With EU divided, Britain won’t need to ‘exit’


Hungary’s Viktor Orban

Before the Brexit referendum there was Viktor Orban. In 2014, two years before Britain voted narrowly to leave the European Union (EU), the Hungarian leader was pledging to turn his country into an “illiberal” democracy. In effect, Orban’s Hungary was exiting the EU in spirit, by fiat and without a referendum.

As Brexit day, originally set for March 29, approaches, there is discord within the EU core and it’s not caused by Britain or because of it. France and Germany, both founding members of the EU, disagree on several issues including arms sales to the Saudis, the Russian gas pipeline and trade talks with the United States.

France also has tensions with another EU founding member, Italy, so much so that it briefly recalled its ambassador to Rome last month. It was the first time such a step had been taken since June 1940, when Italy declared war on France and it marked a startling deterioration of relations between two countries whose leaders worked to build European amity. French foreign minister Robert Schuman and Italian prime minister Alcide De Gasperi are often cited alongside Germany’s Konrad Adenauer as pioneers of European unification after the horrors of World War II. The provocation for the French ambassador’s recall in February was different from a shooting war. Since taking office in May, Italy’s two deputy prime ministers — Luigi Di Maio of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and far-right League party leader Matteo Salvini — have launched several verbal attacks against France’s president Emmanuel Macron. They challenge his claim to lead a European “Renaissance” with EU values that fight “nationalist retrenchment”.

Such barracking can only get worse even as it becomes more common across the EU in the countdown to the May 23–26 European parliament elections. Orban’s Fidesz party, for instance, is running a campaign that features billboards viciously attacking European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker. Orban alleges Juncker is part of an entrenched Brussels plot to destroy Europe’s Christian civilisation by encouraging immigration.

And a poll released on March 9 by Germany’s Bild newspaper showed that Right-wing eurosceptic parties are in the lead in half of the six countries surveyed. That parties hostile to the European project and its liberal and democratic values are poised to make gains in elections to the European parliament is just one of the bitter ironies of the situation. There is also the EU’s inability or unwillingness to quickly and decisively penalise member-states whose governments take its money but flout the union’s rules and basic norms. EU funding constitutes 61 per cent of infrastructure investment in Poland, which is accused of weakening judicial independence, and 55 per cent in Hungary, where Orban has dismantled institutional checks and balances, taken over the press, clamped down on civil society and manipulated elections. Three years ago, Orban used two million euros of EU funds for a vanity project — the notorious “railway to nowhere” between his native village of Felcsút and an arboretum owned by his father three miles away. But Orban continues to flourish, even thrive, seemingly beyond EU constraints, strictures and injunctions.

European ineffectualness when faced with an existential threat from within makes for a sour taste ahead of its birthday. On March 25, it will be 62 years since the union’s founding treaty was signed in Rome but the mood is hardly celebratory. Having positioned himself in recent years as Europe’s most staunchly anti-migration leader, Orban is leading a hostile charge against the very values the EU often preaches to countries in Asia and Africa — inclusiveness, tolerance and unity. Making common cause with Italy’s Salvini, and Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of Poland’s Right-wing governing Law and Justice party, Orban wants a radical re-branding of the European project.

In August, he exhorted the West to “confidently declare that Christian democracy is not liberal. Liberal democracy is liberal, while Christian democracy is, by definition, not liberal: it is, if you like, illiberal.” In July, he declared, right after meeting German chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin, that Hungary took as a duty the need to “protect Europe”. Merkel, however, simply spoke about Europe’s obligation to help those in need. Some might say the German sentiment would be a greater protection for Europe than Orban’s muscular notion of a Christian fortress-continent.

What’s clear is competing ideas of Europe are now coming into direct conflict. The ‘new Europe’ includes the central European nations, notably the Visegrád Four grouping of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia. Italy is also ideologically aligned. Salvini recently spoke of a “European spring”, one that would break the hold of France and Germany on the EU, and offer the union “new blood, new strength, new energy”.

According to Hans Kundnani, senior Europe research fellow at London’s Chatham House think tank, there are now three competing ideas of Europe. First, Merkel’s notion of market discipline for member states. Second, Macron’s vision of a “Europe qui protège”, or a Europe that protects. This would mean more redistribution and risk-sharing in the Eurozone. And finally, there is Orban’s proposed ‘Christian’ Europe of sovereign states.

The implications are obvious. Former Italian prime minister Paolo Gentiloni recently noted that one of the consequences of national populism was the ceaseless search for “enemies inside and outside your country to keep the consensus united”. But it was dangerous, he said, to “identify an enemy in a neighbour and friendly country”.

That the Hungarians, Italians and Poles are doing so, and casting Paris, Berlin and Brussels as the enemy, takes Europe into dangerous territory. It may yet get to the point where post-war western Europe’s normally congenial politics is barely possible. If the hostility carries on, how long before one or more members of the EU refuse to pay their dues into the common kitty? How long before barriers are erected within Europe to the entry of certain EU nationalities?

If European disunion persists and intensifies, it may not even be necessary for Britain to exit. There might be nothing to leave or certainly nothing worth staying for.