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The bad boys of Europe

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The bad boys of Europe - © Balazs Szecsodi/HPMPO/MTI/AP/Keystone

All good fairy tales include two things: a hero and a villain. With regard to EU-level politicians, there is unfortunately still a lack of potential heroes to write about. However, there is no lack of potential villain-material. I therefore intend to focus on three of the most politically relevant “villains”, who will all play a part when the future direction of European integration will be determined after the upcoming EP-elections (Le Pen, Wilders etc. will have to forgive me). These three are the Hungarian arch-populist Viktor Orbán (Fidesz), the de facto ruler of Poland Jaroslaw Kaczyński (PiS) and the rising star of the radical-right in Italy, Matteo Salvini (The League).

Starting with Orbán, the closest to an arch-villain we come to within the European Council. Orbán rose to fame during the final hours of communist rule in Hungary, after he had given a speech promoting democracy that “electrified the crowd of 250,000 Hungarians – and millions more watching on television”.[1] However, since 2010 Orbán has, as the leader of Fidesz, transformed Hungary into something often referred to as an “illiberal democracy”.[2] As a result, and according to a Freedom House report from 2018, the Hungarian government has now started to resemble those of authoritarian regimes.[3] In 2018, the Fidesz government was also strongly condemned by the European Parliament for posing a “systemic threat to democracy and the rule of law”.[4] Because of Orbán´s strong position within the European People´s Party, the largest party group of the European Parliament, Orbán has, until recently, got away with most of the “authoritarian moves”. However, after Fidesz initiated an anti-Juncker campaign in Hungary, a fellow EPP-member and the same Juncker who was famously caught on camera in 2015  greeting Orbán with the epithet “Hello, dictator”[5], Fidesz membership to the EPP-group was finally suspended.[6] It is not for nothing that Donald Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon has referred to Orbán as “the most significant guy on the scene right now”.[7]

Moving on to Jaroslaw Kaczyński, the not as famous current leader of Poland. Since the Law and Justice Party (PiS) secured an outright majority in the Polish parliamentary elections in 2015, the PiS party has conducted a judicial reform “that undermines the separation of powers” and further proposed changes to electoral law that “could threaten the integrity of elections”.[8] Recently Kaczyński, in an effort to gather support prior to the EP-elections, has also started campaigning against gay rights, which he perceives as a “great danger”.[9] Although not as much in the media limelight as Orbán, what Kaczyński and the PiS party is doing in Poland might have more far greater consequences for the future of the EU because of the greater political importance of Poland.

Perhaps the most interesting, and politically important, potential villain is Matteo Salvini. Salvini has recently been referred to as “the most feared man in Europe”[10], and as the leader of The League he has transformed the party from irrelevance to the strongest political force in Italy. Before Salvini, The League received only around 4% of the votes in general elections (2013) but is now polling at around 33%, which is over 10 percentage points higher than their coalition-partner in the Italian government, The Five Star Movement.[11]As Italy is set to become both the third most populous and wealthiest EU member state after Brexit, that is a powerful position to be in. However, Salvini does not so far possess the same policy-implementing powers as Orbán and Kaczyński, as he is still “only” the Minister of the Interior and The League is the junior partner in the governing coalition. Still, it is not difficult to imagine that Salvini, if given the opportunity, might transform Italy in a similar authoritarian direction as Hungary and Poland.

According to projections for the upcoming EP-elections, these three parties are all expected to increase their respective mandates(14), PiS by eight seats (29) and The League by 23 seats (29).[12] Hence, MEPs from these three parties, categorized as either soft (Fidesz & PiS) or hard (The League) Eurosceptics, might end up holding over 10% of the total seats in the next European Parliament.[13] For those hoping for a European integration friendly European Parliament, these projections should be considered worrisome.

Better prepare for the bad boys.


Thomas Karv EUreka! Eurac research blogs European elections Thomas Karv is a PhD candidate at the Social Science Research Institute at Åbo Akademi University, specializing in attitudes towards the European Union and European politics. When he is not writing on his PhD manuscript, Thomas is also serving his third term as an elected member of the City Council in his home town of Nykarleby, Finland. It should also be mentioned that Thomas is a fanatic follower of Manchester United. Thomas can be reached through e-mail: thomas.karv@abo.fi or through his Twitter: @KarvinKarv.

 

[1] https://www.ft.com/content/dda50a3e-0095-11e8-9650-9c0ad2d7c5b5

[2] Buzogány, A. 2017. “Illiberal democracy in Hungary: authoritarian diffusion or domestic causation?” Democratization 24: 1–19. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13510347.2017.1328676

[3] https://freedomhouse.org/report/nations-transit/2018/hungary

[4] https://www.wsj.com/articles/eu-triggers-sanctions-procedure-against-hungary-over-rule-of-law-1536753206?mod=mktw

[5] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/may/22/hello-dictator-hungarian-prime-minister-faces-barbs-at-eu-summit

[6] https://www.euractiv.com/section/future-eu/news/epp-votes-to-suspend-hungarys-fidesz-party-membership/

[7] https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2018/9/13/17823488/hungary-democracy-authoritarianism-trump

[8] https://freedomhouse.org/report/nations-transit/2018/poland

[9] https://www.politico.eu/article/polands-law-and-justice-plays-the-lgbt-card-ahead-of-elections/

[10] http://time.com/5394448/matteo-salvini/

[11] https://pollofpolls.eu/IT

[12] https://www.politico.eu/2019-european-elections/

[13] Hobolt, S. & de Vries, C. 2016. ”Turning against the Union? The impact of the crisis on the Eurosceptic vote in the 2014 European Parliament elections”, Electoral Studies 44: 504–514. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0261379415300603

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