Europe’s Pet Autocrats

The EU is trapped in an authoritarian equilibrium. Could autocracy spread from Hungary, where it is well-entrenched, and Poland, where it is rapidly taking root, to other member states?

Over the past eight years, Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz government has dismantled Hungarian democracy and replaced it with a distinct form of what both Balázs Trencsényi and Dalibor Rohacs have labeled Goulash authoritarianism. In Orbán’s soft-authoritarian kleptocracy, journalists, judges, civil society activists, and opposition politicians are not imprisoned, and nominally “free” elections are held. The government maintains the pretense that it is a democracy, albeit an avowedly “illiberal” one. In reality, however, it is no democracy at all. The media is almost completely controlled by the government or by oligarchs closely tied to it.

The judiciary has been captured by Fidesz and packed with partisan loyalists. Independent NGOs and opposition politicians are demonized in government-run mass propaganda campaigns that invoke conspiracy theories and anti-Semitic tropes; advertisements plaster the country depicting Fidesz’ political opponents and critics as pawns in an international plot orchestrated by Brussels bureaucrats and the Jewish banker George Soros to destroy Hungary’s Christian culture by flooding it with millions of Muslim refugees. Most importantly, elections have been so thoroughly rigged (through manipulation of voting rules, harassment of opposition parties, and media manipulation) that opposition parties have no real chance of winning. If a minimal definition of democracy entails free and fair elections, Hungary certainly fails the second half of that test.

With democratic institutions and the rule of law in retreat in countries across the world, it might come as little surprise to see a young democracy like Hungary go off the rails. But one thing makes developments in Budapest much more surprising than those in Moscow or Ankara: Hungary is a member of the European Union. The EU claims to be “founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law, and respect for human rights.” How could a union founded on democratic values allow an autocracy to emerge in its midst?

Party above Principle

The main answer is to be found in a vice as old as democratic politics itself: excessive partisanship. The chief reason that the EU has sat by passively as Viktor Orbán has destroyed democracy and the rule of law in Hungary is that he has enjoyed the political protection of leaders of his transnational Europarty—the European People’s Party or EPP. Nominally a center-right grouping that includes national affiliates such as Germany’s Christian Democrats, France’s Republicans, Poland’s Civic Platform, and Spain’s Popular Party, the EPP has provided a welcoming home for Orbán’s far-right, autocratic regime. Of course, party loyalty is a perfectly normal phenomenon in healthy, well-functioning democracies.

How could a union founded on democratic values allow an autocracy to emerge in its midst?

The problem comes when party leaders are willing to sacrifice fundamental democratic values to advance their partisan interests, and that is precisely what the leaders of the EPP are doing today.

The EPP is the dominant force in EU politics: it controls a plurality of seats in the European Parliament, and EPP members Jean-Claude Juncker, Donald Tusk, and Antonio Tajani hold the Presidencies of the Commission, Council, and Parliament respectively.

As Orbán has discovered, this is a nice team to have in your corner in a political fight. For more than five years, leaders of the EPP have consistently defended him, endorsed his reelection, and worked to block EU action against his government, such as the triggering of the Rule of Law Framework, or the Article 7 procedure that can lead to sanctions for serious and persistent breaches of the EU’s fundamental values. They have done so despite the Orbán regime’s blatant violations of the EU’s fundamental values and the EPP’s own purported commitments to pluralistic democracy and the rule of law.

The hypocrisy of betraying cherished principles in the interest of partisan loyalty is of course a common feature of democratic politics around the world, so it is hardly a surprise we should find it in the EU. But the dynamics at play in the EU represent a very specific strain of this common disease. As scholars of comparative politics have noted, in the context of multi-level, federal-type systems like the EU’s, partisanship can help sustain autocratic regimes at the state level within otherwise democratic federations. In such contexts, authoritarian leaders at the state level may deliver voters and legislators to a party or coalition at the federal level.

The hypocrisy of betraying cherished principles in the interest of partisan loyalty is of course a common feature of democratic politics around the world, so it is hardly a surprise we should find it in the EU.

In exchange for these votes and seats, the democratic leaders of that national coalition will be inclined to tolerate the local authoritarian’s practices and block any calls for federal intervention.

Subnational Authoritarianism

These dynamics (sometimes labeled “subnational authoritarianism”) help explain the survival of repressive governments in the Jim Crow American South for nearly a century after the Civil War: the national Democratic Party needed the support of Southern Democrats (Dixiecrats) to win majorities in Congress and to compete in presidential elections, so they protected Dixiecrat regimes in Southern states even as they systematically violated the fundamental rights of African American citizens and rigged the elections by disenfranchising them. Similar partisan dynamics are familiar in federations in Latin America, Argentina and Mexico included.

Today we see the same process at work in the EU, with Angela Merkel, Jean-Claude Juncker, Donald Tusk, Manfred Weber, Joseph Daul, and other EPP leaders protecting their party’s pet autocrat Orbán because he delivers votes that bolster EPP dominance in the European Parliament and gives the group—usually though not always—a reliable vote in the European Council.

Though the EPP derives particular benefits from being the largest group, all Europarties benefit from being as big as possible: a party group’s size influences the committee chairmanships it holds, the speaking time it is allocated in parliamentary debates, and the amount of EU funding it receives. Like the EPP, other Europarties have been tempted by such incentives. While the EPP may be the most egregious defender of an autocratic regime in the EU, it is hardly the only Europarty to betray a willingness to coddle demagogues or aspiring autocrats.

Leaders of the nationalist, Euroskeptic European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR)—a party which includes the British Conservatives—have defended their Polish affiliate, the PiS, even as it has staged a brazen attack on the rule of law in Poland. ALDE, the Liberal and staunchly pro-integration EU party group, continues to stand by its Czech member party ANO whose populist Prime Minister, Andrej Babiš, has railed against the EU and is under criminal investigation for fraud involving EU subsidies. The Party of European Socialists (PES), the leading Europarty of the center-left, has shown more willingness to take on its own, criticizing Victor Ponta during Romania’s 2012 constitutional crisis and even suspending Slovakia’s Prime Minister Robert Fico between 2006 and 2008 after he went into coalition with a far-right party. Nevertheless, even the PES has shown its willingness to embrace national parties who violate its hallowed principles, as for instance in allowing Fico’s SMER to remain a member in recent years despite his government’s Islamophobic rhetoric and its blatant defiance of EU refugee policies supported by the PES.

While the EPP may be the most egregious defender of an autocratic regime in the EU, it is hardly the only Europarty to betray a willingness to coddle demagogues or aspiring autocrats.

Europe’s Authoritarian Equilibrium

If partisanship is the ailment, what might be the cure? Counterintuitively, an added dose of partisanship may be necessary. The same comparative politics literature that explains how partisan politics can help local autocrats survive also explains conditions under which partisan politics may eventually help dislodge them from power. First, if the federal party supporting the local autocrat begins to suffer reputation costs from supporting him, the party may finally withdraw support and press for his ouster. Second, if other federal parties are able to intervene to support local opposition parties, they may bring them the resources they need to break the local authoritarian’s grip on power.

While such dynamics have eventually helped topple local autocrats within other federal-type unions, they are unlikely to play out in the EU context any time soon. The problem is that at present the EU is trapped in what I have termed an authoritarian equilibrium: Partisan politics in the EU has developed to a point where there are great incentives for Europarties to protect national autocrats in their groups, but not to the point where they might trigger the dynamics that could dislodge these autocrats. In this suboptimal trap, the EU has neither too much partisan politics, nor too little, but just the wrong amount.

The first problem is that because so few voters are even aware of the existence of Europarties, these groups pay no political price for supporting national parties that violate their fundamental values. In polities with more fully developed party systems, federal parties may eventually pay a political price for supporting a brazen autocrat, as his actions could tarnish their party’s “brand.” But given their low salience, Europarties have no brands to tarnish.

Partisan politics in the EU has developed to a point where there are great incentives for Europarties to protect national autocrats in their groups.

If few voters know about the existence of Europarties like the EPP, fewer still would recognize the crucial role the EPP has played in supporting Orbán politically and blocking any EU action against his government. Thus the EPP and the national parties that belong to it pay no political price for supporting Orbán’s autocratic regime. To put it another way, Angela Merkel and her CDU have probably lost zero voters in national elections or European Parliament elections as a result of their consistent support of Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party within the EPP. While the political benefits of tolerating autocrats in your party group are many, the immediate political costs of doing so are nearly nonexistent.

The EU’s Half-Baked Party System

The second problem concerns the opposition. Once a local autocrat has consolidated single party rule, he can use the power of the party-state to make it impossible for the opposition—even an opposition less inept than that in today’s Hungary—to compete effectively. In more fully developed polities, federal parties might channel assistance to the beleaguered local opposition parties. With enough outside support, the local opposition might eventually break the autocrat’s grip on power. But in the EU’s half-baked party system, it is illegal under EU party regulations for Europarties or their foundations to provide funding or resources to national parties. Thus, opposition parties in a state like Hungary that are persecuted by the Fidesz-controlled election commission and forced to compete on a profoundly uneven playing field can secure very little support from the Europarties to which they belong.

Meanwhile, the autocratic governing party does not need material support from its copartisans, because it controls the state budget. As the election observers from the OSCE concluded in their preliminary statement on the recent Hungarian elections, “Hungary’s 8 April parliamentary elections were characterized by a pervasive overlap between state and ruling party resources, undermining contestants’ ability to compete on an equal basis.” Ironically, in a state like Hungary that receives massive EU subsidies, when the autocratic government uses state resources to perpetuate its rule, it is to a large extent using EU resources. Thus the EU finds itself in the ridiculous position of heavily funding an autocracy that runs mass propaganda campaigns denouncing it.

Of Outer Bounds and Time Horizons

The EU is trapped in an authoritarian equilibrium, but can we expect it to escape anytime soon? Could autocratic member states persist for decades within Europe’s broadly democratic union? Could autocracy spread from Hungary, where it is well- entrenched, and Poland, where it is rapidly taking root, to other member states?

The lessons of US history are sobering in this respect: as Robert Mickey and others have shown, authoritarian enclaves persisted in the US South for nearly a century after the Civil War. To be sure, membership in the EU will place an outer bound on the form of authoritarianism member governments could practice: recognizing that mass arrests of journalists, civil society activists, or political opponents would most likely prompt some form of EU sanction, these regimes would remain soft-autocracies not outright dictatorships. But within those bounds, there is certainly a risk that such governments could persist for many years within the EU, benefiting from its subsidies while thumbing their noses at its core values.

While the long-term survival of such regimes within the EU is possible, it seems unlikely. Instead, the emergence of such regimes is likely to soon provoke a major political crisis for the Union. The emergence of autocratic regimes that eliminate the independence of the judiciary is likely unsustainable within the EU. The EU is a community based on the rule of law, and it relies heavily on national courts—acting in their capacity as courts of the EU’s legal system—to enforce EU law faithfully and to provide effective remedies where it is violated. If the EU cannot count on the independence and sincere cooperation of a member state’s courts, then EU law effectively ceases to exist in that member state. Already a case has been referred to the European Court of Justice in which a judge from another member state (Ireland) is asking whether it can still treat Polish courts as independent bodies whose rulings need to be recognized in other member states.

Given the failure of Europe’s political leaders to take a stand against the rise of autocratic government in some member states, Europe’s judges may have little choice but to confront the issue. Yet even a bold judicial ruling from Luxembourg denouncing attacks on the rule of law and democratic values in Poland or Hungary would simply put the ball back in political leaders’ court. Eventually, the only real solution will involve Europe’s craven political leaders rediscovering their spines, denouncing the autocrats in their midst, and firmly sanctioning governments that flout the fundamental norms their states committed to when they joined the Union.

Daniel Kelemen

Professor of Political Science and Law, Rutgers University and Jean Monnet Chair in European Union Politics at Rutgers University. His research interests include the politics of the European Union, law and politics, comparative political economy, and comparative public policy. He previously served as the Director of the Center for European Studies at Rutgers University. He has been a Member of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton.

Share this on social media

Support Aspen Institute

The support of our corporate partners, individual members and donors is critical to sustaining our work. We encourage you to join us at our roundtable discussions, forums, symposia, and special event dinners.

These web pages use cookies to provide their services. You get more information about the cookies after clicking on the button “Detailed setting”. You can set the cookies which we will be able to use, or you can give us your consent to use all the cookies by clicking on the button “Allow all”. You can change the setting of cookies at any time in the footer of our web pages.
Cookies are small files saved in your terminal equipment, into which certain settings and data are saved, which you exchange with our pages by means of your browser. The contents of these files are shared between your browser and our servers or the servers of our partners. We need some of the cookies so that our web page could function properly, we need others for analytical and marketing purposes.