Eastern Europe’s Authoritarian Return

MADRID – The European Union is a remarkable achievement of modern statecraft. By building on shared values, it created a space of peace, progress, and freedom that overcame national enmities rooted in decades, if not centuries, of conflict. But the emerging political rift between the EU’s Eastern and Western members, together with resurgent nationalism throughout the continent, is putting those values – and thus the future of European integration – to their most severe test yet.

In Eastern Europe, democracy is becoming increasingly illiberal. Leading the way is Hungary under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who has been implementing his declared vision of an “illiberal state” for the last six years. Now Poland is following suit, with Jarosław Kaczyński’s right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party having moved swiftly to assert control over public broadcasting, the civil service, and the Constitutional Court since its election in October. Already, the EU has launched an official inquiry into potential violations of its rule-of-law standards.

The move toward authoritarianism in Eastern Europe has been accompanied by outright defiance of EU-wide quotas for migrants, aimed at easing the massive refugee crisis that Europe now faces. Meanwhile, Germany registered about a million asylum-seekers last year alone.

This split reflects a fundamental divergence in the two sides’ response to history. Germany’s enlightened approach in matters like migration and civil liberties amounts to a direct rejection of its actions during World War II. Though, as the Yale historian Timothy Snyder points out, collaborators in the “bloodlands” between Berlin and Moscow often supported the Nazis’ crimes, these societies lack Germany’s guilt complex.