Populism’s Short March in Central Europe

A specter is haunting the European Union’s new members in Central Europe ­– the specter of populist nationalism. The Law and Justice Party (PiS) has just won Poland’s parliamentary and presidential elections, while populist and nationalist political forces could gain the upper hand in elections in Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia next year.

These are momentous developments. For 15 years, Central Europe has been a model student of democratization. Now, according to former Czech President Václav Havel, the region could become trapped in a “suffocating atmosphere.” Even Havel’s own successor, Václav Klaus, rails against multiculturalism and the decline of the traditional European nation-state. What happened?

Paradoxically, the EU – seen as a guarantee of stability and progress – is itself part of the problem. Attracted by the promise of membership, the countries that joined the EU last year underwent 15 years of social, economic, legal, and political changes whose scope was unprecedented in modern European history. Public institutions were rapidly modernized, political democracy adopted, and a standard market economy created. But ordinary people were put under tremendous pressure to adjust quickly, and sometimes painfully.

As long as EU membership remained only a goal, it had a disciplining effect on the region’s political elites. In fact, the promise of EU membership now seems to have been a more effective means of promoting reform than membership itself: aspiration, unlike membership, gave the EU far greater political leverage.