V4. Enteringthe time of strong polarisation

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Enteringthe time of strong polarisation

The blow of financial crisis has changed the political and social landscape in Europe significantly. Seven years after the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008 the situation of the EU has got even worse. The different forms of crises are now challenging the European community and the future of the whole post-war integration project is at stake.

The crisis of growth and employment, geopolitical crisis in eastern European and the tensions with the Middle East, the migration crisis and the consequences of Brexit are simultaneously causing an existential threat to the EU. And now Trump’s unexpected victory in the US has undermined the strong belief in the imperturbable character of the liberal world order.

This text aims to show how the new forms of popular and protest movements in the EU member states are determined by the polymorphic crisis in the West. In the analysis the main focus is put on the countries of central Europe in order to examine whether the concept of the illiberal democracy really helps us to better understand the new situation in Europe and the extent to which it is rooted in the old tenets of the Cold War and post-Cold War division into Western and Eastern Europe.

This paper will present the main tendencies in the public opinion of the central European countries based on the latest survey from the PEW Research Centre, which shows the huge complexity of opinions on the “polycrisis” in the EU in all European societies. This is followed by a closer examination of the concept of illiberal democracy introduced by Fareed Zakaria in order to consider its descriptive usefulness for the current situation.

By reflecting further on the wider situation in theEU this paper will argue that the political and social turmoil in central Europe cannot be correctly conceived as a deviation from the European norm, or as an exception, but in fact belongs to the pan-European problem of the systemic crisis of democratic and liberal Europe. In general we should reflect on the crisis as the moment of truth and the return of politics (Van Middelaar, 2016: 496). It means that the crisis is the situation in which the key question of political legitimacy arises anew.

Therefore, to understand the logic of crisis it is essential to view the process of increasing polarisation within the EU as directly linked to the relationship between the high politics of the political elites and the expectations and needs of democratic societies.

In general after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990 the integration process was viewed as the guarantee of the stable post-Cold War order in Europe thanks to the belief that the Western liberal elites were able to convincingly achieve the compromise with their democratic electorates in terms of covering the main needs of prosperity and security. This post-Cold War pact has now been cancelled (Walt, 2016).

As one of the main pillars of the liberal post-Cold War order in the West, this new situation affects the EU directly, exposing it to the extremely dangerous forms of polarisation appearing in many places, in the relation between states, between states, supranational institutions and societies, societies and markets, and governments and electorates.

The threat of increasing polarisation has entirely overshadowed anybenefits of further integration, leading to general confusion about the future of the EU and its unity. The old divides, which seemed to have been overcome a long time ago thanks to the integration process now occur anew with great intensity: the north-south divide between the debt and surplus countries of the eurozone and the west-east divide between the friends and critics of the migration policy (Kalan, 2015). In the latter case, the old and enduring belief that Europe is deeply divided between west and east with regard to certain values (modernisation, open society, tolerance and liberalism) has been brought back to life, questioning the success of the integration of central European countriesafter the enlargement in 2004. 

Supranational activism doesn’t help 

In the context of the polycrisis the EU has been undergoing since at least the breakdown of stability of the eurozone in 2010 central Europe is no exception but forms part of the pan-European problem

of shrinking integration capacity in Europe. The main challenge the EU is facing now is to find the new conditions under which the integration project could regain its vigour and come out from the deepest stagnation in its history.

The key dilemma for any attempts undertaken in this direction was rightly described once by the French sociologist Alain Touraine who has argued in his sociology of crisis that each critical situation evaluates the capability of the system to maintain itself as a whole, in unity (Touraine, 2010).

This brings us to another key problem of balancing between unity and difference which seems to be essential when searching for the potential solution to the current polycrisis in the EU. Rebalancing the EU to find the common point of support in order to keep member states together and to overcome the increasing polarisation between them has to be taken now as the raison d’ .tre of integration after the Brexit referendum. To make it possible, new forms and mechanisms of mediation are urgently required that go beyond the existing beaten paths of how the common EU institutions have functioned until now.

Luuk van Middelaar, the excellent expert on European integration, identifies the crisis as a moment of truth which requires increased politicisation, the return of politics (Van Middelaar, 2016). He observesthis turn in favour of politics in the case of reactions to the euro crisis and the geopolitical situation in Ukraine after the annexation of Crimea.

However, such politicisation of the EU in times of crises can produce adverse effects in light of the necessary balance between the unity and differences mentioned above. Firstly, Middelaar admits that politicisation leads to the pre-eminence of non-rule-based decisions in times of crises departing from the community method and common market principles. Secondly, the logic of politicisation usually brings increasing centralisation. As in Habermas’ argument for transnational European

democracy or in the expectation to overcome the euro crisis thanks to the common transnational fiscal policy with one European parliamentary sovereign, political centralization leads to replacement of diversity by one coherent agent.



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  1. Recently, Visegrad countries have received a lion’s share of the international community’s attention. As they have been experiencing an unprecedented period of economic flowering and presenting promising macroeconomic figures, the story of their economic miracle has returned to the headlines. However, there has been another reason for attention.

  2. After a set of successive elections, Central European countries seem to have slid toward a new, alarming political order, characterized by weak governments, polarized societies and tension beyond frontiers. The whole region has been swept by populism underpinned by nationalism. Following elections in September 2005 and June 2006, we have witnessed successes of populist movements. Why have V4 countries become “problematic children of the EU”, and why has liberalism ebbed? How can we characterize the ruling parties in the region? These are the main issues to deal with these days.

  3. For the past decade, discords and collisions have been stifled because there was a clear objective: EU entry. “The return to Europe” was an enticing motive for a large part of the society and a sufficient reason to suppress conflicts. To achieve this goal, governments in candidate states had to push through legislation, which, though oftentimes painful and unpopular, was positive to the development of the society. Nowadays, problems that were neglected and downplayed a decade ago have become apparent.

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