Trouble beckons for the community of states that just a short while ago was able to be considered the most civilized in the history of the world.
Now, the European Commission is waving an admonishing finger at Warsaw and Warsaw is giving it the finger in return.
When did the E.U. begin to fall apart, when did Europe stop growing through crises and ask what greater value does a union of states actually have over a strong national state?
It could have been the moment of this exchange.
“The rule of law is one of the common values on which the union is founded,” European Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans wrote to Poland’s foreign minister and justice minister shortly before Christmas.
The Dutchman warned the new ruling conservative government, in words that were only half-way diplomatic, about “undermining” the independence of the Polish constitutional court.
What two ministers gave back in return was more than just a response to an admonition to keep things clean in the government. It was a rejection of the European idea per se.
“The good of the nation is above the law.”
These words mark a turning point.
Up until now, the working consensus of the E.U. has been that member states yield part of their sovereignty, pool it in Brussels and through the manifold power of the states, gain back all the more sovereignty.
It is now precisely this – a commitment to delegated power – that appears to the new Polish government to be an infringement of their national pride, with the idea of Brussels as a world of smoke-filled backrooms in which a few unelected officials make the decisions, instead of many elected.
Poland is a sovereign country, said Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro, and that means, “I don’t think that an external body can impose something on us, because that could conflict with our sense of national pride.”
Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski added that any E.U. official “who came to office via political connections” is “not a legitimate partner for me.”
So far, it was only angry citizens who talked like that, angered by rules that forced them to use energy-saving light bulbs, or free trade agreements, were robbing their self-determination.
Now governments are talking that way too.
Prime Minister Viktor Orbán of Hungary has an equally hostile view of Brussels, as do the Czech Republic’s president, Miloš Zeman (“This land is our land”), as well as a third of the French who recently voted for the National Front.
In Finland, an anti-E.U. party is now part of the government, and next door, the anti-integrationist, right-wing populist Sweden Democrats are leading in the opinion polls.
In the Netherlands, the far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders is now on an equal footing with the two major mainstream parties, as is the clownish anti-establishment Five Star Movement in Italy.
What is right-wing and what is left-wing criticism of the E.U.? It is hard to say when ultimately both are concerned about the same thing: raising the will of the people above an international architecture that has become irritating and inconvenient.
Nationalists and socialists in Europe are united in their hatred of an E.U. cartel that imposes economic and cultural rules. Occasionally this resentment joins the two ends of the political spectrum, as in Greece, where the left-radical Syriza formed a coalition with the national-chauvinistic ANEL party.
In Britain, the reforms that Tory Prime Minister David Cameron desires can be roughly summed up in two demands. Leave us in peace with your fanaticism about “an ever-closer union.” And keep us out of your common currency mush.
In short, left and right have become second-class categories in 2016 in Europe.
Today, the actual question is do you want more Europe or less? More and more Europeans want less. That is a reverse of thrust, and it has taken place as drastically as that of a passenger plane touching down on the runway. Where has this sudden reverse energy come from?
It certainly comes from different sources in Poland than in France, Sweden, England or Greece. And yet there is a tipping point, one that all camps would maintain has come, that the E.U. is now no longer expanding thanks to conviction but rather through subjugation.
The conviction that allowed the E.U. to grow once was that Europe’s mini-states – and there are only mini-states in Europe – will only be able to compete in globalization if they link arms and band together. The euro helps them do so because it makes trade within the E.U. just as easy and reliable as trading with it. The Schengen Agreement drops national borders for the market and the people but in turn the E.U.’s outer borders will be all the more protected. Europe shines as an area of prosperity, security and justice.
You don’t have to be anti-Europe to see that much of this was naive. Europe’s outer borders have remained open in the largest refugee movement since the end of the Second World War, with the result that the barriers have been closing like dominoes in the interior and, of all places, in border regions that had grown so close together, such as Sweden, Denmark and Germany.
The euro? Unfortunately, it reinforced the tendency to waste money in countries that tended to do so anyway and, in doing so, weakened Europe’s economic region.
Worse, many core E.U. countries, Spain, Italy, France, are economically worse off today than 10 years ago; all of the young people who are unemployed there are searching in vain for the dividends of the euro and globalization. The fact that the cause might possibly be ultimately with the E.U. is often lost. “Brussels” has become an easy byword for the failure of the elite and powers of capitalism.
Lastly came the promise of an “area of justice.” In order to save the euro, its member states pretty much broke every rule that had ever been written for the monetary union, and in order to distribute the refugees, a quota solution, which was forced through by a majority decision of the European Council, is suddenly supposed to follow the suspended Dublin Regulation.
Now, Warsaw asks, are we going to accept ultimatums from this club, a reform school for nations that’s better at making rules than it is at following them?
“The good of the nation is above the law.” This sentence is one of the most sinister that can currently be heard in the parliament in Poland. It was said by Kornel Morawiecki of the Kukiz’15 movement. It is an outrageous statement, a justification for despotism, the likes of which it was thought would never be heard again in Europe, certainly not from a former Solidarność fighter. The stupid thing is, if you replace “nation” with “European Union,” the sentence could just as well have come from Angela Merkel.
Hungary’s head of government, Mr. Orbán, accused the chancellor of “moral imperialism” when she proposed distributing the refugees around Europe.
The broader resentment behind such remarks is a feeling that the E.U. is being led in Berlin and Brussels by a squad of modern-day sanctimonious hypocrites who believe they must force their concepts of higher political culture on others.
The Polish foreign minister complained on Monday in the German daily Bild newspaper about “25 years of leftist and liberal indoctrination,” without naming the brain washers by name. Mr. Waszczykowski told the media all the more vividly what lies in store for his country if wackos of that sort aren’t stopped: a new “mix of cultures and races, a world of bicycle-riders and vegetarians who only rely on renewable energies and fight against every form of religion.”
In other words, never again having to adhere to a concept of salvation. Never again be a satellite state. Never again be ruled over by foreign apparatchiks who think they’re avant-garde. It’s not surprising that the loudest right-wing critics of Europe often come from the ranks of former East-European dissidents.
The disappointment over Europe from the left sounds similar except the imperialism comes in the form of economic torture. A broad anti-neo-liberal International believes the E.U.’s honoring of democracy is simply a label, because no matter how a people decide about their economic policy, in the end they’re forced under the yoke of austerity by the Brussels-Berlin-Frankfurt troika. Not a market for people but market before people is the working principle of the E.U. The example of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) also makes people in North America able to connect with the thought that non-elected negotiators authorize non-elected company bosses to strip parliaments of power. Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras was glad to see at the close of 2015 that Greece “no longer stands alone” in opposition to Brussels, “this kingdom of bureaucracy.” No wonder that he scores points with his criticism, particularly with young people. For them, the E.U. promises to open up the world and but they don’t even have the key to their own apartment in their pocket.
Europe can take a tough stance against authoritarian, illiberal governments without having to mobilize the E.U.
Is the E.U. in a tailspin because its wings, the big promises of integration, are breaking off?
The plane can’t be rescued by the European Council depriving Poland of its voting right. Of course, a community of liberal democracies must react when the division of powers and the checks and balances are done away with, when the judiciary and the media are brought into line.
But it must also diagnose what exactly is fueling this neo-authoritarianism.
Is it the stress of democracies trying to adapt that are only half as old as the others? Or is it at times simply the overwhelming demands, both cultural and economic? A possible answer might be the rediscovery of an old idea, of a Europe of not only two speeds, but three, four speeds, one that learns to live with everything not happening at the same time. But above all, it should be a Europe that spurs on the quick instead of punishing the slow and by doing so only putting them more on the defensive.
Citizens are proving day-for-day, for example, how much more quicker, younger and energetic Polish civil society is compared to a government that is half rooted in USSR paranoia. Defiant radio producers and journalists who simply play the Anthem of Europe every hour – imagine that happening on the BBC or the German station ARD. We’ll hear much more about them in the future.
In the meantime, Europe can take a tough stance against authoritarian, illiberal governments without having to mobilize the E.U.
Dozens of smaller challenges from the capitals of Europe can do more than Brussels’ heavy hand. The two Polish ministers are right about one thing: for major violations of freedom, the rebuke shouldn’t come from a secondary authority like an E.U. commissioner. What’s needed is a full-blown democratic protest.
This article originally appeared in Die Zeit. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org