So that’s the way things are headed in the community of states that just a short while ago could be considered the most civilized in the history of the world. The European Commission waves an admonishing finger at Warsaw and Warsaw gives it the finger in return. If you look for that one moment when the European Union (E.U.) began to fall apart at the highest level, the moment at which Europe stopped growing through crises and instead asked itself the question – what greater value does a union of states actually have over a strong national state – this exchange of words could have been it.
"The rule of law is one of the common values on which the union is founded," European Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans wrote to Poland’s foreign minister and justice minister shortly before Christmas. The Dutchman warned the new ruling conservative government, in words that were only half-way diplomatic, about "undermining" the independence of the Polish constitutional court.
What the two ministers gave back in return was more than just a response to an admonition to keep things clean in the government. It was a rejection of the European idea per se. Poland is a sovereign country, according to Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro, and that means, "I don't think that an external body can impose something on us, because that could conflict with our sense of national pride." Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski added that any E.U. official "who came to office via political connections" is "not a legitimate partner for me."
These are words that mark a turning point. Until now, the working consensus of the E.U. has been that member states yield part of their sovereignty, pool it in Brussels and through the manifold power of the states, gain back all the more sovereignty. It is now precisely this – committing to delegated power – that appears to the new Polish government to be an infringement of their national pride and Brussels as a world of backrooms in which a few unelected, instead of many elected, make the decisions. So far it has only been angry citizens who have talked like that when they saw themselves being robbed of their self-determination by being forced to adopt energy-saving lamps or through free trade agreements. Now governments are talking that way.
Prime Minister Viktor Orbán of Hungary has an equally hostile view of Brussels, as do the Czech Republic’s president, Miloš Zeman ("This land is our land"), as well as a third of the French who recently voted for the Front National. In Finland, an anti-E.U. party is now part of the government, and in the country next door, the no-less anti-integrationist, right-wing populist Sweden Democrats are leading in the opinion polls. In the Netherlands, the Mephistophelian, far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders is now on an equal footing with the two major mainstream parties, as is the clownish anti-establishment Five Star Movement in Italy.
What is right-wing and what is left-wing criticism of the E.U.? Hard to say when ultimately both are concerned about the same thing: raising the will of the people above an international architecture that has become irritating and inconvenient. The hatred of an E.U. cartel that imposes either economic or cultural rules is uniting the nationalists and socialists in Europe, occasionally even allowing them join together, as in Greece, where the left-radical Syriza formed a coalition with the national-chauvinistic ANEL party.
Left and right have become second-class categories
In Britain, the reforms that Tory Prime Minister David Cameron desires can be roughly summed up in two demands. Leave us in peace with your fanaticism about "an ever-closer union." And keep us out of your common currency mush.
Do you want more Europe or less?
In short, left and right have become second-class categories in 2016 in Europe. Today, the actual stock question is do you want more Europe or less? More and more Europeans want less. That is a reverse of thrust, and it has taken place as drastically as that of a passenger plane touching down on the runway. Where has this sudden reverse energy come from?
It certainly comes from different sources in Poland than in France, Sweden, England or Greece. And yet there is a tipping point, one that all camps would maintain has come, that the E.U. is now no longer expanding through conviction but rather through subjugation.
The conviction that allowed the E.U. to grow once was that Europe’s mini-states (and there are only mini-states in Europe) will only be able to compete in globalization if they link arms and band together. The euro helps them in doing this because it makes trade within the E.U. just as easy and reliable as trading with it. The Schengen Agreement lets the national borders fall for the market and the people but in turn the E.U.’s outer borders will be all the more protected. Europe blossoms as an ever-more elegant area of prosperity, security and justice.
You don’t have to be anti-Europe to see that a lot of this conviction was starry-eyed naivety. Europe’s outer borders have remained open in the largest refugee movement since the end of the Second World War, with the result that the barriers have been closing again like dominoes in the interior and, of all places, in border regions that have grown so close together, such as those between Sweden, Denmark and Germany.
Should we accept ultimatums from a club of rule-breakers?
The euro? Unfortunately, it reinforced the tendency to waste money in countries that had that tendency and, in doing so, weakened Europe’s economic region. Above all, many core E.U. countries, Spain, Italy, France, are today economically worse off than 10 years ago; all of the young unemployed there are searching in vain for the benefits of the euro and globalization. The fact that the cause might possibly be ultimately with the E.U. is often lost. Brussels is too handy as a code word for the failure of the elite and powers of capitalism.
Lastly, the promise of an "area of justice." In order to save the euro, its member states pretty much broke every rule that had ever been written for the monetary union, and in order to distribute the refugees, a quota solution, which was forced through by a majority decision of the European Council, is suddenly supposed to follow the suspended Dublin Regulation. And resounding out of Warsaw is, should we accept ultimatums from this club, from a reform school for nations that is more ambitious in issuing rules than in following rules?
"The good of the nation is above the law." This sentence is one of the most sinister that can currently be heard in the parliament in Poland. It was said by Kornel Morawiecki of the Kukiz’15 movement. It is an outrageous statement, a justification for despotism, the likes of which it was thought would never be heard again in Europe, certainly not from a former Solidarność fighter. The stupid thing is, if you replace "nation" with "European Union," the sentence could just as well have come from Angela Merkel.
Hungary’s head of government, Mr. Orbán, accused the chancellor of "moral imperialism" when she proposed distributing the refugees around Europe. The broader resentment behind such remarks is a feeling that the E.U. is being led in Berlin and Brussels by a squad of modern-day sanctimonious hypocrites who believe they must force their concepts of higher political culture on others. The Polish foreign minister complained on Monday in the German daily Bild newspaper about "25 years of leftist and liberal indoctrination," without naming the brainwashers by name. Mr. Waszczykowski describes all the more vividly what lies in store for his country if wackos of that sort aren’t put a stop to in the media: a new "mix of cultures and races, a world of bicycle-riders and vegetarians who only rely on renewable energies and fight against every form of religion."
In other words, never again having to adhere to a concept of salvation. Never again be a satellite state. Never again be ruled over by foreign apparatchiks, who consider themselves the avant-garde. It is no surprise that the loudest right-wing critics of Europe often come from the ranks of former East-European dissidents.
Is the E.U. coming into a tailspin?
The disappointment over Europe from the left sounds about the same, except the imperialism comes in the form of economic torture. A broad anti-neo-liberal International believes the E.U.’s honoring of democracy is simply a label, because no matter how a people decide about their economic policy, in the end it is forced under the yoke of austerity by the Brussels-Berlin-Frankfurt troika. Not a market for people but market before people is the working principle of the E.U. The example of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) also makes people in North America able to connect with the thought that non-elected negotiators authorize non-elected company bosses to strip parliaments of power. Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras was glad to see at the close of 2015 that Greece "no longer stands alone" in opposition to Brussels, "this kingdom of bureaucracy." No wonder that he scores points with his criticism, particularly with young people, for whom the E.U. promises to open up the world and who, instead, don’t even have the key to their own apartment in their pocket.
And now? Is the E.U. coming into a tailspin because its wings, the big promises of integration, are breaking off?
At any rate, the plane can’t be pulled up by the European Council depriving Poland of its voting right. Of course, a community of liberal democracies must react when the division of powers and the checks and balances are done away with, when the judiciary and the media are brought into line. But it must also exactly diagnose what is fueling this neo-authoritarianism. Is it the stress of democracies trying to adapt that are only half as old as the others? Or is it at times simply the overwhelming demands, both cultural and economic? Then a possible answer might be the rediscovery of an old idea, of a Europe of not only two speeds, but three, four speeds, one that learns to live with everything not happening at the same time. But above all, it should be a Europe that spurs on the quick instead of punishing the slow and by doing so only putting them more on the defensive.
Citizens are proving day-for-day, for example, how much more quicker, younger and energetic Polish civil society is compared to a government that has half its brain stuck in USSR paranoia. Defiant radio producers and journalists who simply play the Anthem of Europe every hour – imagine that happening on the BBC or the German station ARD. The world will be hearing, must hear, much more about them in the future.
In the meantime, Europe can very well take a tough stance against authoritarian, illiberal governments without necessarily mobilizing the E.U., namely by bilateral actions, and lots of it. Dozens of needle-pricks from the capitals of Europe can do more than a hollow beat of the drum from Brussels, because the two Polish ministers are right about one thing, you shouldn’t just hear a rebuke from a secondary authority like that of an E.U. commissioner for first order violations of freedom. Rather a defense of the greatest democratic value.
Translated by David Andersen