To Counter Populists We Need a "People First" Kind of Liberalism

You have very capable and dynamic young people joining parties on both ends of the spectrum. It means that the younger generation will not only be more open and green than the previous ones, but also more polarized—says Michal Šimečka in an interview with Jakub Dymek.

Jakub Dymek: Do you feel confident about the future of liberal democracies in Central Europe?

Michal Šimečka: Pretty much. It’ll be harder, for sure. The corona crisis had made general conditions for liberal democracies worse, but on the other hand, the gravest risks have not actually materialized. There was a genuine scare that the autocrats and would-be autocrats will seize power and exploit the uncertainty. This dark scenario hasn’t yet materialized.  

What has hurt liberalism and democracy in Central Europe is a couple of things. The epidemic wasn’t handled well—with some exceptions. It wasn’t the best example of how to utilise the state and it’s resources. The pandemic did not necessarily inspire confidence in the liberal-democratic state. The second reason is of course economic uncertainty. Last year wasn’t especially generous for liberals and democrats in our part of Europe. But on the other hand we have vigorous new parties in all countries of the region, young populations with diverse views and interesting political coalitions reshaping political scenes. So on balance, the picture is not as bleak as one could think. 

Do you still think that terms like ‘populist’ or ‘extremist’ are still as relevant as they used to be? Parties considered populist and insurgent, like Fidesz in Hungary or PiS in Poland, are poised to be longest ruling political factions in their countries post 1989. What was previously considered marginal is the political mainstream of today. 

Yes, both Poland and Hungary are not the typical case of populist movements getting into power and then, soon after, being voted out of power because of their incompetence. These parties however are much more skilled in exercising power than people thought ten years ago and they’re making everything to stay in power for as long as it is possible. This is especially true for Hungary where the government shapes the elections law so it is harder and harder to actually win against them. 

What’s more important is that these parties have canonized and monopolized a certain kind of conservative politics which combines the redistributive role of the state with traditionalist vision of society and nationalist attitudes towards Brussels and the West in general. This, unfortunately, has become a mainstream ideological position. You can see bits and pieces of this everywhere, where there are attempts to elevate Central and Eastern Europe as somehow a more „normal” alternative to corrupt and weak Western Europe. And these attitudes will outlast the parties that promote them today. This to me—as a liberal—is a worrying bit. 

What kind of liberalism would be most efficient in your opinion to counter this proposition? 

This goes back to the question of who our opponents are. Poland may be a prime example of how new conservative parties promoted family oriented and redistributive social policies. They’ve moved to the left on economic affairs quite a lot. In the meantime the world has moved away from the neoliberal consensus as well, which is visible for example when you look at the conclusions of the recent G7 summit.

There is an international understanding that runaway capitalism and globalization must be contained—by the state, by putting common goods and public interest on the pedestal again, returning to “people first” kind of politics.

Any liberal party, any liberal movement and any possible future for liberalism must take this into account. 

One could argue that until recently the EU was itself instrumental in forcing neoliberal and austerity policies on its members. 

The economic crisis we’re experiencing because of the pandemic have obviously changed that, but I’d say that this paradigm had been dented first by academics and later by broader changes in public perceptions of the market and lesseiz-fare policies. European Rescue Fund and all the emergency measures are an obvious manifestation of that. But even before there was enough readiness to embrace that kind of a change. Inevitably more and more people are seeing that we cannot do without social cohesion, without investing in people and reducing inequalities. 

How are changing demographics influencing this landscape in your opinion?

Speaking from Slovakia I can say that obviously the younger generation disapproves of this status quo and you can see how big a percentage goes to radical parties on both ends of the spectrum in simulated elections in high schools. This of course means not only big gains for liberals and progressives, but fascists also. The same is true for young politicians: you have very capable and dynamic young people joining parties on both ends of the spectrum, too. So what this means is that the younger generation will not only be more open and green than the previous ones, but also more polarized.

Data—at least in Poland—shows that this younger generation is indeed more liberal, progressive and tolerant, but at the same time not egalitarian. It looks more like a shift towards individualism, not a drift towards the left. 

I don’t have the data and I’m ready to stand corrected, but my gut tells me it’s not the case everywhere.

Whole generation of young people in Slovakia have moved westward—to Bratislava or abroad. But they’ve left—both metaphorically and quite literally—their parents behind. And because of that I believe, there are acutely aware of the disparities and regional divides.

For some, maybe, their own success will translate into more libertarian politics—but in general, this is the generation not so far divorced from the harsher realities of small towns and villages. 

Speaking more generally about inequalities, you cannot leave the pandemic out of the picture. Europeans witnessed many new types of inequality and divisions—who gets to hospital sooner, who is taken care of, who gets to work and who gets paid leave, how fast you can get care to your loved ones and who you have to call to help them. These are the types of inequalities that our citizenry witnessed with their own eyes and that the liberals must take care of. 

The idea that right-wing governments in Central Europe will lose to liberals is often based on the assumption that they will run out of legitimacy, because of their disregard for law and civil liberties. But what if this doesn’t happen and recovery money from the EU, conversely, will only bolster their ratings?

Of course, every government with money to spend is more credible [laughs]. Regarding the corrupt governments though, what you will obviously see is that some of the money is inevitably going to be misspent. Because that’s how these operations work: there will be embezzlement and football stadiums built in the villages where the government cronies relatives rule. There was enough instances already where EU money was used to finance oligarchs. And ultimately I believe this will work against them. Because corruption is the easiest factor, so to speak, it is easiest to mobilize people and popular movement against government corruption. 

It didn’t help to out Viktor Orbán for example. 

Well, obviously we’ll see. It also depends on what will European Union do. Will conditionality of the funds, the rule of law mechanism, be implemented. And I think it should. The next hungarian election will be a true test—can this government be unseated in free and fair elections. Some think it’s already impossible. That the playing field is already this uneven. But what is certain, that’s government corruption remains the most powerful rallying cry for the opposition. 

It’s all nice and easy: to talk about how the legal system is being undermined, the media are put under pressure and civil liberties are under assault. But in the end these are abstract values, that not necessarily translate into votes for the opposition. 

To what extent this pressure should be applied from Brussels?

I think they should go further than they’ve gone so far. It’s good we have the conditionality regulation, we shouldn’t be afraid to use it. There’s a legitimate interest in that. Obviously there’s no reason for funding increasingly undemocratic regimes—be it in Hungary or elsewhere. The whole of the EU has an interest in protecting it’s common values. We already see the consequences of the fact that the courts in Europe would not recognize decisions made in polish courts. It’s dangerous territory, because the whole idea of the single market is based upon the assumption that the whole of the EU is a unified legal space.

Whatever decisions we’re making are binding as long as we all believe the law will be respected and that the representatives of national governments are democratically elected. 

At the same time, partners and neighbours must show solidarity with each other. Civil society in Czechia or Slovakia must show that they support polish and hungarian citizens, and vice versa. Even if their governments are at odds. We have had similar situation in Slovakia in 1990s when our prime minister threatened Slovakia’s european perspectives. But then our neighbours and friends in other countries didn’t turn their backs on us. So we owe Poles and Hungarians the same—we believe, as the whole of Europe does, that their place is among other members of european commonwealth and it is in our best interest to work together to ensure that. 

What you’re saying is that good neighbourly relations shouldn’t fall prey to governments actions in the Visegrad Group?

Of course. The Visegrad project should be maintained precisely because one of the things it does is maintaining good relations between countries, societies, including cultural exchanges and cross-border projects. This is invaluable. Of course bilateral relations are difficult at the moment: polish-czech, because of the Turów coal mine dispute, Slovaks and Hungarians are at odds because of other issues… At the same time governments should not be afraid to speak against transgressions of the rule of law. 

Why?

Because it signals, for example for Poles and Hungarians, that we are with you in the struggle for democracy. This is the kind of policy I’d like to see in a country like Slovakia. 

Because when one country breaks the rules, it hurts the broader community beyond this particular country?

Yeah, of course it hurts the broader community of nations—be it Visegrad or European Union as a whole. I feel this way strongly, becasue as a member of European Parliament I’m there not only to represent my constituency in Slovakia, but in some way I have to represent all of European citizens. 

Jakub Dymek

is a columnist and author. His book about the rise of the revolutionary political right in USA, Poland and Russia entitled “Nowi Barbarzyncy” (“The New Barbarians”) was published in 2018 by Arbitror Publishing.

Michal Šimečka

is the vice-chair of RENEW Group in the European Parliament and the vice-chair of Progessive Slovakia party in his home country. Born in 1984 he was an academic and lecturer before entering politics. He holds a doctorate form University of Oxford.

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