Curing the virus of autocracy in Europe: Q+A with Daniel Kelemen

R. Daniel Kelemen is Professor of Political Science and Law and Jean Monnet Chair in European Union Politics at Rutgers University. He is author or editor of six books and over one hundred articles and book chapters on EU politics and law. Kelemen is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and frequent media commentator on EU affairs. He recently gave a talk as part of UCL’s European Politics Series on “Europe’s Autocracy Trap… and how to escape it.”


What is the “autocracy trap” Europe finds itself in? 

The European Union professes to be a union of democracies, committed to democratic values. Yet, today, the EU already contains one electoral authoritarian member government in Hungary. Additionally, Poland and some other member governments are experiencing rapid backsliding toward autocracy. The EU appears unable—or at least unwilling—to address this issue, and it seems that autocratic member governments can endure inside the Union—indeed, they may thrive in part because of their EU membership. The European Union’s “autocracy trap”, which I also sometimes refer to as its “authoritarian equilibrium”, refers to this politically stable equilibrium in which the EU paradoxically supports the survival of authoritarian member governments. While many democratic, federal unions are sometimes plagued by enclaves of authoritarianism at the member state level, the EU appears to be locked in an even more difficult position than such national polities, in an autocracy trap that it is unable to escape. 

It seems that autocratic member governments can endure inside the Union—indeed, they may thrive in part because of their EU membership.

What are the factors underpinning it?

Three sets of factors underpin the authoritarian equilibrium. First, the EU’s half-baked system of party politics ends up helping to support autocrats. In short, Europarties have incentives to provide political support and protection to autocratic parties and leaders who strengthen them at the EU level. Since voters are barely aware of Europarties, neither the Europarties nor their other national member parties suffer reputational damage from supporting autocratic regimes. The best example is how the EPP—and in particular Angela Merkel’s CDU—has served as the protector of Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz regime for a decade. Many people view Merkel as the paragon of liberal democracy and see Orbán as the authoritarian leader of Europe’s far-right, without realizing that they are joined in a political alliance: his regime benefits from her party’s protection. On top of these partisan dynamics, intergovernmental decision-making practices and national sovereignty norms increase the reluctance of EU leaders to interfere in the domestic politics—further shielding national autocrats from EU intervention.

The second factor underpinning the authoritarian equilibrium is money—specifically, the EU funding and investment from other EU states that helps sustain these regimes. Just as resource rents can help prop up autocracies in oil states, so too can EU structural funds act as a “resource curse”, helping autocrats fund their clientelistic networks and prop up their regimes. Moreover, EU membership gives these countries a kind of “stamp of approval”—as Julia Gray has put it—for investors, helping them attract FDI.

Third, and finally, as the economist Albert Hirschman taught us long ago, the free movement of persons can prop up autocracies by acting as a “pressure-release valve” encouraging regime opponents to choose exit over voice. In the EU, with its freedom of movement, dissatisfied citizens can more easily leave backsliding regimes. This both depletes the opposition and generates remittances, thus helping these regimes endure. Moreover, because the EU doesn’t safeguard the voting rights of mobile citizens (or of those who remain at home for that matter), the EU’s autocrats can find ways to effectively disenfranchise those who emigrate to other member states.

What are possible ways out? Who can help the EU escape the autocracy trap, and what is stopping them?

In thinking about how the EU can escape the autocracy trap, there has been a lot of focus on tools, with many claiming the problem is that the EU lacks the necessary tools. This is wrong. The EU has had plenty of tools to address democratic backsliding all along. In fact, as Professor Laurent Pech of Middlesex University has put it, the EU often engages in a pointless “rule of law instrument creation cycle”—reacting to new episodes of backsliding by calling for the creation of new tools, rather than using tools it already has. The EU increasingly appears like a home repair DIYer who constantly goes to the hardware store to buy new tools, rather than actually getting started on projects with the tools he has.

The EU increasingly appears like a home repair DIYer who constantly goes to the hardware store to buy new tools, rather than actually getting started on projects with the tools he has.

So, what can the EU do? First, Europarties should eject and politically isolate their pet autocrats. Democratic parties must draw cordons sanitaires to exclude parties and governments who undermine democracy and democratic values. Second, national leaders must likewise denounce and politically ostracize any autocratic leaders, pressing them to restore and respect pluralistic democracy. Third, the EU must bring more infringement procedures and bring them more aggressively—seeking interim measures and penalty payments for non-compliance. Fourth, the EU must stop funding autocracies. This could be done with the newly proposed rule of law conditionality regulation, but there is no need for it in practice: funds can already be suspended on the basis of the EU’s structural funds regulations to states that don’t maintain independent judiciaries who can safeguard proper administration of the funds. Finally, the EU must do more to protect EU citizens’ voting rights and to safeguard free and fair elections within the Union. Without that, elected autocrats (i.e. those elected in unfair elections) can infiltrate the Parliament and Council, poisoning the Union from within.

Why hasn’t any of this happened? It all goes back to the EU’s half-baked politics discussed above: the weakness of Europarties and their tolerance of pet autocrats, and the reluctance of national leaders in the Council to intervene in one another’s affairs. To escape the autocracy trap, Europe’s democratic leaders must be willing to stand up to the autocrats, but I’m afraid that may not happen until they start to pay a political price for appeasement. In this respect the recent budget crisis—in which Orbán and Poland’s Jarosław Kaczyński are trying to hold the EU hostage to assure it will continue to fund their hardening autocracies—is actually beneficial. It highlights, in a greater way than we have seen to date, the costs of the EU’s failed strategy of appeasement.

What does the future hold for these autocratic regimes? 

“A fák nem nőnek az égig – Trees don’t grow to heaven”, as my father used to say to me. In other words, nothing lasts forever. Someday, these regimes will fall from power, and I remain hopeful that democracy can be restored in Hungary and perhaps saved from total destruction in Poland and other backsliders. Unfortunately, that day may be a long time in coming. The experience of other polities like the U.S. shows us that authoritarian enclaves can last for decades in otherwise democratic unions. The problem will not solve itself, but will instead spread. In addition to Hungary and Poland, we are already seeing worrying backsliding in other regimes such as those in Slovenia and Bulgaria. What the future will hold depends on the actions EU leaders decide to take. If more defenders of democracy stand up—like the Parliamentarians in the Dutch Parliament who, last week, called on their government to commence an Article 259 legal action against the Polish government—then the EU might escape the autocracy trap sooner than we think. If leaders continue to pursue a strategy of appeasement, then the authoritarian rot—or virus, if you prefer—will continue to spread and to poison the Union.


Featured image by Febiyan on Unsplash


NoteThe views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.

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