Europe and new challenges

Participants of a security conference discussed the success of nationalists and populists, what danger it poses, and how to fight this phenomenon

Within the framework of the 11th Kyiv Security Forum, a discussion was held lately on the topic “Threats to European Democracy and Security: An East European Crisis.” It is known that populist, nationalist, left-wing forces are gaining in popularity in many countries, and voters are casting more and more votes for them. This can be seen from the results of the latest election in Germany (where the right-wing Alternative for Germany party gained more than 13 percent of the votes), Italy (where the left-wing Five Stars Movement gained over 30 percent of the vote), and Hungary (where the right-wing conservative Fides party of the incumbent Viktor Orban won outright with 49 percent of the vote). The Day collected the most interesting expert opinions about this trend, as well as other threats to Europe’s security.


Karel Schwarzenberg, Foreign Minister of the Czech Republic (2007-09, 2010-13), stressed the trend of the collapse of traditional parties and pointed out that such processes were taking place in Germany, Italy, France, as well as in the Czech Republic. Populist and extremist political forces emerge because of the fact that the traditional parties that appeared at the end of the 19th century, like Liberals, Social Democrats, or Christian Democrats, “have not demonstrated new ideas” over the past 50 years. “When you get for breakfast a cup of tea which has already been brewed two or three times, you will not drink it, and, of course, you will not buy ideas which have been shown to be unworkable on several occasions either,” he stressed. Populists, meanwhile, have taken advantage of the fact that modern leaders do not understand the problems of the new generation, so they win voters by being “not boring.” “Active citizens were interested in politics before, in the age of Margaret Thatcher or Francois Mitterrand, because they were interesting individuals. Today we see rather gray politicians and do not have prominent personalities,” he explained, citing his country’s president Milos Zeman and Prime Minister Andrej Babis as examples.


Director of the Center for European Neighborhood Studies Peter Balazs spoke about the secret of Orban’s Fides party’s victory in the legislative election held in Hungary on April 8. According to Balazs, a majority of voters, or 52 percent, did vote against the current prime minister, but due to Hungarian electoral legislation, his party got two thirds of seats in parliament while winning just 48 percent of the vote. He explained that this political force, unlike all the others, had not published an election platform. At the same time, the only target of Fides’s rhetoric was the issue of refugees and migrants. The expert confirmed that there was an unprecedented influx of migrants three years ago, but they mostly sought to go to Germany, while “nobody even wanted to stay in Hungary, because the language is very difficult and the wages are low.”

The speaker also said that the victory of Orban had been enabled by fragmentation of the opposition. “But we also underestimated the power of propaganda that was aimed at rural areas. It is very similar to Brexit... when certain segments of the population are very receptive to populist rhetoric,” Balazs emphasized and added: “They worked very hard to influence rural areas where people do not speak a foreign language, do not have Internet access, read a single local newspaper, and 90 percent of these newspapers belong to the government.”

Joachim Schuster, a member of the European Parliament representing Germany, addressed the topic of relations between Ukraine and the EU in his speech and offered two conclusions on the issue of stability. “Now the economy of Ukraine is at a low level while poverty is high. But on the other hand, it is also necessary, in the next few years, to talk about accelerating economic growth and improving income distribution, so that various segments of the population benefit from it. There will be a lot of efforts to that end on the part of the IMF and the EU,” said Schuster. He also said that the fight against corruption in Ukraine “was suspended somehow,” which has led to certain consequences, namely 600 million in macroeconomic assistance that has not been disbursed.


“Since the end of the Second World War, European countries have built up certain constitutional systems that protect people’s civil rights and freedoms, and today these achievements are threatened by two dangerous trends in Europe: nationalism and populism,” opined Minister of National Defense of the Republic of Poland (2007-11) Bogdan Klich. “Populist movements play on the fears of people, on certain sentiments, using them in their own interests, as tools for their own gain, undermining the constitutional order, and from time to time disrupting the mechanism of checks and balances,” the expert explained, adding that this has created a background on which the social design ideas are infringed, and this is a major threat. Klich cited a study by Freedom House, which evaluates transformation processes in 29 democracies since 1999 and says that 2018 will be the second consecutive year when there will be more new consolidated authoritarian systems than new consolidated democracies, both in Europe and in Eurasia. “Among 28 countries, 18 are experiencing a departure from democratic principles and norms,” he said. In Eurasia, the trend may be characterized by the spread of violent authoritarianism, while in central and eastern Europe, it is rather a new version of a departure from liberalism. At the same time, the illiberal approach, characterized by civic protests, publication of critical articles in the media outside government control, critical comments in social networks, and people’s vulnerability to excessive inspections and checks by government agencies as well as discrimination in employment – all this is also observed in platforms of populist parties, the number of which has almost doubled in Europe since 2000, growing from 33 to 63.

Schwarzenberg added that “any populists have to justify their funding, so they look neither to the left nor to the right” and “make their policies attractive to all.”