Warsaw, Poland – The German Marshall Fund of the United States, in cooperation with Visegrad Insight, published a policy paper entitled “Hungary and Poland: What Next for Europe’s ‘Illiberal Vanguard’?” Here are the key takeaways from the report, co-written by Joerg Forbrig (German Marshall Fund), Edit Zgut (Polish Academy of Sciences) and Wojciech Przybylski (Visegrad Insight).
Ahead of the decisive trial of the May European elections, the authors underscore that “the ruling parties of Hungary and Poland play a prominent role” in the advances of illiberal, Eurosceptic sentiment and parties all across Europe. Understanding both countries’ dynamics and possible paths will therefore prove crucial to anticipate, forecast and guess where the EU might be headed in the coming years.
What next for Hungary in 2019?
The regime implemented by Viktor Orban, reelected less than a year ago for a third consecutive term, has “entered a new authoritarian phase where the space for the divided opposition has been restricted even further”. The prospects look grim for anyone aspiring to overthrow Orban’s Fidesz party, given that “the playing field is so uneven that even a strong and unified opposition would struggle to keep Orban’s regime from staying in power”, according to the paper. As the “unprecedented unity” of the opposition to denounce the so-called ‘slave law’ has shown, the only real risk for Orban and his Fidesz party is a “large-scale resistance movement that could redirect the public’s focus from the government’s single issue of fear-mongering about migration”. In that regard, the most important deadline for Hungary’s opposition to present a united front isn’t May’s European Parliament elections, but the local polls to be held in October 2019.
On the international front, Orban’s regime has “a permanent need for external enemies” in order to promote his “anti-imperialist Eurosceptic populism (…) based on the revival of a discourse taken from the Hungarian far-right against the ‘West’” who, supposedly, harbors “colonialist sentiments towards Central European countries that are performing better than them economically”. According to the authors of the study, Orban’s vision for the future architecture of the EU is based on the wish for the European People’s Party – of which Fidesz is a member – to take a strong anti-immigration stance and cooperate with Europe’s far-right forces. Let’s also remind that if Fidesz does achieve its – alleged – goal of securing an anti-immigration majority at the EU level – something most analysts consider unlikely in light of recent polls – Orban will lose his favorite external scapegoat and will probably have to go searching for a new one.
Hungary may very quickly become further isolated within a multi-speed EU as advocated by France and Germany and exemplified by the Aachen Treaty both countries recently signed, which promotes a “coalition of the willing” for countries wishing to deepen EU integration. In that scenario, the Hungarian government will most likely still rely on a “obstructionist approach”, most notably in the field of migration, that might however prove unsustainable given “the movement toward more qualified-majority voting in the [EU] council”, that would theoretically strip Hungary of its veto power on matters currently requiring unanimous approval of all member states.
What next for Poland in 2019?
“Poland will see new opportunities to improve its position in the EU” this year, according to the authors of the report, who point out that “Poland has the potential to influence and lead in Central Europe only when it is influential in the EU”, although it has recently let Viktor Orban’s Hungary set the tone for the Central European narrative. In line with predictions from other analysts, the report points out that the Law and Justice party will moderate its agenda ahead of the parliamentary elections to be held in the fall – recent reports about PiS vowing not to push the divisive issue of abortion before the next elections should, for instance, be understood in that context. Contrary to Hungary, Warsaw’s “domestic agenda is more and more receptive to firm pressure from Poland’s partners”, as proven by the government’s move to water-down its controversial reform of the judicial system and the so-called “Holocaust law”, as well as its decision to abandon a takeover of foreign-owned media, “the third core promise of PiS that was broken”.
On the international stage, Poland’s foreign policy will depend on two important factors: the outcome of Brexit, as the U.K.’s exit from the bloc amounts to Poland losing its most powerful ally in the EU. If the U.K. does indeed leave the EU, “the number one European partner for Poland could again be Germany”, although bilateral relations between the neighbors have been strained since 2015. The second important foreign factor to take into account is “the foreign policy agenda set by Democrats in the U.S. Congress”, given that PiS has bet a lot on its relations with Washington – illustrated by its decision to host a U.S.-led international conference on Iran later this month and Warsaw’s intense lobbying for a permanent U.S. military base in Poland to deter Russian aggression.
As Poles prepare to head to the polls twice this year, PiS needs “to show itself as more centrist to win a second term in government and only then will it openly pursue a more radical agenda”, claims the report. Finally, the authors single out former Polish Prime Minister and current European Council President Donald Tusk, a strong opponent and bête noire of the conservative government, as “the only political figure capable of shaping the narrative of the opposition”, as commentators speculate whether he’ll run for President in 2020.