Sme: The Central European paradox

May 25, 2018

Amid legitimate fears about the future of the European Union, and continent wide support for eurosceptic political parties rising, a strange thing emerged this week. According to the latest Eurobarometer survey, public support for the EU is the highest since measuring began in 1983.

A majority of people in 27 of 28 member states feel their country has benefitted from EU membership. Even in the lone exception, Italy, more people agree that the country has benefitted than disagree (44 percent versus 41 percent). Overall, 67 percent of Europeans believe their own country benefits from EU membership, as compared to just 12 percent who say it is a bad thing. Meanwhile, for the first time since 2007, Europeans are more likely than not to agree that “my voice counts in the EU”.

In Central Europe support for the EU is even stronger. In Hungary, 78 percent of people believe their country has benefitted from joining the EU. In Poland, which has spent most of the past two years fighting with Brussels over whether the country conforms to the rule of law, 88 percent of people think membership is a good thing. In Slovakia it is 77 percent. All those numbers are higher than support in Germany (75 percent), and yet Central European voters continue to support political leaders that advocate open confrontation with Brussels.

Hungarian just reelected Viktor Orban and public opinions polls show Poland’s Law and Justice party still lead their nearest rivals by 15 percent. In both places, pro-EU voters nonetheless vote for anti-EU governments.

In his latest book, Bulgarian thinker Ivan Krastev refers to this at the “Central European paradox”. Krastev explains this, in part, by the manner in which EU accession and democratization in the region took place in parallel. Because of this, he says, Central European countries still have not developed their own political identities. This makes voters more likely to favor political parties that affirm their life experience and identity, at the expense of ones that effectively represent their interests.

As the Brexit vote showed, this phenomenon is no longer limited to Central Europe, and indeed the same Eurobarometer survey that shows increased support for the EU indicates increased willingness to take risks voting for untested political outsiders. Just 38 percent of people find that “new parties and movements” represent a threat to democracy. Meanwhile, 53 percent think new parties can find solutions better than the political establishment. Support of anti-establishment parties is highest among young people, as more than 64 percent of people under 24 years of age believe new parties have better solutions.

Let’s hope that they are right, or the EU that they love so much may not be around by the time they have children of their own.