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The West divided: Populism versus liberalism in the 21st century

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

August 24, 2018   9 mins

The European Union has a flag, an anthem, a parliament, a civil service and, for the most part, a single currency. What it doesn’t have, however, is a constitution. That’s not for want of trying. In the early part of the last decade, the institutions of the European Union poured all their efforts into the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe.

Things started to go wrong quite early on in the process, with an almighty backlash against the draft constitution. But it wasn’t the practical provisions of the draft – such as the expansion of qualified majority voting – that caused the biggest outcry, but the preamble.

Preambles matter. The US constitution wouldn’t be the same without “We the people…” or the Declaration of Independence without “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” The most resonant phrase in the Treaty of Rome (and subsequent EU treaties) is “ever closer union among the peoples of Europe” – which echoes the US constitution’s reference to “a more perfect Union”.

And so a great deal of thought was put into the preamble to the EU constitution. What was required was so much more than a few warm words before the legally-enforceable stuff; rather, here was an opportunity to encapsulate the shared identity of Europe itself – and, by extension, the democratic legitimacy of the whole constitution. Unfortunately, what they came up with was a travesty:1

“Drawing inspiration from the cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe, which, nourished first by the civilisations of Greece and Rome, characterised by spiritual impulse always present in its heritage and later by the philosophical currents of the Enlightenment, has embedded within the life of society its perception of the central role of the human person and his inviolable and inalienable rights, and of respect for law.”

Do you notice the gaping hole in this account of Europe’s origins? The narrative leaps in one bound from ancient Greece and Rome to the Enlightenment with no acknowledgement of what happened in between – i.e. more than a thousand years in which Christianity didn’t just come to define Europe, but, more than anything else, brought the very concept of Europe into being.

Nevertheless, the authors of the draft preamble thought it best to airbrush Christian Europe out of history. It was a blatant act of falsification – and the chorus of protest against it forced a redraft. But rather than mention Christianity, the ‘compromise’ was to drop everything else instead. So no mention of Greece, Rome, the Enlightenment or anything else specific:2

“DRAWING INSPIRATION from the cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe, from which have developed the universal values of the inviolable and inalienable rights of the human person, freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law…”

In the end, the constitutional treaty was abandoned (its place taken by the Lisbon Treaty]. Ironically, it was the secular French and the liberal Dutch who killed it off – in national referendums held on the 29 May and the 1 June 2005.

It’s worth reminding ourselves that the populist revolt against the political elites not only predates Brexit and the Eurozone crisis, but also the Global Financial Crisis. Though 2016, the year of Brexit and Trump, is seared in the political imagination, it is actually 2005 and the defeat of the EU constitution that marks the turning point against the globalising policies of the liberal establishment.

Now let’s fast-forward thirteen years: The Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is giving a speech in eastern Transylvania. He sinks his teeth into those who can’t bring themselves to acknowledge Europe’s Christian roots. The whole speech is significant, but here’s the core of his argument:3

“….we must demonstrate that there is an alternative to liberal democracy: it is called Christian democracy. And we must show that the liberal elite can be replaced with a Christian democratic elite… Christian democracy is not about defending religious articles of faith – in this case Christian religious articles of faith. Neither states nor governments have competence on questions of damnation or salvation. Christian democratic politics means that the ways of life springing from Christian culture must be protected. Our duty is not to defend the articles of faith, but the forms of being that have grown from them.”

For the record, I think he’s wrong. He’s especially wrong when he states that “liberal democracy is liberal, while Christian democracy is, by definition, not liberal: it is, if you like, illiberal.” Sorry, Viktor, but I don’t like. There’s a reason why liberal democracy sprang from the soil of Christian Europe – and that’s because liberalism, in all the best senses of the word, is derived from the Judaeo-Christian tradition and is not something fundamentally different.

Of course, liberalism has, in many ways, turned against its parent. It has also had rebellious offspring of its own: murderous ideologies violently opposed to both liberalism and Christianity. And yet the Christian principle of human dignity is multifaceted – and it required the Enlightenment, and the good things that followed from it, for many of those facets to get the recognition and respect owed to them. To draw an absolute divide between Christian democracy and liberal democracy is, like the preamble to the EU constitution, a falsification of history.

However, just because Orbán and his enemies are both wrong (and for much the same reason), it doesn’t mean that the conflict between them isn’t real. It is undeniably real – a divergence in worldview that is in many ways much deeper than the split between the Brussels establishment and Brexit Britain. The only question is how consequential it is.

Liberal democracy has always contained a tension within it between traditionalists and progressives. And the nature of that conflict has been one of managed retreat on the part of the former – with only the thinnest of concessions offered by the latter. The negotiations over the preamble were a case in point – all that the progressives had to offer was a form of words that made their airbrushing of history less obvious.

But a lot has changed since then. In place of managed retreat on the part of cultural conservatives, there is a vigorous counter-attack by rampaging populists. And as Orbán makes clear, their intention is not just to challenge the liberal establishment, but to replace it. In a growing list of countries they are succeeding.

Orbán was in the vanguard, but he is no longer alone. In Poland, the populist right is nearly as dominant as it is in Hungary. West of the old Iron Curtain, a conservative-populist coalition governs Austria. And, this year, the biggest shock so far: a populist-populist coalition in charge of Italy.

It is not just that populists are gaining power that is significant, but that they are doing so across a geographically coherent chunk of Europe. If one includes the ‘broadtent populist’ government of Czechia and the leftwing nationalist government of Slovakia, then most of what used to be the Austro-Hungarian Empire from Trieste to Krakow is now in populist hands. It’s a point not lost on Viktor Orbán. His speech makes numerous references to “Central Europe”. He specifically identifies his conception of “Christian democracy” with “Central European tenets”.

The geographical branding of Orbánism suggests an equidistance between Western Europe and Putin’s Russia to the East. To say this raises geopolitical concerns is putting it mildly.

During the Cold War, Finland was ostensibly part of the ‘free world ‘ – though, like Sweden, officially neutral. However, the country had an unusually close relationship with the Soviet Union – so close, in fact, that western strategists coined the word ‘Finlandization‘ to describe the process by which a smaller country acquiesces to the heavy influence of a larger neighbour without formally entering into an alliance with it. There are those who see Russian influence on populist movements in Europe as a new process of Finlandization – with Hungary a particular cause for concern.

The debate over how far this influence goes has generated more heat than light. Clearly, Putin will take any opportunity to mess with the West, but to view the rise of populism through this lens alone is shortsighted. Not every country in the populist bloc takes a soft line on Russia – just ask the Poles. Furthermore, it’s not as if western Europe is above cutting deals with the bear: Germany has helped Putin build gas pipelines that strategically bypass Russia’s neighbours and London is awash with Russian money.

The assertion of a central European identity isn’t just about telling western Europeans what they can do with their hypocritical political correctness, it’s also a reminder that eastern Europe does not start where western Europe stops: there is somewhere in between the two that’s quite distinct from both.

Central Europe is also defined by its southern borders. For centuries, the Austrians and Hungarians held the front line against the Ottoman Empire. The gates of Vienna were never breached, but Hungary suffered devastating defeat and occupation.

The liberal disregard for historical and geographical sensitivities has already had dire consequences for the unity of Europe

Europe is not a distinct landmass like Africa or Australia. It’s borders have always been debatable – and there are points in its history where European civilisation might have been extinguished (indeed there are places where it was). Western Europeans, secure on their Atlantic islands and peninsulas, easily forget that the struggle to remain European went on for centuries longer in other parts of the continent than in their own.

It’s important not to portray this struggle as a simplistic clash between Christian and Islamic civilisations – because it never was. Europe has never been exclusively Christian and Christianity has never been exclusively European. And yet the histories of Europe and Christianity are intimately entwined – and especially where those identities have come under the greatest pressure.

The liberal disregard for historical and geographical sensitivities has already had dire consequences for the unity of Europe. This can be seen most dramatically in regard to immigration policy. While the nations of central Europe – together with their Italian and Balkan neighbours – find themselves on the front line of mass migration from the Middle East and North Africa, western Europeans have attempted dictate their response to this challenge from Brussels. One might have thought that the populist takeover of central Europe would give the EU establishment pause for thought, but there is little sign of it so far.

So what if the ideological clash continues? I don’t believe we’ll see the EU break apart by 2025 – not unless there’s another, even more serious Eurozone crisis. However, I do think we’ll see the central European bloc – including Italy and Austria – solidify. The EU establishment will find it much harder to browbeat a whole region of Europe (including countries considered to be ‘western European’) than individual nations.

This will provide the context for a new dynamic of ‘populist statesmanship’. Though they’ll cover one another’s backs, we can expect see the likes of Viktor Orbán, Sebastian Kurz and Matteo Salvini competing among themselves to see who can go furthest in defying the European establishment. Previously, the only way to gain status as an EU leader was as a reinforcer of the establishment and its orthodoxies. Ambitious EU politicians now have an alternative career path.

I think this will transform populism in western Europe too – where populist parties, though growing in strength, are currently locked out of power. The outsider style of populist politics, as exemplified by Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders, will give way to a new generation whose purpose is power not protest.

There are cases where a mainstream party inadvertently leaves itself open to a reverse takeover by a populist movement – the Labour Party in Britain and the Republicans in America being obvious examples. A different, and more likely, path to power is that pioneered by Sebastian Kurz in Austria: win the leadership of a mainstream political party, pull a hard right on an issue like immigration, and then, having stolen the populists’ thunder, bring them into government with you.

There are a number of countries vulnerable to a such a manoeuvre. The most obvious is France, where the cordon sanitaire that has kept the National Front out of power could be breached by an ambitious centre-right politician – especially if the Front’s leadership passes to a more presentable figure (keep an eye on Marion Maréchal, who has recently dropped the ‘Le Pen’ from her name). Another possible scenario: Boris Johnson ousts Theresa May and consolidates the Conservative-UKIP vote. And how long before the Swedish centre-right welcomes the once far-right Sweden Democrats into the fold?

The outsider style of populist politics, as exemplified by Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders, will give way to a new generation whose purpose is power not protest

It wouldn’t be the first time that populist parties have made it into government. But on previous occasions, they’ve found themselves either repulsed by the political establishment or absorbed into it. What the rise of the populist bloc in central Europe shows – and Trump’s America too – is that populists are now capable of taking power and using it to effect real and lasting change.

This is something new. Lacking genuine precedents, some anti-populists draw parallels with the rise of fascism and Nazism between the wars. I don’t think it will be anything that cataclysmic. Today’s populists – especially the ready-for-government version – aren’t trying to overthrow western democracy; they are  seeking to redefine it.

Unlike the establishment liberals, they don’t regard the western ideal of liberty as universal. It isn’t something that’s already ‘there’: ready-and-waiting to be discovered by all of humankind – as soon as the ancient clutter of nationhood, religion and tradition is swept away. Rather, populists see democracy as something nurtured within, and still attached to, specific traditions. Not all such politicians would describe those traditions in the same way as Viktor Orbán does – with his emphasis on cultural Christianity. For instance, Marine Le Pen places her preferred narrative in the French history of republicanism and laïcité. The pro-Trump intellectuals otherwise known as ‘west coast Straussians‘ base their worldview on the foundation, and nation-building project, of the United States of America. In the UK, some Brexiteers take an explicitly Whiggish view of history – a sort of flag-waving, red-white-and-blue liberalism.

These aren’t so much competing narratives as parallel ones – because they’re deliberately specific to particular histories, nations and regions. There is, of course, an ever-present danger that some of these narratives could lend themselves to exclusionary politics based on cultural, ethnic or even racial identity. However, liberal universalism has its dangers too – its assumptions were instrumental in conflicts, like that in Iraq, that have killed hundreds of thousands of people. Less bloodily, there has been the widespread failure to control mass immigration and adequately integrate migrants into their new homes. Meanwhile, the globalisation of trade has opened-up deep class-based divisions within western societies.

That these and other failures have resulted in the rise of populism is obvious. However, establishment liberals are still catching up with the fact that their populist opponents are intent on power not just protest. And almost completely unrecognised is that the universalisation of liberalism – the attempt to cut it loose of its roots – has opened the way for the equal and opposite errors of populist ideology.

I don’t know which side will ultimately prevail. Perhaps new leaders will emerge with the wisdom and courage to defeat the false dichotomy and reintegrate the western tradition. For the foreseeable future, however, we are divided.

  1. Draft preamble to the Treaty establishing the Constitution, The European Convention, 28 May 2003
  2. Preamble to the Lisbon Treaty, Official Journal of the European Union, C 115, Volume 51, on 9 May 2008
  3. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s speech at the 29th Bálványos Summer Open University and Student Camp, 28 July 2018, Tusnádfürdő (Băile Tuşnad), Website of the Hungarian Government, 29 June 2018

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.


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