is sometimes a necessary endeavour. Poland’s rapid descent into a form of illiberal democracy is important because it conclusively shows that liberalism is under strain, not just in places like Russia where it never made much headway to begin with, but in its supposed heartland. Even an “exporter” of liberal democracy, the EU, is seeing a crisis of confidence.

As Ivan Krastev, one of the wiliest and most insightful people writing about politics these days, noted for the New York Times, Poland’s recent trajectory can at least be partially explained by the relative success of an illiberal democracy in another post-communist country in Central Europe. Hungary’s Viktor Orban is that exceedingly rare breed, a politician who has been able to have his cake and eat it too. Orban has both criticized the EU as the domain of feckless cosmopolitans and cashed the still-sizable cheques he receives from Brussels. Orban, essentially, has been able to get all of the populist benefit from criticizing Europe’s byzantine bureaucracy while not having to pay any real financial costs.

But what Krastev didn’t say, and what I’ve heard almost no one who does serious writing about European politics in the media argue, is that Orban was not successful because of some tactical blunder on the part of a particular bureaucrat or group of bureaucrats. Rather, Orban has succeeded in Hungary, and Jaroslaw Kaczynski is now succeeding in Poland, because of the institutional nature of the EU itself.

Put simply, the EU has leverage over a particular country only so long as it is not a member. When Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, and other post-communist states were out in the cold, the EU was in an extremely powerful position to compel adaptation of the acquis communautaire (EU legal order), demand the achievement of certain macroeconomic thresholds (budget deficits, inflation, etc.), and to generally dictate whatever other terms it deemed appropriate.

Once a country joined, however, the EU no longer had any credible enforcement mechanism: it wasn’t clear how, or even if, a country could actually be kicked out of the EU. Apart from technical difficulties, in a broader strategic sense it was obvious to everyone that the EU had far too much invested in the larger project of “European integration” to ever seriously contemplate backtracking.

All politics is local, again

The EU’s lack of genuine leverage over its new members has been an open secret in the political science community for some time. It’s hardly the most complex application of game theory ever devised, and I well remember hearing the issue discussed in various graduate seminars. But even in the academic community no one seemed to have thought deeply about what this would really mean in practice. It was broadly assumed that if, by some unforeseen and unfortunate circumstance, genuine political trouble ever arose within the EU, everyone would simply find a way to make it all work out. No one ever imagined openly illiberal politicians like Orban or Kaczynski ever coming to power.

And this leads to a truly sobering realization: now that the great majority of the post-communist world is already deeply enmeshed within the EU, the fate of “liberalism” broadly understood will increasingly hinge not on decisions made in Brussels (which as I hope the above has made clear are increasingly irrelevant), but on the nature of public opinion within each individual member state. Local politics will matter more and more, and the EU as an institution will matter less and less.

From this perspective then, when one considers the still highly illiberal nature of public opinion in Eastern Europe (a mere 44% of Poles think that gays and lesbians “should be free to live their own lives as they wish”), what is surprising is not that there has been a populist backlash, but that it took so long to arrive.

This delay, however, should be little consolation. The factors driving the growth of populism, particularly immigration from the Middle East and broader concerns about “European identity”, aren’t going anywhere. If anything, they’re likely to strengthen. Whatever residual complacency there is left about the “successful” additions to the EU, then, ought to evaporate. As Poland’s recent experience shows, there is always a chance for a country to backtrack. Expect 2016 to feature increasingly open difficulty with countries that everyone assumed had been “solved”.

Follow @MarkAdomanis – Wharton MBA by day, Russia analyst by night.