November 3, 2015
Rodrigo Vaz is currently a Graduate Attaché Researcher at the British Institute in Eastern Africa.
“Rumsfeld said he didn’t want Old Europe anyway, but New Europe. By Old Europe he means old, established countries like France and Germany; by New Europe he means countries like Srovovia, Tlavokia, Vurviria, countries where tractors are heads of state and the whole family sits down to a dinner of boiled radiators.” (Dylan Moran, Monster)
Starting this piece with such a provocative, borderline offensive quote by Dylan Moran may throw readers off. Please, don’t be – Dylan Moran is a stand-up comedian after all. I certainly do not believe that Central and Eastern Europe have tractors for heads of states, and pierogi or borscht are certainly incomparably more appetising than boiled radiators. In all fairness, I think Dylan Moran would agree.
But I was reminded of this as I saw the news that Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s Law and Justice party had won the Polish parliamentary elections by a landslide. As every analyst was quick to point out, this is the latest move in a growing populist tendency in Central Europe, especially clear in countries like Orban’s Hungary, but also in Slovakia and, to a smaller extent, in the Czech Republic. A wave of far-right parties, veiled in a guise of political moderation, took governments in Central Europe by storm and adopted radical protectionist, anti-immigration and anti-refugees measures – all backed up by an even more radical rhetoric. We all witnessed Hungary’s shameful handling of the refugee crisis and Orban’s ridiculous credentials as a self-style “defender of Christianity”. In a surreal episode, Slovakia only assented to welcoming Christian refugees because it ‘did not have any mosques’; overall, the refugee crisis showed the cracks under Central Europe’s formerly professed liberalism. Even if the refugee crisis is a temporary episode, more structural signs of this populist drive had already shown previously. Orban’s ‘illiberal democracy’ project and his simplistic defence of ‘Christian values’ speak volumes for the worldview currently voted into office in Central Europe.
Maybe Rumsfeld – known, amongst other things, for creative expressions like ‘the unknown known’ – was just ahead of his own time with his quest to conquer the hearts and minds of ‘New Europe’. US Republicans seem to be looking at politics in ‘New Europe’ and taking notes. Coincidentally, both share this Christian civilizational view of Europe that is constantly under attack by wishy-washy liberals who will doom us in the end. It is impossible to look at the unfolding events in Central Europe and the ongoing Republican primaries in the US and not find the same patterns of radicalisation. In Central Europe, politicians rise up against the authoritarian tendencies of Brussels; the Republicans rise up the authoritarian tendencies of Washington. Both pretend to have the best interests of the ‘small business over’ at heart. Both Central European politicians and US Republicans share the perception of their neighbouring countries as a menace (Mexico and Canada (!), according to some Republicans, Germany, according to Hungary and Poland), both share the same verve for protectionist measures; but above all, they share this civilisation worldview of ‘the West vs the rest’.
Western Europe surely has its fair share of far-right nonsense: UK’s UKIP, France’s Front National, the Netherlands’ PVV, Germany’s Pegida and Italy’s whoever-it-is. Maybe I am radically understating their danger. However, even if they are dangerously rising in popularity and have been for the last few years, they are still not in government. In the UK, the opposition to the centre-right is the centre-left; in France and Italy, it is the other way around; in Germany and the Netherlands, given their grand-coalition arrangements, the same dichotomy does not apply, but they still have reasonable liberal parties in opposition. In Hungary, the main opposition to a populist government comes from all-out fascist Jobbik. Perhaps the main difference between Old and New Europe lies in its party structure: in Old Europe, without exception (so far), there are two main parties, one centre-left and one centre-right and several smaller parties to the left and the right of them, respectively. In Central Europe, ideology has largely been twisted arguably due to the Communist legacy: the dichotomy is between right and righter.
Anyway, I digress. My point is this: for all its differences, ‘New Europe’ politicians and US Republicans seem to be closer than ever in terms of their rhetoric and ideology. Protectionism, attacks on individual rights and guarantees, and Huntingtonesque Clash of Civilizations views, are making a triumphant comeback. Perhaps being a defender of political liberalism in Europe and the US has never been so unpopular since 1990 – and for that reason, defending liberalism has never been so much of the essence.Blogactiv Team