Who Lost Eastern Europe?

In an essay written before the Crimea crisis, Jan-Werner Müller, a professor of politics at Princeton, described the deterioration of democratic norms in almost all of the post-communist central and eastern European states that have joined the European Union since 2004:

Although the EU remains attractive to many nonmembers, the problems with the union’s eastern European members have grown so numerous that they can hardly be dismissed as a matter of one or two bad apples — much as Europe’s elites, preoccupied with the euro crisis, might like to do. The term usually employed to describe what is happening among the new members — “backsliding” — doesn’t quite capture things. That word originally meant returning to a life of religious sin, or deconversion. What eastern European states are experiencing today is hardly a simple lapse in morals, however. Nor are they returning to any previously known form of authoritarianism. Rather, something new is emerging: a form of illiberal democracy in which political parties try to capture the state for either ideological purposes or, more prosaically, economic gain. Some countries in eastern Europe are moving toward a model of governance that resembles that of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Like Moscow, the governments of these countries are careful to maintain their democratic façades by holding regular elections. But their leaders have tried to systematically dismantle institutional checks and balances, making real turnovers in power increasingly difficult.

Müller cites Poland as an example of a country that has bucked the trend. Yet he warns that Poland may well follow in the path of Hungary and other backsliding states in the near future. As European monetary union has proven a complete and utter disaster, the successful integration of central and eastern Europe has come to be seen as the European Union’s great ennobling triumph of the past quarter-century. But according to Müller, this integration hasn’t been as successful as advertised:

As democracy in the region has come under sustained attack, the EU has done little. Part of the problem is that the Copenhagen criteria were never as effective as Brussels claimed. They were too general and were applied too inconsistently. EU elites presumed that if new members were capable of adhering to the rules governing the EU’s common market, they could be certified as full-fledged liberal democracies. Even countries that clearly weren’t quite ready for full EU membership, such as Bulgaria and Romania, were let in, and with few strings attached — all in the hope that joining Europe’s club would turn seeming barbarians into good liberal democrats. Such hopes proved unwarranted, and now that these countries have been admitted, Brussels has even less leverage over them. The European Commission has occasionally had stern words for Orban, with its justice commissioner calling time and again on Budapest to adhere to “fundamental European values,” but it lacks the legal and political instruments to intervene. The commission does have the power to impose sanctions, but only when countries do not play by the rules of the EU common market.

One wonders about the extent to which the Great Recession and the economic stagnation has followed has contributed to this illiberal drift. Müller notes that the investment boom in the region petered out after 2007. And the emigration of large numbers of ambitious, highly-educated young people from the region might have contributed to the general torpor as well. It seems that the legacy of communist misrule has proven more durable than we might have hoped.

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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