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Eastern Europe: how to be a pessoptimist

Sean L Hanley15 December 2019

Demonstration in Prague

Photo: Martin2035 [CC BY 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Three decades after the fall of communism, Eastern Europe’s democratic development is seen in increasingly gloomy terms. However, we may need to find a more pragmatic, middle way in assessing the region, argues Seán Hanley.

The region termed Central Europe or Central and Eastern Europe – the body of small and medium-sized states between the former USSR and the established democracies of Western Europe – was once seen as the great success story of post-communist democratisation:  rapid and peaceful political transition in 1989-90; a quick return to economic growth; flawed but functional liberal democracy; relatively rapid integration into the EU; political elites who seemed, whether out of conviction or pragmatism, willing and able to imitate West European political, economic and ideological models – although these were (and are) diverse, ranging from Nordic style welfare capitalism to British-style deregulation and neo-liberalism.

Since mid-2000s, however, the intellectual climate  among both commentators and political scientists the agenda has shifted from one of understanding consolidation, integration and consolidation or remedying the flaws of stable, but weakly performing post-communist democracy to one of deep gloom.

Now, compared to early hopes of the liberal project, the narrative has become a pessimistic one. Of democratic decline or even backsliding toward authoritarianism. The rejection by voters and elites in Central and Eastern Europe of Western European models – and the EU status quo – as too socially and economically political for their traditions and societies. And of constitutional liberalism as constraining the democratic will of the people, or holding back the emergence of a capable modernising state.  Economic catch-up with Western Europe, especially in terms of the living standards of poorer, older, less educated, seems a chimera.

Populist critics now decry the locking in of Central and Eastern Europe as, once again, an exploited peripheral Europe (including Mediterranean democracies of Southern Europe and the Balkans) – analogous, but on a much bigger scale to the “left behind” marginalised regions within Western European countries, which have fuelled populist electoral insurgencies.

Given ineffective and cumbersome procedures for enforcing the rule-of-law – in what was supposed to a club of liberal-democratic nations – the EU, as R. Daniel Kelemen has suggested, is becoming a patchwork of  regimes encompassing democracies, semi-democracies and downright authoritarian states, hamstrung by North-South and East-West splits.

What is especially jarring is that some of the supposed frontrunners democratisation in the region – Hungary and Poland – are now the vanguard of “democratic backsliding”, conservative counter-revolution and experiments in liberal governance. Some prominent governance indices, such as Freedom House’s ‘Freedom In the World’, now classify Hungary as having slipped below out of the zone of fully liberal democratic ‘Free’ societies. Poland is rapidly heading the same way.

Worse still, some of the treasured mechanisms of building democracy such as civil society development and grassroots activism have turned out work in ways quite opposite to that  envisaged in 1990s. In Hungary and Poland, the electoral breakthroughs of the Fidesz and Law and Justice (PiS) parties were prefigured years before through the development of networks of conservative civil organisations and right-wing civic initiative at grassroots level.

Moreover, the main vehicles for illiberalism have not been ‘red-brown’ alliances of ex-communists and fringe nationalists, but parties and politicians with often impeccable roots in the anti-communist opposition, accepted by West European centre-right as mainstream conservative parties and political allies.

That said, there are many varieties of populism and democratic decline, ranging from the conservative electoral revolutions of Hungary and Poland, to the longstanding weak, but oddly stable corrupt democracies of Bulgaria and Romania, to the fragmented and feverish political landscapes of  Slovakia and Czechia – and the strange “technocratic populism” of Czechia’s billionaire prime minister Andrej Babiš ,who still unsure if he wants to be the Czech Macron or the Czech Trump.

George Orwell’s dictum that “All revolutions are failures, but they are not the same failure” is, unsurprisingly, often quoted these days in relation to East Europe. We could also paraphrase Tolstoy and say that all unhappy democracies are unhappy in their own way. Or we might remember the historians Joseph Rothchild and Nancy  M. Wingfield’s characterisation of the region – made originally after the decline and fall of communism in late 1980s – about Eastern Europe’s “return to diversity”. (more…)

East European liberals’ accommodation of ethnic nationalism has left the region’s democratic institutions vulnerable

Sean L Hanley18 March 2019

Photo: Akron/ Wikipedia Commons

East Central Europe’s democratic deterioration is as much  about the limitations of mainstream liberal forces as the rise of illiberal populists argue James Dawson and Sean Hanley.

Less than a decade ago the newer EU member states of East Central Europe (ECE) were considered the great success story of post-communist democratisation. This success was held up by scholars as a textbook illustration of how the EU, through the attractiveness of its political and economic model, and the toughness of accession conditions, could make a decisive difference by empowering pro-European liberals in the region’s shakier democracies to push their countries firmly on track to liberal democracy (and EU membership).

While poorer and more corrupt than the EU’s West European core, ECE was assumed to be a region safe for democracy with good long-term prospects for economic and political catch-up. Today this narrative of democratic progress is dead, replaced by one of democratic backsliding – and even sliding into authoritarianism – under the auspices of populist and nationalist politicians.

What has been especially disconcerting is that it has been the early frontrunners of democratization – Hungary and Poland – where such democratic backsliding has gone farthest and fastest: after winning decisive election victories (Fidesz in Hungary in 2010, Law and Justice (PiS) in Poland in 2015) conservative-nationalist governing parties have moved rapidly to dismantle liberal checks and balances, capturing or neutralising constitutional courts, state agencies, public (and in Hungary private) media and NGOs.

More strikingly still, Fidesz and PiS were not radical outsiders emerging from the fringes, but large right-wing parties once considered part of a pro-Western centre-right mainstream, whose representatives still sit with German Christian Democrats and British Conservatives in the European Parliament. (more…)

Reproductive Justice and Discourses of Childbearing in the Fringes of Europe: Ongoing Discussions with SSEES and Partner Researchers and Activists

Lisa J Walters19 May 2017

Dr Nevila Pahumi,  Alexander Nash Fellowship in Albanian Studies

Over the past year, a group of us SSEES researchers have actively engaged questions of reproductive justice and discourses of childbearing in Eastern and Western Europe. Given the commonality of challenges women face in both ends of the continent to practice reproductive choice over their bodies, we have joined forces to give voice to some of the key concerns behind pro-choice and reproductive justice abortion debates now raging across the continent and beyond.

Choice (more…)

What will the Euro elections tell us about Eastern Europe?

Sean L Hanley11 May 2014

Plakat do Parlamentu Europejskiego 2014 Platforma Obywatelska

Photo: Lukasz2 via Wikicommons

Seán Hanley looks ahead to the upcoming European elections and assesses what they may tell us about the enduring differences between voters and parties in Western and Eastern Europe.

The elections to the European Parliament which take place across the EU’s 28 member states between 22 and 25 May are widely seen a series of national contests, which voters use to vent their frustration and give incumbent and established parties a good kicking. Newspaper leader writers and think-tankers got this story and have been working overtime to tell us about a rising tide of populism driven by a range of non-standard protest parties.

The conventional wisdom is that the ‘populist threat’ is all eurosceptic (and usually of a right-wing persuasion) although in some cases the ‘eurosceptic surge’ is clearly a matter of whipping together  familiar narrative than careful analysis.

But, as a simultaneous EU-wide poll using similar (PR-based) electoral systems, the EP elections also provide a rough and ready yardstick of Europe-wide political trends, ably tracked by the LSE-based Pollwatch 2014 and others.

And, for those interested in comparison and convergence of the two halves of a once divided continent, they a window into the political differences and similarities between the ‘old’ pre-2004 of Western and Southern Europe and the newer members from Central and Eastern Europe (now including Croatia which joined in 2013). (more…)

Will the West become the East?

Sean L Hanley23 January 2014

Toy Trabant on map

Photo: MPBecker BY-NC-ND 2.0

Politically speaking Western Europe is a far more anomalous region than Eastern Europe argues Seán Hanley. However, the ‘advanced democracies’  of the West may, soon catch-up with the fluid, elite-driven politics of the East he suggests.

“I included a dummy for Eastern Europe” the presenter said, explaining the statistical methodology in her paper.

You have, you see, to control for the unknowable, complex bundle of historical peculiarities that mark out one half of the continent’s democracies from the other and might skew your results.

“But not just a dummy for Western Europe?” my colleague and I mischievously wondered.

Silly question. of course. And we didn’t ask it.  Most comparative political science research –West European democracies in the old (pre-2004) EU as their point of departure.  Most political science theories and paradigms have been framed on the experience of established (or as they are sometimes termed ‘advanced’) democracies of Western Europe and the United States. Many political models, – of democracy, interest group politics or party organisation – are abstractions and distillations of the experience Western Europe.

The task of those studying Eastern and Central Europe typically been an exercise in model fitting, of noticing and measuring up the gaps – like a tailor trying to fix up a suit made for someone else with quick alterations.  Eastern Europe – despite geographical and cultural proximity success of democratisation and liberal institution building – is not Western Europe.

The normative question lurking in the background is, of course, that of catch-up and convergence: when will Central and Eastern Europe become more like Western Europe? When would it consolidate ‘Western-style democracy’? (more…)

Why fair pay policies are needed to stop the East European brain drain

Sean L Hanley5 December 2013

Flags MakóA significant proportion of the EU budget is spent on research grants to encourage research and innovation across Europe. Although this funding is vital, there is Michael Galsworthy argues a substantial East-West divide which is encouraging a ‘brain drain’ from Eastern Europe.

Within the European Union there is an East-West gap, in health and innovation. The gap is widening because eastern European member states (such as Poland, Romania, Latvia, Hungary and Slovakia) are winning a tiny proportion of science grants from European central funding.

Scientist salaries and jobs have hit rock-bottom following austerity measures, not only in eastern Europe but also in many southern member states. Scientists are fleeing westward, fleeing out of the EU, or just out of science. Although the main funding body European Commission is now working to help, its current policies on salaries may be causing a brain drain.

As the EC prepares its research and innovation pot of €71bn to be awarded competitively under the “Horizon 2020” programme, it is also preparing additional programs to help struggling regions restructure to be more competitive for that money. However, the most powerful medicine for the recent cocktail of grim circumstances may be a simple principle: Equal pay for equal work.

Eastern Europe has huge scientific potential, but getting there from where we are now will require smart actions at the EC, national government and grassroots levels.

How bad is the situation? With regard to winning a share of central funds, the EC’s own impact assessment of health-related research found that the 12 newest member states participated on only about 6% of projects. Worse, they took home only 2.5% of the total funds collectively. Compare this with the original 15 member states with 78% participation and 85% of funds (the rest of the funds went to participants outside the EU). To put this in context; the original 15 member states had received 34 times more health research funding, a difference that cannot be explained by their 3.8 times larger population nor even their 12.8 times greater contribution to the EU budget. Other areas of science show similar patterns.

So what is in place to help poorer member states under Horizon 2020? Unfortunately, acknowledgement of a crisis and plans to tackle it are largely missing in the standard documentation. You have to call up the right people in the EC and connect the dots. (more…)

What drives the rise of Europe’s new anti-establishment parties?

Sean L Hanley2 September 2013

A new breed of protest party is being propolled to success in Central and Eastern Europe by a mix of economic hardship, rising corruption and ossified party establishments find Seán Hanley and Allan Sikk.

The spectacular breakthrough of Pepe Grillo’s Five Star Movement in Italy in February underlined the potential for a new type of anti-establishment politics in Europe – loosely organised, tech savvy and fierce in its demands to change the way politics is carried class, but lacking the anti-capitalism or racism that would make them easily pigeon-holeable as traditional outsider parties of far-left or far-right.

 But for observers of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), the dramatic eruption of new parties led by charismatic anti-politicians promising to fight corruption, renew politics and empower citizens is nothing new. Indeed, over the last decade a succession of such parties – led by a colourful array of ‘non-politicians’ ranging from aristocrats to central bankers, journalists and businessmen – have broken into parliaments in the region.

  Some have achieved spectacular overnight success in elections on a scale easily comparable to Grillo’s and (unlike Grillo) have often marched straight into government. Some examples include Simeon II National Movement (NDSV) in Bulgaria in 2001, New Era in Latvia in 2002 and Res Publica (Estonia 2003) and, more recently, the Czech Republic’s Public Affairs party (2010), the Palikot Movement (Poland 2011), Positive Slovenia (2011) and Ordinary People (Slovakia 2012).

 In a new paper we explore what these parties, which we term anti-establishment reform parties, have in common and what drives their success. (more…)

Where do London’s New Europeans live?

Sean L Hanley13 January 2013

Newly released data from the 2011 Census reveals some interesting patterns about London’s Central and East Europeans, finds Allan Sikk

I’ve been waiting for some time for the UK 2011 census data to come out to give me a chance to look at the distribution of  Londons ‘New Europeans’ – people from the ten accession countries that joined the EU in 2004-7 – and to use the R open source statistics package to visualise data geographically.

Map of people born in EU10 by London borough

Image: Allan Sikk

Overall, people born in the EU accession state make up 4.5% of the population of London. However,  but the picture is quite diverse across boroughs and across individual ‘sending’ countries. (more…)