No, Central Europe is not doomed to “illiberalism”: The Czech Republic and Poland are witnessing significant political events that will shape a portion of Europe’s future.
Countries of Western Europe have a tendency to view the whole of Central Europe as a region condemned to “illiberalism,” that is, turning away from the values upon which the Union is supposed to be built. This is a reductive shortcut because the Union’s member countries, even those in the western part, are being traversed by opposing currents and are at a crossroads.
Two of these countries, the Czech Republic and Poland, are in this situation, and the outcome of these developments will affect the EU’s future. In the Czech Republic, the surprise electoral defeat of populist Prime Minister Andrej Babis was followed on October 10th by President Milos Zeman’s hospitalization in critical condition. Zeman is not exactly a liberal either, which means that the uncertainty is complete.
In Poland, the situation is quite different: the Constitutional Court’s decision to consider national laws superior to European laws has sparked a major crisis with Brussels, calling into question a fundamental principle that ensures equality among member states. If this decision is upheld, it could result in a de facto “Polexit,” or the withdrawal of Poland from the European Union, so the stakes are high.
These two countries, along with Hungary and Slovakia, are part of the so-called “Visegrad” group, which is impeding European integration. However, these countries have significant pro-European currents in the political arena.
In the Czech Republic, two pro-European center-right and liberal coalitions are claiming victory and the right to form the country’s next government. However, the outgoing Prime Minister was supposed to meet with the President, who is now sick, today, and many believed that this meeting would be nothing more than a ploy by Babis to remain in power.
In Poland, reactions to the court’s decision, which was heavily influenced by the ruling populist party PiS (Law and Justice), have been harsh. Thousands of demonstrators gathered across the country on Sunday, October 11th, with the European flag at the forefront, while 26 former Constitutional Court judges claimed that the court’s decision exceeded its rights. One of the major points of contention between Warsaw and Brussels is the independence of the judiciary.
According to a recent poll, 80 percent of Poles support their country’s membership in the European Union. It would thus be quite a paradox if Poland were to leave the EU, as it is not in the same context as the Brexit, which was decided by referendum.
Nonetheless, the accumulation of subjects of contention between Poland and the Union’s rules on justice, media independence, homosexual rights, and abortion rights, creates a growing lack of understanding. However, the Polish government recognizes that it stands to lose a lot as Warsaw’s share of the European recovery plan is currently stalled as a result of these disputes.
The impasse is likely to worsen as the liberal opposition is now led by former European Council President and former Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who hopes to reclaim a majority in the next legislative elections in 2023. The European issue will be a major dividing line in the campaign.
These events will have a significant impact on the future shape of Europe, but “illiberalism” is not unavoidable.