The Jean Monnet Project - EUPOLSOC
Chair holder: Professor Steven Saxonberg
Institute of European Studies and International Relations,
Faculty of Social and Economic Sciences
Comenius University, Bratislava
Univerzita Komenského v Bratislave
Fakulta Sociálnych a ekonomických vied
Ústav európskych štúdií a medzinárodných vzťahov
Mlynské Luhy 4, 821 05 Bratislava
BACKGROUND AND RATIONALE:
Programs in European studies generally focus on EU institutions; however, the EU is influenced both by the political developments within each member state and by the social developments, such social movements and civil society organizations. The EU itself influences the policies of the member states. A comparative, political-sociological perspective emphasizes that the EU is not just a collection of certain institutions; it is also a collection of its member states. To understand how the EU is developing, we need to understand the political and social dynamics among the member states. This is particularly obvious now with Brexit, the emergence of populist movements, etc. A political-sociological perspective is especially unusual within Slovakia. Our department will become the center for political sociology and it is already the highest ranked program in the country for European studies according to the ministry evaluation.
All lecture are in room B122 at 13:30
Lecture 7: Wednesday, April 29
Olga Pietruchova, head of gender equality dept. at ministry of social affairs
"Gender and the Slovak Populist Movements"
Lecture 6: Thursday, April 16
Prof. Bo Peterson, Professor of Political Science, Malmö University, Sweden
"Putin´s Populism in Russia"
Lecture 5: Wednesday, March 18
Radovan Geist, co-founder of the European policy and news portal EURACTIV Slovakia
"The rise of illiberal populism in Visegrad countries"
Lecture 4: Thursday, March 5
Prof. Iveta Radičová, Former Prime Minister and Professor at Paneurópska univerzita/BISLA
"Liberalism in the Populist Era"
Lecture 3: Thursday, December 5
Dr. Lenka Buštíková, Arizona State University
"Extreme Reactions: How anger and resentment towards minorities is being utilized in politics"
Lecture 2: Wednesday, October 30:
prof. PhDr. Tomáš Sirovátka, Masaryk University in Brno
"Welfare State Attitudes and Support for Political Populism"
Lecture 1: Thursday, October 24:
Roman Hlatky, University of Texas
"EU Funding and Euroskeptic Vote Choice"
The Kurz affair has uncovered the Trumpian dimension of Austrian politics
The recent fall of Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz reveals the Trumpian dimension of Austrian politics, which encompasses several aspects. First, as with the Republicans in the United States, the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) was taken over by a close-knit coterie from outside the mainstream of the party intent on breaking with its traditions and behavioural conventions.
The takeover plan, dubbed Project Ballhausplatz (in reference to the location of the Federal Chancellery in Vienna), had already been rumoured in the media, but was confirmed by a trove of telephone chat conversations involving the former Chancellor and his inner circle. Thousands of these chats were seized by prosecutors and many were subsequently leaked to the public.
The first step was for the conservatives to parrot the political agenda of the populist far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), but to present these xenophobic and Eurosceptic positions in a more polished and mainstream guise to appear acceptable and statesmanlike, as these chats show.
The second part of the scheme, according to the transcripts and the prosecution’s hundred-plus-page brief, involved a campaign in which falsified opinion polls portraying then Foreign Minister Kurz in a glowing light were regularly published in an Austrian tabloid newspaper, which in turn received paid advertisements from the Ministry of Finance. This has now led to Kurz, his close associates, and the entire party being officially accused of corruption, bribery, and embezzlement. The core of the corruption allegation is precisely that the Ministry of Finance apparently spent taxpayers’ money on the Foreign Minister’s political ambitions.
The third part of the scheme was to denigrate the party leader and Vice Chancellor at that time, Reinhold Mitterlehner, as a hopeless loser and to sabotage successes of the then government, of which Kurz himself was a member. The dual aim was to exacerbate the conservatives’ dire electoral situation and, at the same time, to hasten the demise of the grand coalition in which the ÖVP was the junior partner. If all turned out as planned, the popular Kurz could credibly present himself as the saviour and extract political concessions from a party dominated by politically cautious elders who feared the complete marginalisation of their party.
Kurz, who had built up an impressive network of young confidants in high positions, was supported in this, according to the prosecution, by Thomas Schmid, a loyal supporter and high-ranking official in the Ministry of Finance. At one point, Schmid is quoted as bragging in one of his chats that Kurz could now “shit money”, which made the anti-corruption division of prosecution suspicious. Schmid’s problem, and ultimately Kurz’s problem, was that the police managed to confiscate the former’s cell phone in another corruption investigation, which has since turned out to be a political gift that keeps on giving.
The ruthlessness, naked ambition and conspiratorial nature reflected in these chats also have echoes of Trump, as does the apparent willingness to break political taboos. For example, Kurz learned while he was still Foreign Minister that his party had reached an agreement with its coalition partner to fund a national after-school childcare programme to ease the burden on working parents. When Kurz heard this news, he responded in a chat calling it “not good” for him and asked if he could “stir up” any opposition; after all, this deal was a success for the government, which he wanted to get rid of.
Another series of later chats allegedly shows how Kurz, then already the head of a Christian conservative party, told Schmid to strike fear into the clergy for daring to criticise Kurz’s refugee policy as inhumane. It has been reported that Schmid was to blackmail the bishops by suggesting that the government would strip the church of certain tax privileges, with Kurz issuing an instruction to “go full throttle”.
Another Trumpian aspect was the timing of the takeover. Just as the Republicans were vulnerable to political takeovers from the political fringe after their double defeat at the hands of Obama and their so-called post-mortem, the Austrian conservatives were in massive decline in 2016. In this situation, Kurz, much like Donald Trump, proposed moving the party sharply to the right rather than to the centre, as Merkel had done in Germany. This shift to the right was not driven by the Conservatives’ typical constituency, as we have shown in a recent study, but was specifically designed to tap into the FPÖ electorate.
Moreover, Kurz was able to turn a structural weakness of his party into a political advantage for himself. As we discuss in a contribution to a new book on Europe’s mainstream right, Riding the Populist Wave, the ÖVP is traditionally a heterogeneous party with a weak centre. In the past, the national party was dominated by powerful component organisations and regional party leaders. Kurz used the vacuum in the centre to his advantage by filling the central party apparatus, the government, and a sizeable portion of conservative MPs with people who were personally loyal to him but posed no threat to his power.
He also successfully pressured his party to give him an unprecedented full power statute, or else he threatened to leave the ÖVP and form his own party. This was an extremely frightening prospect for conservative state governors, who rely on the largesse of the federal government and its control by conservatives. They accepted Kurz’s terms and dismissed Mitterlehner, whom Kurz is reported to have lambasted with derogatory expletives in his chats.
Kurz’ main achievement was to embody in the public eye the role of the dashing young conservative visionary who transformed a stodgy old party into a campaign juggernaut, marginalising the left and taming the far right. His party worshipped him uncritically, and he seemed impervious to the government’s fiascos in dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic and the mounting investigations and scandals that have since become a daily media drumbeat. Only when party elders realised that a vote of no confidence, supported by all parties, even the ÖVP’s Green party coalition partner, was likely and that a government without the conservatives was a distinct possibility, did they push Kurz aside.
Yet they were not strong enough to push him out of office altogether. Therein lies the conservatives’ dilemma: they seem unable to continue either with him or without him. Neither a credible alternative nor a political direction are apparent at present. Kurz, who created a party within a party, can still count on the support of many at the grassroots level and on networks of loyalists who were electrified by his successes, his media skills and also his willingness to put political ambition above political taboos. Naturally, they point to a leftist cabal in the justice system that is conspiring to get rid of a successful conservative – herein, too, lies a parallel to the devotees of Trump.
Kurz was first and foremost the ÖVP’s answer to the silent counterrevolution, the rise of the populist radical right. It is ironic that he was ultimately undone by an investigation that began with the Ibiza scandal and an ignominious chapter in the history of Austria’s Freedom Party, which has now caught Kurz himself. Even more ironically, the current situation probably benefits the FPÖ above all, which is preparing to win back voters from the conservatives and can take comfort in the fact that Ibiza has now been overshadowed by the Kurz affair.
For more information, see the authors’ contribution to Riding the Populist Wave: Europe’s Mainstream Right in Crisis (Cambridge University Press, 2021)
Estonian municipal elections 2021: EKRE increases its popularity
At the municipal elections held in Estonia between October 11th and 17th, the right-wing populist Conservative People’s Party (EKRE) doubled its vote share to 13.2 from 6.7 percent in the elections of 2017. Meanwhile, both Reformierakond (Reform Party – centre-right) and Eesti Keskerakond (Centre Party – nominally centrist) suffered losses. The former party garnered a mere 17.3 percent of the ballot, whereas the latter, despite winning 24.4 percent and securing the top spot, lost its ‘traditional’ stronghold of Narva in the north east (Ida-Virumaa county). Moreover, the Centre Party failed to win an absolute majority in the capital city of Tallinn for the first time in more than 15 years. However, the party which suffered the greatest losses was the (centre-left) Social Democrats/SDE, garnering a mere 5 percent of the vote in comparison to the 10.4 percent that it won in 2017. What were the deeper reasons behind EKRE’s successful performance? How did the party capitalize on the losses of its contenders?
Against ‘Tallinn based’ politics
EKRE’s systematic opposition to immigration has been one of the major catalysts to account for the improvement in the party’s public appeal since 2015. Nevertheless, the period between 2018 and 2021 did not see a drastic increase in the number of migrants and/or refugees in Estonia. Correspondingly, the party’s policymakers started putting greater emphasis on anti-corruption rhetoric and anti-establishment politics. As highlighted in EKRE’s programmatic documents, of crucial significance for the party it is to shine the spotlight on politicians and parties which are ‘harmful or dangerous to the state’; and to set up a special committee in the Riigikogu (national parliament) tasked supervising the courts and prosecutor’s office. At the same time, EKRE’s leadership perceives institutions such as the media to be part of the ‘corrupt establishment’. Especially during its term in the coalition government with the Centre Party and (conservative) Isamaa/’Fatherland’ (April 2019-January 2021), EKRE actively called for the removal of journalists with viewpoints ‘unfavourable to the Estonian people’ - both from the state media (e.g. the Estonian National Broadcasting Service/ERR) and the press (e.g. Postimees, Estonia’s oldest newspaper).
EKRE’s convincing endeavour to pose as a genuinely anti-establishment party that ‘stands for the average Estonian’, from outside as well as from within the governing structures, is the major catalyst to account for its successful performance in the municipal elections. Both on the basis of programmatic standpoints and active policymaking, EKRE appears to have struck a chord with those segments of the electorate that perceive themselves as excluded from the ‘big’ establishment. On the one hand, these target groups express disbelief at the ‘Tallinn-based’ politics at the Riigikogu level and have also been negatively affected by the neoliberal economic policies espoused by Reformierakond (hence the appeal of the family and child benefits endorsed by EKRE). On the other hand, the same pockets of voters remain suspicious of the ‘externally imposed’ politics of multiculturalism and political correctness. It is precisely at this point that one might hint at the declining popularity of the Social Democrats, a party that has been repeatedly accused of ‘relentlessly promoting multicultural policies’ by EKRE. The same thing might be argued about the newcomers of (centrist/neoliberal) Eesti 200/’Estonia 200’ who, despite their ambitious entry with 6 percent of the vote, mostly exerted an appeal on the urban voters of Tallinn, Tartu, and Narva.
Still appealing to rural voters
Since the parliamentary elections of 2015, EKRE has succeeded in establishing a stronghold in the rural constituencies of the west (namely, the coastal area of Pärnumaa) as well as the south (with the exception of Tartu). In these elections, this pattern persisted and EKRE took the town hall in Pärnu. Apart from its anti-establishment platform against ‘Tallinn-based’ politics, the party has been projecting a campaign of eco-nationalism, if not ‘ecological Euroscepticism’. In particular, EKRE has long been opposing the Rail Baltica project. This is a large, EU-funded, infrastructural project with the aim to connect the Baltic States with Central Europe via railway. EKRE has been contending that Rail Baltica is hazardous to the natural environment as well as to Estonia’s rural communities. In addition to this, EKRE has been sponsoring a protectionist agenda which consists in the introduction of measures for the prioritization of Estonian agricultural produce in the national market. It is this more direct engagement in favour of the Estonian farmers which has additionally enabled EKRE to maximise its appeal in the rural constituencies of western and southern Estonia. This also became obvious in the latest municipal elections.
Still unpopular with ethnic Russians
Here, it should be added that, prior to the elections, EKRE had endeavoured to approach the ethnic Russian voters, in the northeast and elsewhere, in a more coordinated manner. Attention was paid to symptoms of economic malfunction, the alleged marginalization of Ida-Virumaa by the ‘Tallinn-based’ establishment, and a set of socially conservative values which EKRE is said to share with the bulk of Estonia’s ethnic Russian community. Nevertheless, EKRE’s unsuccessful performance in Narva (below the threshold of 5 percent) hints that the party’s highly (Estonian) ethnocentric agenda still puts off ethnic Russians from voting for it. Lastly, the declining appeal of the Centre Party among ethnic Russians might confirm several allegations that party leader, Jüri Ratas, had assumed a rather passive stance towards EKRE during his term in office as Estonian PM (April 2019 - January 2021).
This blog originally appeared at https://populism-europe.com/poprebel/blog-posts/estonian-municipal-elections-2021-ekre-increases-its-popularity/ .
The author is a researcher on the POPREBEL project. This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 822682.
Blog on the Czech Elections:
Slovak parallels of the Czech elections 2021
The Czech parliamentary elections, that took place just a few days ago, offer several interesting parallels with the past and present situation in Slovakia. Just as in 1998, many Slovaks had hopes that the era of the populist government of Mečiar would end, so many Czechs expected the end of the political power of food-chemical and media magnate Andrej Babiš, who raised corruption to a legal level and ran the Czech state as his private company.
In fact, the election was only to be the first step in ousting the populist oligarch from power, as the president, Zeman, who appoints the prime minister, has announced in advance that he will give a mandate to form a government to the strongest party and not the party coalition, SPOLU, which consists of three parties that ran on a joint ticket. The reason being, he considers the coalition a fraud to the electorate. And since polls of election preferences have long shown Babiš’ ANO 2011 movement to be the strongest single party, the hopes that the Babiš era will end after the election were not very great.
But it so happened that the populist Babiš lost the election quite surprisingly, but by only less than one percent of the vote, and his ANO has the most deputies in parliament. Babiš won 27% of the votes of voters, which is a similar result as Mečiar's HZDS in 1998 in Slovakia. And like Mečiar, he has no one to form a government with to keep himself in power, as all the other parties in parliament have stated that they would refuse to govern with him.
There is not much talk about it in the Czech Republic, but civil society has contributed greatly to the defeat of Babiš, as well as to the failure of Mečiar. In Mečiar's case, it was the OK Campaign 98, which mobilized citizens to come to the elections, and the high turnout, especially of young people, finally brought Mečiar’s HZDS to its knees. It turned out very similarly in the Czech Republic. First, the Million Moments for Democracy civic initiative, through its mass actions, pushed the democratic parties to unite and form electoral coalitions. This did happen and two coalition groups were formed: Together (consisting of ODS, TOP 91 and KDÚ-ČSL) and Pirstan (formed by Pirates and STAN). Later, a million moments for democracy also campaigned for citizens to come to the polls, and turnout was indeed the highest in more than twenty years. This also significantly contributed to Babiš's defeat.
Another parallel is the happy coincidence for the democratic parties in Slovakia and the Czech Republic is the fact that the small satellite partiesthat had supported the dominant populist entities did not get into parliament after the elections. Just as Mečiar could no longer rely on the SNS and the Slovak Communists, Babiš cannot count on the support of the Přísaha (the political subject of populist and former policeman Robert Šlachta) or the support of the Czcech Communists (KSČM), which did not get into parliament for the first time since the fall of the communist regime 32 years ago. Yes, the Communists are no longer the dead weight of the Czech parliament or the fifth column of the populist billionaire.
If we wanted to be more up-to-date and compare the Czech elections with the last parliamentary elections in Slovakia, we certainly cannot miss the parallel between the surprisingly powerful finish in the election campaign between Matovič's OĽANO and a similar finish in the Czech Republic on the side of the coalition Together. But that's where the similarity between these political entities ends - OĽANO is a populist grouping around one populist leader and the coalition Together is a grouping of standard political parties.
And there is another parallel, which we can see in the fact that in both cases the struggle for the liberal form of democracy has also claimed its political sacrifices. In Slovakia, in the election campaign, the coalition of the democratic Progressive Slovakia-Together bled to death and did not even get into parliament and the other liberal-democratic party, Za ľudí, also recorded significant losses in this match. In the Czech Republic, the main victims of the struggle against the populist oligarch were the Pirates, against whom the oligarch's generously funded disinformation campaign was directed. In the election campaign, they tried to profile their protest image into a solid democratic party; however, Babiš only had to comfortably bring to light the statements of their members from the past, which moved on the edge of left-wing and ecological extremism. Winning just four seats is a great disappointment for the Pirates, which is due to the fact that even though the party formed a coalition that gave them rather equal placement on the voting lists, because of preferential voting their candidates did not do so well.
And the last parallel that I would like to point out is the great diversity of the governing coalition, which, both in Slovakia and most likely in the Czech Republic, unites standard and non-standard parties or movements. This diversity carries with it the threat that the new government will not be effective enough. We have already been able to see this in Slovakia. What’s worse, it has implications for the future. Inefficiency and also associated with corruption scandals is a water mill for old or new populists and extremists.
Neither in Slovakia nor in the Czech Republic did the later winners of the elections go into the campaign with a clear idea of what innovation of democracy or institutional change they will implement to prevent their future government from being harmed by political corruption, which is fueling populism and extremism. After the Czech elections, some foreign commentators have already come up with the idea that populism has already reached its zenith. But it doesn’t have to be that way at all. After all, what will happen if the new governing coalitions fail? Who will be the most likely winner of the next election? In Slovakia, the answer to these questions already has clearer contours.
Blog on the German Elections
by Damon Ajiri, doctoral student at the Institute of European Studies and International Relations, Comenius University
One thing is clear after this year’s general election in Germany: the political landscape is becoming more colorful. Because of the election results three weeks ago, both the Greens and the FDP will be needed to form a government. What seemed unrealistic a few years ago – a coalition between economically liberals and left-wing environmental politicians – is now within reach. This outcome puts the Christian Democratic CDU/CSU in an unaccustomed position, as they had got used to being able to choose their coalition partners over the years.
To the astonishment of the major parties, another constellation seems to be establishing itself in Berlin. The right-wing populist alternative for Germany (AFD) has now become socially acceptable and has secured a permanent seat in the German parliament. It is true that the AFD has lost votes compared to the last federal election; however, it is no longer possible to speak of it as a “temporary phenomenon,” as many Germans previously believed (see, for example, the survey taken in 2017 by the opinion research institute YouGov: https://www.faz.net/aktuell/politik/inland/afd-mehrheit-global) -an-voruebergiges-phaenomen-15231821.html).
Has 16 years of rule by chancellor Merkel anything to do with the rise and acceptence of right-wing populism in Germany? When Germany’s first female chancellor, Angela Merkel, took office on November 22, 2005, the CDU/CSU coalition was the party that occupied the political “right” in the Bundestag due to its bourgeois and economically liberal values. Until then, the credo of the “CSU father,” Franz Josef Strauss, held, that there should be no democratically legitimate party to the right of the CDU/CSU
This changed with the founding of the AFD in 2013, which then was an EU-skeptic and economically liberal party. A quote from Merkel was immortalized in its name, after she repeatedly claimed in speeches that there was “no alternative” to the Euro rescue. Merkel’s alleged “lack of alternatives” was the hour of birth of a new party in Germany which, contrary to Strauss’ idea, has entered parliament as a party that has positioned itself clearly to the right of the CDU/CSU.
Even though the political focus of the party, which was founded by the economics professor Bernd Lucke, was originally based on Euro-skeptical issues, strong tendencies towards national-conservative and sometimes völkisch-nationalist issues can also be observed today. At least since Merkel’s border opening to refugees in 2015, the AFD’s position on anti-migration issues and populist remarks on Merkel’s alleged “multi-cultural cult” has been clear.
The final judgement of Merkel’s 16-year chancellorship is therefore ambiguous. Germany’s first female chancellor has ruled her country through various ups and downs, from beautiful events, such as the “summer fairy tale” of the 2006 soccer/football World Cup, to less pleasant events, such as the situation caused by Covid 19. One thing remains clear, however; Merkel’s arrogant handling of issues such as the Euro crisis and her decisions and statements during the refugee crisis made right-wing populism in Germany socially acceptable and gave the AFD a boost.
Covid-19, the citizen and the state
The Covid-19 pandemic has unexpectedly shown weaknesses and strengths in a large number of governments, with the first becoming the last and vice versa. Slovakia and the United Kingdom are clear cases of this.
Slovakia was the EU’s success story for most of 2020: it was the last member state to diagnose a case in March 2020, whereupon the country went into lockdown within a week and largely avoided the first wave. It had the lowest Covid-19 death rate in the EU until the autumn, and for over ten weeks from May to July 2020 there was not a single fatality. However, when the number of cases began to rise in autumn 2020, the Slovak government was slow to react, and for several weeks at the end of the winter Slovakia had the highest Covid-19 death rate in the world. At the same time, the vaccination campaign was badly mishandled and moving into summer 2021, the country had one of the lowest vaccination rates in the EU. More seriously, there had been a failure to prioritise the vaccination of the older residents most likely to die.
This was in marked contrast to the ex-EU member state the UK, which ran a superb vaccination drive after successive pandemic disasters that were mainly of its government’s making. The UK had some of the worst infection and death rates in the world during the first wave, due in part to very late lockdowns of both the borders and workplaces and schools, and also a strange reluctance to introduce the wearing of masks; and lockdowns were again introduced slowly during the second wave, which was particularly virulent because of what became known as the ‘British mutation’. However, by the time a third wave of the even more infectious ‘Delta variant’ took hold in May 2021, the death and hospitalisation rates remained lower than in Slovakia because of a high vaccine rate, particularly among older residents.
A variety of failings affected the Slovak vaccination campaign, and these demonstrated structural failings that in temporal terms reflected mixed political legacies.
Looking at contemporary problems, populism was particularly marked in Slovakia as a result of the February 2020 election, where a quarter of the vote went to the maverick Ordinary People and Independent Personalities party, whose founder and leader Igor Matovič became prime minister. He was prone to making dramatic gestures: in autumn 2020 he became obsessed with conducting mass antigen testing of the entire Slovak population, and in March 2021, when prioritisation of the elderly for vaccination was urgently needed, he imported the unregistered Russian Sputnik V vaccine – and then failed to use it, as he wanted Slovakia’s State Institute for Drug Control to approve it first, so that he did not have to take responsibility for any problems. The UK’s prime minister Boris Johnson was also stronger at populist proclamations than attention to the details of complex challenges with no easy answer. Both prime ministers were accused of government by following opinion polls, or in Johnson’s case focus groups. However, the larger and more established UK polity had more effective corrective mechanisms.
Slovakia did eventually oust its prime minister, replacing him on 1 April 2021 with a less erratic party colleague, but the government remained fractious because it was a coalition of four parties. The UK government, entirely controlled by the Conservative Party with a large majority in parliament, could at least enforce decisions when finally agreed, even if there were some dissenting voices in its own ranks. This could be considered a legacy of post-communist democratic transition, which preferred election systems based on proportional representation. This tends to produce party systems dominated by smaller parties with more narrow constituencies, and the four-party Matovič government was not helped by the fact that its neoliberal coalition partner, Freedom and Solidarity (SaS), which was led by the Minister of Economics, appeared more interested in saving the economy than the lives of pensioners. While the British Conservative Party, for all its neoliberal tendencies, did tend to have an older than average voter base, the voters of SaS were very heavily concentrated among more educated younger people; pensioners appeared not to be on their radar as an important group. In late February, when the Slovak COVID-19 death rate was the highest in the world and some attention was finally paid to the country’s dismal record in vaccinating the elderly, the party’s parliamentary leader went as far as saying that most people in the 65+ age group were not of a productive age, as if that meant that they could be left to die.
The Slovak vaccination campaign was also influenced by communist legacies, which was most marked when it was announced that it would begin by vaccinating ‘critical infrastructure’. This was defined as health workers, police and the army, but in practice also included politicians, judges, ministry officials, relatives of doctors – in short, the sort of people that communist regimes thought were important. The Slovak vaccination campaign began in late December with photos of a high-profile 60-year-old infectologist getting the first jab, followed the next day by a similar shot of Slovakia’s 47-year-old president, Zuzana Čaputová. Although the British started vaccinating earlier, 94-year-old Queen Elizabeth II seems to have been vaccinated after the Slovak president. The first person vaccinated in the UK was an ordinary 90-year-old grandmother, followed by an 81-year-old named William Shakespeare. Although health workers of all ages were prioritised, it was clear that this was only because their falling ill could endanger the lives of the older citizens most at risk of Covid-19.
However, the conduct of the vaccination campaign in Slovakia also showed signs of a more deeply-seated understanding of the relationship between the citizen and the state. This element of political culture is arguably shared by other continental European countries. In Slovakia, the citizen has to go to the state. The state is often not inclined to reach out to the citizen. While the privileged ‘critical infrastructure’ accessed vaccination via their place of work, the elderly were expected to register online. Free places were snapped up quickly, and adult children were most successful in registering their elderly parents if someone gave them a tip off when new appointments had just become available online. It took some time for the authorities to realise that many pensioners did not own computers, but when a phone number was introduced it was almost permanently engaged. After nearly three months, with the majority of over-65s still not vaccinated, a ‘waiting room’ was finally introduced, meaning applicants could register at any time and would be allocated an appointment according to their priority. But life remained hard for those without an email address and a smartphone.
The British sent their pensioners old-fashioned letters through the post offering appointments, and some got phone calls (often on landlines) from their local doctor. Within weeks, vaccinations were available at doctors’ surgeries and chemists. In late June, Slovakia was vaccinating 12 to 15-year-olds, but vaccination rates for the over-60s were still around 60 per cent and vaccination at local doctors’ surgeries was just being introduced. It should be noted that Slovakia is a much more rural society than the UK, so that the distances people had to travel to vaccination centres at stadiums and hospitals were often large. Ireland, a fairly rural (but ‘non-continental’) country with a similar population to Slovakia’s, achieved a far higher vaccination rate among the elderly, despite suffering from the initial vaccination shortage that affected the whole EU. As in the UK, local doctors had a more major role than in Slovakia.
Why was the Slovak state so reluctant to approach citizens pro-actively to encourage them to get vaccinated against COVID-19? The reason may lie in a different understanding of the relationship between the citizen and the state. The British English word for a state official is ‘civil servant’. The word ‘servant’ is not a polite euphemism but reflects a deeper understanding of how things work: British citizens are in no doubt that people in offices are their servants. Arguments with officialdom often end with a dissatisfied citizen pointing accusingly at the state employee shouting ‘I pay your wages’. The idea of ‘the state’ as an eternal body to be revered is alien to Anglo-American culture. As a perceptive German once commented to me, as far as the British and Americans are concerned, the state is service organisation and empties their dustbins. And it is also the state’s job to make it as easy as possible for the citizen (or anyone who lives there, legally or otherwise) to get vaccinated.
There are also differences in who is perceived to be in charge. I once had to mark a set of essays written in German by British students, where they were discussing the financing of higher education. Their views on this are not relevant; what I remember most is that whether the British students were discussing Germany or the UK, all repeatedly used the German term die Regierung (the government) in contexts where I was sure a German would have said der Staat (the state). The British simply had no concept of a lasting entity that ordered their lives. Everything the state does is the responsibility of the government, and if we don’t like it, we get rid of the government. ‘Throw the bastards out’, as the US English phrase goes.
And so it was that no British civil servant or politician would have dared to get vaccinated before someone else’s grandmother. The UK’s National Health Service was put into action to do one of the things it had been set up to do 72 years previously - to fight a coordinated battle against infectious disease – and achieved the most marked British success of the Covid-19 period. Slovakia had a far less transparent vaccination system and suffered also – like many of its neighbours – from a vaccine scepticism far higher than that in the UK and Ireland. Arguably, however, that scepticism stemmed from their distrust of ‘the state’. Citizens who believe that they are in control and that state officials are servants that they are paying to organise a vaccination system for them have no reason not to rush off to the vaccination centre with a smile on their face.
THE BATTLE IS WON BUT THE WAR OVER DEMOCRACY IS NOT OVER
It could be easy for those with democratic values to give a sigh of relief with Biden’s clear victory over Trump; however, it would be too early to breath easily now for several reasons.
First, even though Biden was able to take office and the Trump claims that the election were “stolen” failed to get any legal support, we should not forget how close Trump came to actually stealing the election. In fact, the very act of claiming the election was “stolen” while at the same time trying to steal the election shows what an Orwellian leader Trump has become, with his great emphasis on “newspeak,” where everything means its opposite. Just to give an example about how close Trump was to implementing the “great steal” think about Michigan, where Biden did best in Wayne country, which includes Detroit. At first the two Republicans on the electoral commission refused to endorse the results. Once they caved into pressure and accepted the results, the state commission had to verify the results. Here one of the two Republican representatives refused to verify the results, meaning that the vote went 3-1 in favor of democracy. Imagine the constitutional crisis that would have ensued if the second Republican had followed suit, so the commission would have been divided 2-2 on accepting the results? Similarly, in Wisconsin the Supreme Court only ruled 4-3 in favor of upholding the elections. So in both states the elections were one vote away from being stolen.
Then of course there are the events of January 6, in which Trump encouraged people at his rally to march on the Capitol building to pressure the Republican legislators to vote to overturn the election results. This led to an armed insurrection as rightwing extremist groups stormed the building – some with the expressed intention of murdering lawmakers, who opposed Trump’s attempts at refusing to give up power. Even though Trump’s encouragement to engage in sedation should be objectively considered to be the most impeachable offense that any American president ever committed, only a small minority of Republicans voted in favor of impeachment. This was obviously not the same Republican Party that had forced Nixon to resign in 1973 because the majority supported his impeachment for offenses that while grave seem minor compared to the many impeachable acts that Trump has engaged in. Those Republicans, who dared stand for justice and democracy, have met harsh criticism and reprimands within the Party, which shows that it is still the party of Trump.
It was a close call, but democracy won. However, given the closeness of the call, one can only wonder what would have happened if the Republicans had a more competent autocrat at their helm. In the end it was Trump’s total incompetence that saved the country. The COVID pandemic made it clear the limits of his philosophy by which nobody with any competence should be in charge of anything and that truth and science are the enemy. If a more competent authoritarian had come to power with the skills of a Putin, Erdoğan or Orban then soon xenophobic European rightwing populists would have to change their focus to the new wave of political refugees coming from across the ocean.
Belarus Awakening: a point of no return
November 13, 2020
As of the time of writing, it is difficult to predict how the events might unfold in Belarus. There is a number of possible scenarios. Some of them look quite grim. They include state terror on a truly massive scale, escalation of violence, or a Russian invasion in response to the collapse of the authoritarian regime in Minsk.
However, as of today, we can say one thing with certainty. The situation in Belarus has passed the point of no return and there is no coming back to the old days. We can think of this in terms of shifts that have happened in the past months.
First, there has been a huge shift in perception of politics. The anti-regime protestors have seen that they are a majority. For many years the regime built its strategy on marginalizing the opposition through both repression and propaganda. If you were against the government, it made sure you felt that you were alone or almost alone. People around you seemed to be either indifferent to politics or passively supporting the government. In 2020, the street protests created a very powerful image of a political majority. There have also been fascinating examples of local, grassroot solidarity. People met next to their apartment buildings to listen to lectures or music, drink tea, and share the things they baked, or decorate their yards with flags, street art, and white-red-white ribbons. There are new networks of horizontal ties established, a civil society in the making. This is not something you can erase easily, even if you manage to suppress the street rallies.
Second, in terms of political symbolism, there has been a massive return of independent national symbols. The historical white-red-white flag and the Pahonia (“Chase”) coat of arms are back, white-red-white colors dominate the street rallies and the practices of aesthetic resistance in the urban landscape. Previously, these historical symbols could be associated with selected political actors above all, with the Belarusian Popular Front, whose agenda was heavily influenced by culturalist and ethnonationalist demands. Now, on the other hand, the symbols came to represent a mass protest movement which puts forth very broad civic and ethical demands for rule of law, free and fair elections, and an end to terror. This is a crucial point in Belarus’ nation building process.
Third, there seems to be a change in the perception of Russia. Many Belarusians tended to somehow instinctively trust Moscow, even to look up to it. They readily consumed Russian media content produced by Russia’s state TV channels. Some may have perceived Russia even as more democratic than their own authoritarian regime. Now, many seem disappointed by how the Kremlin state propaganda is lying about the events in Belarus. I have witnessed online discussions between pro-Russian Belarusians and Russians where one could feel a sense of bitter disappointment and outrage. With Putin’s continued public support of Lukashenka’s regime, this is likely to become another turning point. For many Belarusians, Moscow will no longer be their point of reference. The illusions are vanishing.
For the EU, which is the second most important player in the game, it is important to understand that the Belarus Awakening is not a one-time media event. It is a process of building a new national identity and civil society, and Belarusians must not be abandoned in the midst of this process. There is an argument that is often used both by propaganda mouthpieces and by ordinary people who are skeptical of the West. “No one in Europe is waiting for you, nobody needs Belarusians there”. Europe needs to demonstrate that this is false, and that it has a realistic plan for Belarus - also as a kind of reward for the courage the people have been demonstrating in their fight for civil rights. A good place to start would be offering Belarusians visa-free travel, for instance. The Eastern Partnership from its very inception, was built on the principle of competition between participants. Countries would get “more for more”, more rewards from the EU for more successful reform. The government of Belarus did not get very far on this track. However, its people did. They have literally paid the price in blood and, unfortunately will, most likely, continue to be paying it in the coming weeks or months. This takes much more courage than reform, and courage should be rewarded.
The mass testing of Covid-19 of almost all of Slovakia’s population took place between 31 October and 1 November 2020. During the previous weekend, an initial 3-day pilot testing scheme in four regions in the north of the country that has become infection hotspots began on 23 October 2020.
The Slovak government declared that the testing was voluntary and recommended all persons in Slovakia between 10 and 65 years of age to take the test. Persons placed in the social service utilities and hospitalized persons in hospitals took the test in such utilities. Three million people took the test with 1% of tested persons were positive of COVID-19. The committee of experts does not recommend the second round of testing planned on the following weekend. However, was the testing indeed voluntary? What can now people do with the certificate proving the negative outcome of the testing? If somebody did not take the test, can his/her child go to school? How was the medical and administrative staff prepared for the testing? These and many more questions arose from the irregularities connected with the testing. Besides, the changes in the decision-making of the prime minister are frequent.
So, was the testing indeed voluntary? Well, not really. People felt a threat of losing money, or even job. A lot of people went to the testing only because of their employment. They are some exceptions regarding persons who declined to go on mass testing – to visit a doctor, nearest groceries, to go on a gas station or to go on a funeral. In this regard, people most likely took the test if they wanted to work on 2nd November 2020. Zuzana Čaputová, the President of the Slovak Republic, and the opposition questioned the voluntary nature of the mass testing. Also, some of the employers declared that they will not pay to those who did not go to mass testing, even though these persons can work from home. So, the risk was high for those without a certificate proving negative results on COVID-19. Indeed, the government never answered the question regarding the voluntary concept of mass testing.
On the other hand, what can people now do with a certificate proving negative results of COVID-19? First, they can go to work and earn money in these harsh times. Secondly, they can enter the borders of other districts, they can enjoy a beer or a good meal, but only at a terrace of the bar/restaurant, or to see the doctor. They have more options in freedom of movement, employment, money or services in comparison with those who did not go to testing.
A big question was also, whether a child of a person who did not go to mass testing, can go to school. The journalists asked this question last week, but the Prime Minister did not know the answer. Now, it is clear that the child can go to school, but then, what if the person who did not go to the mass testing is positive and infected the child? Huge issues occurred before the testing itself. The mayors of cities and villages did not have all the equipment, and the government asked the medical personnel to help on last days before the mass testing. Medical staff from Austria, Hungary or Ukraine also provided help because of lack of human resources in the health sector of Slovakia.
The last question is the Prime Minister himself. Is he able to lead this country with a clear goal, with no changing of rules every second day, and is he capable of listening to the experts? As mentioned, the committee of experts does not recommend the planned second round of testing. The answer is complicated, as is the world of Igor Matovič because in his world, nobody guarantees the rules and they can change every day. Also, without the quick and professional response of the local government, his idea would be a fiasco.
THE AMERICAN ELECTIONS: WILL POPULISM TRUMP CALMNESS?
Blog by Steven Saxonberg, holder of Jean Monnet Chair
Back in March, I planned to write a blog about the American presidential primaries that was to be entitled Hillary 2.0? I feared that Biden’s nomination did not bode well for the Democrats, as at the time, he appeared to me to be the weakest of the democratic candidates. Similar to Hillary Clinton, he was a mainstream, establishment figure at a time in which an anti-establishment atmosphere seemed to dominate the population. He seemed to be even worse than Clinton in that he was a lackluster campaigner and even older than her. I thought the democrats need new blood – younger, more dynamic candidates, so it was ironic that Biden’s biggest opponent, in the end, was somebody who was even older than him.
I thought that Sanders would have done better than Biden, because his economic views would appeal to some of the angry, white men, who voted for Trump. These men often have “leftist” economic views, but “conservative” views on social issues like gay rights and immigration. Clinton and Biden would not appeal to them on either the economic or the social side, while Trump appeals to them on the social side, and Sanders would appeal to them on the economic side and thus win some of their votes. Even if I thought Sanders would have done better than Biden, I thought the Democrats would have been better off with a younger candidate, such as Harris, Booker, or Buttigieg. Thus, I feared the Democrats were doomed by Biden’s sudden comeback and victory in the primaries, and the world would have to endure another 4-years of an incompetent, pathologically lying bully.
However, suddenly something happened to change EVERYTHING and it is a word with a number. Yes, Covid-19. With the onslaught of the pandemic, it became much more difficult for Trump and his supporters (such as Fox Fake News) to continue their philosophy of seeing truth, reality and science as the main enemies. Lies and deceptions do not work well during a pandemic. Given the fear that many people feel when their country is being run by an incompetent, pathologically lying bully, Biden provides a calming effect. When there is an anti-establishment atmosphere, father figures are not in high demand, but when people live in fear, then a father (or maybe granddad) from the establishment provides a sense of security. He might be lacking in vigor and vision, but at least he is competent and knows how things work, which is the kind of person that many people want during a pandemic.
Consequently, the pandemic has tilted the game in Biden’s favor; yet, ironically, the pandemic also provides the greatest obstacle for a Biden victory. The reason being the important issue of voter turnout. Rather than try and recruit voters from the middle, it has been Trump’s strategy to appeal to his base and hope for a high voter turnout. He must know that he has not chance of getting the support of the majority of the population, but he could still win if there is a high voter turnout among his base and a low voter turnout among his non-supporters. This is why one of the main political battles now concerns the issue of voting by mail. Many voters are afraid of voting in person because they could catch Corvid-19, so they want to vote by mail. If they cannot vote by mail they might stay at home rather than risk their lives by voting in person. Since Trump has mocked people for wearing masks, his supporters are less afraid of voting in person. Thus, this election will be determined by the issue of whether the majority, who oppose Trump, is able to vote or not. For this reason, Trump has tried to make cutbacks in the postal service and take other measures to prevent voting by mail.
Recently, Trump quoted Roosevelt’s famous speech that we have nothing to fear but fear itself; for Trump the truth seems to be rather, he has nothing to fear by the voters themselves.
Matovič – the cleaner
Slovakia´s general election led to a short article in the Economist. Under the headline “A different kind of populism,” the leader of the Ordinary People and Independent Personalities" (OĽaNO) Igor Matovič is depicted as an “anti-corruption campaigner”, leader of a movement which “vows to clean up politics”. Yes, the winning formula of this election was fight against corruption which really grew in Slovakia into unprecedented depth and width. Seven out of ten OľaNO voters said corruption was the most important issue for their vote. But, why is the fight against corruption so closely linked to populism? In recent years, the literature on populism has developed a new term; anti-corruptism (for more details see the study by P. Frič and O. Gyárfášová here: http://www.politickevedy.fpvmv.umb.sk/archiv-vydani/2019/4-2019/pavol-fric-olga-gyarfasova.html). At first glance, it sounds inconsistent: political corruption is an unacceptable sin, and the efforts to diminish it have the highest moral justification. So, why is there a negative undertone? Looking closer, we see that the new wave of populism in post-communist Central Europe largely took the form of the fight against corruption and ended with semi-authoritative rulers – Orbán is a good example. The struggle against corruption can be abused in a struggle for power; it can become an instrument, a vehicle for obtaining power and somehow forgotten after gaining power. Anti-corruptism is political free-riding in the fight against corruption; it is not intended to defeat it, but to politicize it and to discredit political rivals. Of course, the political rivals presented a huge opportunity to do so – Smer-SD definitely, but let’s think also of Gyurcsány (in Hungary) or Nečas (in the Czech Republic).
Evidence of the existence of anti-corruptism is the apparent weakening of the anti-corruption initiative of the originally anti-corruption political parties. Furthermore, the politicians, who came to power, are becoming involved in their own cases and problems of conflict of interest. Andrej Babiš’s political trajectory is an example of this. Of course, populism is not guilty for this development, but rather the extensive and deeply devoured political corruption which we face in many countries.
What could be done? Since we know the genesis of OĽaNO’s phenomenal victory, we should even watch the steps of the future government and to put all anti-corruption measures and initiatives under very rigorous scrutiny in order to prevent that the fight against corruption and the cleaning up the politics turn to be just anti-corruptism.
The British Leap into the Unknown
The result of the UK election on 12 December meant that for the first time it was certain that the country really would leave the European Union. The Conservative Party under Boris Johnson gained a majority of 80 members of parliament more than all the other parties together, thereby guaranteeing Brexit legislation being passed before Christmas and the UK leaving the EU on 31 January 2020. Beyond this certainty, however, there are far more unanswered questions than usual at the beginning of a parliamentary session. These can be split into two areas: EU/foreign policy and domestic politics.
As a child, Johnson famously told his siblings that he wanted to be world king. While naked ambition and a lust for power are not uncommon among politicians, in Johnson’s case the relentless pursuit of the top office has been so marked that unclarity remains about what he actually intends to do with his new-found power. With a sound parliamentary majority and the gratitude of his party for having ended the Brexit stalemate, he has a relatively free hand in deciding policy. But what does he really want?
It is uncertain whether he even wanted Brexit as he was not a known Eurosceptic and only decided to back the Vote Leave campaign four months before the referendum. In the days immediately after the referendum victory, he was notably silent, reinforcing the common assumption that he had only backed Brexit as a means of gaining Eurosceptic support in a future party leadership contest, in the belief that he would become a noble loser. When he won he knew not what to do.
The first unknown, therefore, is what sort of Brexit policy he will pursue as a strong prime minister. Although his election slogan was ‘Get Brexit Done’, in real life formally leaving the EU is only the first step in negotiating relations with the EU and the rest of the world – a point which the opposition Labour Party was lacklustre in pointing out. Johnson’s first move was to commit himself in law to ending the transition period – where the UK acts in many areas as if it were still an EU member – on 31 December 2020, and not taking advantage of the possibility of a one or two year extension if no trade agreement has been agreed with the EU. This fulfilled a promise to the Brexit Party, which had agreed not to stand in the election in seats that had been won by the Conservatives in 2017. However, laws can be changed and trade negotiations in general will last many years.
The second unknown is what economic problems the UK will face. Brexit supporters claim that ‘project fear’ – concern that Brexit would cause economic devastation – has been proved wrong as the country is currently enjoying record high levels of employment and the pound leapt up when the Conservatives won the election. However, this ignores the fact that Brexit has not actually happened yet and unemployment – particularly outside London and the south of England – may rise dangerously as companies move out of the UK. The pound dropped again when Johnson insisted he would leave the EU at the end of 2020 even without a trade deal, and this might cause a further flurry of companies relocating from the UK.
On this will depend whether any of Johnson’s domestic policy promises can be financed.
UK domestic politics will cease to be a major concern for the EU from 2020 onwards, but it will nevertheless be interesting to discover whether, as some fear, the UK will become a neoliberal bastion leading a ‘race to the bottom’ on standards or whether, on the contrary, Johnson’s premiership is a prelude to the UK becoming a socialist beacon on the edge of Europe under a radical left Labour government.
First of all, it should be noted that although Johnson has in recent years collaborated with colleagues on the right of the Conservative Party who were hostile to the EU, his former major office was as mayor of London where, as in many capital cities, more liberal policies are necessary. Johnson himself is a cosmopolitan: he was born in New York (only renouncing US citizenship in 2016), lived in Brussels as a child and speaks several languages. His colourful love life also precludes his adopting conservative moral stances. He refuses to confirm in public how many children he has, and is the first prime minister to move his mistress into Downing Street. Furthermore, in the run-up to the election he was critical of his Conservative predecessors’ austerity policies and made a number of fairly extravagant promises in the run-up to the election, targeted mainly at seats in the north of England which were held by the Labour Party but had a majority of voters who supported ‘Leave’. This policy, coupled with the marked public distrust of the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, was successful. The Conservatives captured some seats that had been Labour bastions since the First World War, and on the weekend after the election Johnson gleefully visited Sedgefield, a northern constituency that had been represented by three-times Labour prime minister Tony Blair but which had switched to the Conservatives on 12 December.
Consequently, it is hard to tell where Johnson will end up politically. His domestic policies are likely to contain elements of originality and it will be interesting to track at what point his popularity begins to fade with his Conservative colleagues. It is not inconceivable that he will fall flat on his face early on in his term of office if confronted by economic crisis. Most of his pre-election spending promises were based on financing through a ‘Brexit bonus’ which is unlikely to materialize.
The second major problem Johnson will face is open conflict with the Scottish Government. When the exit poll was announced at 10pm on election night, my first reaction was ‘end of the UK’, since it indicated not only a clear Conservative victory and hence Brexit, but also a marked increase in the number of Scottish National Party members of parliament. Johnson is adamant that there should not be another independence referendum in Scotland since the one held in 2014 was supposed to be a ‘once in a generation’ decision. However, since the British government had campaigned in that referendum with the argument that independence would eject Scotland from the EU and only staying in the UK guaranteed continuous EU membership, the Scottish had clearly been betrayed by the 2016 EU referendum. Nevertheless, although 62% of Scottish voters had supported continued EU membership in 2016, the result of a future Scottish independence referendum is far from certain. The Scottish National Party first became an electoral force in the 1970s, after the UK had joined the EU, and the notion of Scottish independence has always been tacitly predicated on both England and Scotland being in the EU so that borders and customs tariffs were simply not a problem. With the UK leaving the EU, and the EU requiring new member states, like an independent Scotland, to join the Schengen Zone, independence would appear to entail a hard border between England and Scotland of the sort that has been rejected in Ireland.
It should be noted that the Irish border is less problematic than a hypothetical future Scottish border as Ireland, like the UK, has never been in the Schengen Zone: their common travel zone meant that Ireland chose to stay outside Schengen to match the UK. But new member states like an independent Scotland do not enjoy the choices that existing member states have when treaty innovations are first negotiated.
Ireland will, however, be another problem for Johnson. His agreement with the EU will create a bureaucratic nightmare in Northern Ireland, which is in any case vulnerable to a post-Brexit economic downturn, and Northern Ireland has a right in international law to hold a referendum on Irish reunification if there appears to be a majority in support of this. 2019 was the first UK election where the protestant Unionist parties gained less than half the province’s 18 Westminster seats, and although the distortions of the British electoral system mean that this does not indicate a republican majority, it is part of a broader long-term shift in opinion about Ireland’s destiny.
But would the disintegration of the UK hurt Johnson? Although the Conservatives claim to be the party of the Union, some opinion polls indicated that the English as a whole are not so concerned with remaining in a United Kingdom with Scotland and Northern Ireland, and Brexiteers were far more worried about getting Brexit done.
Finally, the good news for the Johnson government relates to the opposition Labour Party. Having allowed the membership to elect Jeremy Corbyn – a token far left candidate on the leadership election ballot paper – in 2015, the party had doomed itself to electoral failure. It also doomed the UK to Brexit as Corbyn’s almost farcically indecisive leadership on the issue allowed the Conservatives to dominate political discourse on the matter while civil society, the Scottish National Party and the Liberal Democrats and anti-Corbyn dissenters in the Labour Party put up the most effective resistance they could in the absence of a Leader of the Opposition who knew how to do his job. Corbyn’s devoted fan following mistook their fairly narrow loss in the 2017 election, where they were saved by despairing anti-Brexit voters deciding the Labour Party was the only machine big enough to attack the Conservatives, as an indication that the public liked his left-wing policies (which to some extent they did). After the disastrous failure in 2019, which left them with fewer seats than in any election since 1935, the party might correct course. Early indications suggest, however, that the members will again put their own left-wing dreams above the views of their voters and replace Corbyn with some of the young women members of parliament that Corbyn had brought into his shadow cabinet. So as in the entire Brexit period, Johnson could in this respect have an easier ride than he might have expected or deserved. But he may not. A Labour leader on the left of the party who has sharper political instincts and ambition than Corbyn might just manage to turn a post-Brexit economic collapse to their political advantage and create a socialist flagship on the EU’s western border.
Looking to the future
Political mistakes, both by Johnson, the Labour Party, and politicians in Scotland and Northern Ireland, matter. But what matters most of all in determining the future of the UK is the economic fate of the country once it leaves the UK. Governments are never helped by economic recession, and in a case where the recession is so clearly of the government’s own making, the reaction may be more intense. However, older people are less likely to protest. They have got used to the idea that there will be economic problems after Brexit and after the dire scenarios predicted for the case that the UK had left the EU without any withdrawal agreement at all, the reality may not seem so bad to them.
The young, however, are a different matter. Surveys at the time of the referendum indicated that over 70% of 18 – 24-year-olds had voted to remain in the EU, while over 60% of those 65 years old or above had voted to leave. More crucially, however, this fault line is also visible in election voting. Britain is no longer divided by class or occupation, or between rural and urban voters or north and south. It is divided by age. A post-election survey found that 56% of 18 – 24-year-olds voted Labour and just 21% Conservative, while among 60 – 69-year-olds some 57% voted Conservative and only 22% Labour.
Should Brexit cause economic hardship and unemployment it will be the young who suffer. They already have numerous grievances against the older generation – the unaffordability of house purchase, high university fees and the prospect of lower pensions - apart from the looming threat of climate change catastrophe. A further deterioration of their life chances caused purely by the folly of their elders may well pose the risk of serious unrest.
Today is the day that it became rather clear that Brexit will likely become a reality, as the Tories under the leadership of their populist leader Boris Johnson won a victory in the British elections. Thus, for many people this Friday the thirteenth really does signify bad luck! The entire Brexit debate has been very divisive for the UK and Europe and has led to a lot of resentment.
Thus, today is a good day for me to write a brief blog about Dr. Lenka Buštíková’s excellent presentation on the politics of resentment which she gave as part of our Jean Monnet lecture series on Thursday, December 5. She came to promote her new book Extreme Reactions: Radical Right Mobilization in Eastern Europe (Cambridge University Press). She argues that far right parties mobilize against politically ascendant minorities based on the politics of resentment. That is, people do not vote for far right parties necessarily because they are racist, anti-Gay, anti-immigrant, etc,, but rather because they feel resentment toward these groups, which they feel have benefitted from recent changes in policies in their society.
Our research project on emotions and populism has been highly influenced by Buštíková’s work. While she uses macro-level data, we decided that we wanted to test her ideas about resentment at the micro level, so we included questions about resentment in our resent questionnaire that we carried out in Slovakia. In addition, hearing her lecture about why support for far-right parties increases when “outgroups” appear to be gaining in benefits, I wondered why only SOME people vote for these far-right parties. Why doesn’t everyone vote for them? In other words, she offers an intriguing explanation as to why support for these parties increases under certain circumstances, but without micro-level data we cannot ascertain why some people still refuse to vote for these parties – in fact the vast majority in the post-communist countries does not vote for such parties. Consequently, her lecture gave me further food for thought for the analysis of our survey data that will begin in January.
I am very thrilled and honored to have received a Jean Monnet Chair for our project on the EU from a political sociological perspective. It seems to me that most European Studies programs focus on the EU as an institution. However, I think it is also important to look at the countries that comprise the European Union.
To take an obvious example, the wave of populism that has spread throughout Europe obviously influences the EU. The clearest example is the Brexit issue, but that is not the only case where populism has influenced the EU. In Central Europe rightwing populist parties have come to power in both Poland and Hungary and are both moving in the direction of “illiberal democracies,” where elections are no longer fair, the mass media is no longer free and the legal system is no longer independent. Hungary has gone farther in this direction that Poland, but the mere existence of an illiberal, populist party in power in Poland makes it difficult for the EU to sanction the Orban regime in Hungary, since Poland will usually block such moves, which require unanimous approval. In addition, the ruling ANO party in the Czech Republic could be considered a centrist-populist party and the president Zeman a leftwing populist. Meanwhile the ruling party in Slovakia – Smer – is clearly a populist party, which in common with rightwing populist parties runs anti-Roma and anti-immigrant campaigns; yet the party labels itself “social democratic” and belongs to the socialist group in the EU parliament. In a situation in which much of Central Europe is being ruled by populist parties of various shades, it is not surprising that these governments refused to accept the EU quotas for taking in refugees from Syria, which in turn prevented the EU from developing a cohesive strategy for dealing with the refugee situation.
But if the EU is influenced by changes in the policies of the member states, it is necessary to investigate why some of the member states are changing their policies. In order to conduct such an analysis, it is necessary to look at the relationship between state and society in these countries, hence the need for a political-sociological approach. A political-sociological approach allows us to inquire as to why different kinds of movements (such as populist ones) arise, why people support such policies and how the policies of these movements when in power influence society.
Luckily, we also have a research project on populism and emotions, so now were are investigating many of these themes, which allows us to link our research project to the Jean Monnet Chair, as the Chair is mostly for teaching innovations rather than research. In addition, part of teh Jean Monnet project is to invite guest lecturers and to show films in our EUROCINE film series. Thus, we are combining research and teaching with outreach events such as public lectures and films with panel discussions after the films.
All films are in the Auditorium of the Faculty of Social and Economic Sciences at 5:30 pm on Tuesdays
October 8, 2019 bude EUROCINE premietať dokumentárnu novinku "Skutok sa stal", režisérky Barbory Bereznakovej. Po filme bude diskusia s režisérkou a novinárkou Ľubou Lesnou, moderuje Andrej Findor. Možno ste v Denníku N zachytili rozhovor s režisérkou a aj reakciu Ľuby Lesnej, to všetko je prísľubom zaujímavého eventu.
November 19, 2019: "SPÝTAJ SA VAŠICH 89"
premietanie dokumentárneho filmu a diskusia s režisérkou Barborou Berezňákovou a výskumníčkou Zuzanou Maďarovou (ÚEŠMV), autorkou knihy Ako odvrávať novembru 1989: rodové aspekty pamäte.
Screening of the documentary film "Ask at Home 89" with English subtitles.
December 12, 2019 at 16:30: "MEČIAR". Screening of documentaryfilm
Lust for Power (with English subtitles). Premietanie dokumentárnehe filmu Mečiar a diskusia s publicistom a analytikom Mariánom LEŠKOM reprezentantmi Dokumentu nakolesách Matejom SOTNÍKOM a Adamom STRAKOM. Možno príde aj režisérka Tereza NVOTOVÁ
This article documents and compares the social policies that the governments in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) implemented to combat the first wave of COVID-19 pandemic by focusing on Hungary, Lithuania, Poland and Slovakia. Our findings show that governments in all four countries reacted to the COVID-19 crisis by providing extensive protection for jobs and enterprises. Differences arise when it comes to solidaristic policy responses to care for the most vulnerable population, in which CEE countries show great variation. We find that social policy responses to the first wave of COVID-19 have largely depended on precious social policy trajectories as well as the political situation of the country during the pandemic.
Published in Social Policy & Administration vol. 55, no. 2, 2021, pp. 358-373