Written by 15:20 English

Interview: György Schöpflin – “Illiberalism” is not anti-liberal

The debate over populism and “illiberal democracy” has become a relatively common topic in public discourse, most often for those who criticize it. The Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, whose party, Fidesz, was recently expelled from the strongest group in the European Parliament (the European People’s Party), is currently viewed as the main “specter” of populism and “iliberalism” in Europe. There is probably no better interlocutor to speak with about these topics than the “expert”- politician, professor György (George) Schöpflin, who was a Fidesz MEP for 15 years (2004-2019). He worked as a journalist for BBC for nine years (1967-1976) but he spent most of his career as a professor at world renowned universities. From 1976 to 2004, he was a professor at the prestigious School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies (SSEES), University College London (UCL). He is the author of numerous books and articles, primarily about national identity, nationalism, national myths, etc., but also about communist political systems and the transition from communism to liberal democracy in Central and Eastern Europe. He is currently a research fellow at the Institute of Advance Studies Kőszeg (Kiseg) and at the National Service University’s Politics and Government Research Group. We talked with Professor Schöpflin about the very notion of populism and illiberal democracy, Fidesz ideology, Central Europe (and its relationship with Western Europe), the role of national myths, and democratic transition.

Fidesz recently quit from the EPP, before it was excluded. You were MEP of Fidesz and EPP, what can you tell us about that political family, its ideology etc. What are the ideological differences between Fidesz and EPP?

Let me begin with a clarification. My approach to political analysis is informed both by my background in political theory and my 15 years as a political practitioner. Second, my upbringing in Britain and being Hungarian, making me distinctly multicultural, have taught me that there is no such thing as absolute objectivity. There is a third, methodological point to be made here. I refer in this interview to “the West”, to “Western”. I’m well aware that this homogenises something much more complex, that there are various different currents in the EU, including a centre-right that does not share all the views of Central Europe that one finds in some mainstream attitudes, so please read the word “West” as a kind of shorthand.

In simple terms, the political gap between the EPP and Fidesz had become unbridgeable. But any analysis worthy of the name will have to dig deeper than this. Since the passing of the Lisbon Treaty (2009), the European Parliament has become more powerful and it has concentrated this power around an ever tighter idea of European integration as inherently desirable. So integration is not a means to an end, but is its own objective and is seen as morally good. At the same time, European integration has been very largely monopolised by the liberal left, to the effect that only liberal integration – the pursuit of liberal goals, like anti-racism, support for LGBT, gender mainstreaming, post-colonial guilt, green goals and a federal Europe – is legitimate. This shift put the EPP on the horns of a dilemma. Being a pro-integration party, should it accept this variant of integration or should it develop its own Christian Democratic and people’s party (PP) ideas? A strong minority in the EPP accepted the liberal package, there was (and is) a hesitant middle and a reluctant old-style PP wing. Fidesz stood for a strong version of Christian Democracy, nationhood, sovereignty and conservatism, as well as a semi-etatic, state-centred economic strategy, thereby arousing both the real and the performative anger of the Euroleft; the EPP-left drifted into this anti-Fidesz approach, encouraged by MEPs’ local  media, given that Western journalists have developed a visceral anti-Fidesz ideology. Indeed, for many journalists Hungary, to a lesser extent Poland and Slovenia, have come to be seen as the seat of everything that is detestable in Europe.

In this sense, the Western media have constructed an imaginary, symbolic Fidesz, in which facts and reality do not matter – there is no conjecture and refutation – just a negative other. Western media are aided by the condemnations of the Hungarian opposition and the cultural propensity of Hungarians to use hyperbolic language, which is always quotable. Furthermore, there is the barrier of the Hungarian language, few non-Hungarians know it, putting the interpreters of Hungary in a privileged position. This is equally true of other Central European languages, of course.

In theoretical terms, assessments of Hungary are marked by the hermeneutics of suspicion – whatever it is, give it the most negative interpretation. This approach is equally part and parcel of the deep polarisation that is so characteristic of Hungary today. So against this background, the pressure on the EPP from the EP-left to expel Fidesz became irreversible. It was a dynamic process. In the end, Fidesz was aware that its suspension from the EPP parliamentary group was overwhelmingly likely and exited of its own accord, as the lesser of two evils.

Which group in the European parliament is closer to Fidesz – European conservatives and reformists (ECR) or Identity and Democracy group (ID)?

This is not so straightforward. Fidesz has aims in common with some in both the ECR and ID, and has been working to construct a new European parliamentary group to unite these disparate elements.

Is national populism vs globalism a good dichotomy for describing maybe the main political division nowadays?

No, this distinction is simplistic, there are always multiple perspectives, even if a cultural imperative in the European tradition tries to insist that to every question there is only one correct answer. This proposition is clearly true of Enlightenment rationality and, obviously, of Marxism. This excludes or downgrades ambiguity, chance, liminality, grey zones, as well as offering no explanation for unintended consequences. On top of that there are so-called “wicked problems”, problems which can be managed, but not resolved, e.g. the demand for health will always exceed supply. Further, in a globalised world, there are new sites of power that impact unexpectedly on Europe – arguably the 1973 oil shock was one of the earliest of these. The 2008 sub-prime crisis, the 2015 migration crisis are likewise in this category. I don’t really need to mention Covid here. Who had ever heard of Wuhan before 2020?

The European Union, a pre-globalisation institution par excellence, has only one answer to this: “more Europe”, bring more and more processes into the power ambit of the EU, only to discover that these centralised solutions do not work or work badly. One illustration: the opening of the markets of the Central European states to Western capital has resulted in high levels of capital exports – capital that is not reinvested on site – around six percent of GDP in the Czech Republic and Hungary, according to Thomas Piketty’s calculations.

Those who are critical of this EU stance are dismissed as populists, as nativists, as Eurosceptics, which then results in ignoring the views of a sizeable section of the citizens of Europe. That in turn exacerbates the democratic deficit in Europe, so what we see is a dynamic process of polarisation at the European level, mirroring the state of affairs in several Central European countries. This calls to mind the insight expressed by the Czech novelist, Milan Kundera, that one of the roles of Central Europe is to act as Europe’s early warning system.

So, from this perspective, populism is, ironically, a catch-all category constructed by the left. Its content is whatever the left attributes to it. But that does mean that it is, at the end of the day, a real category, in as much as the left acts as if it did exist.

This turn raises two further issues when it comes to the EU. Integration was launched after the war to ensure that asymmetries of power should be resolved through debate and consensus to avoid overt conflict. These days this is a far less accurate account of the EU, indeed at times the EU is itself the source of conflict. Second, given its pre-globalisation origins, the EU finds it difficult to cope with non-linear processes like the butterfly effect and emergence. The outcome is unpredictability and unintended consequences.

How would you summarize the ideology of Fidesz. What is illiberal democracy, whose proponent is Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban?

The answer to this question depends on whom you ask. Some take “illiberal” literally and see it as quintessentially anti-democratic, authoritarian, reactionary or worse, indeed being “on the wrong side of history” (does history really have sides?). A close reading of what Orbán actually said in 2014 says something else. He was declaring that “liberal”, in the sense of market-liberal, the proposition that allocation by the market solves everything, created inequality and he was opposed to this. Crucially, he said, “We needed to state that a democracy is not necessarily liberal. Just because something is not liberal, it still can be a democracy. … In this sense, then, the new state that we are building in Hungary is an illiberal state, not a liberal state. It does not deny the fundamental values of liberalism, like freedom…” This last sentence is universally ignored. So, in summary form, “illiberal” denies the omniscience of the market and reclaims the power of the state in the economy. And Orbán has stressed that illiberal does not mean anti-liberal.

Over the years since, Fidesz has made Christian Democracy, human dignity, nationhood and the family values possibly more salient than market illiberalism. It’s fair to add that the word illiberal sounds more threatening in Western languages than in Hungarian.

Is Hungary today illiberal, meaning despotic, in the Western political sense? On balance, no, even while Fidesz has overseen concentration of power in its attempt to attain high growth figures, with some success until Covid. But when the opposition can win ten of the largest towns at the local government elections (2019), Budapest included, when there is untrammelled criticism of Orbán and Fidesz in the media, when the cultural power of the left is near hegemonic, when there is a left-leaning government-critical civil society it’s hard to sustain accusations of autocracy. To this can be added the constitutional and other courts that regularly bring in decisions not to the taste of the government. As of this writing (May 2021), the outcome of the 2022 elections is open. The opposition has a chance of winning. Would Fidesz hand over power if it should lose? Unquestionably yes.

How would you describe V4 group – as an alliance, partnership or something else. Group has its own problems – relation toward Russia (‘hawkish’ Poland and much milder Hungary), national question (Hungarian minority in Slovakia) etc. Can these problems be overcomed? Do you think there is a chance for enlargement of V4?

The V4 is hard to characterise in conventional terms. It isn’t an alliance, let alone a confederation. In essence it is an ongoing intergovernmental cooperation, with minimal institutional architecture. And some of its objectives are being discussed through the Three Seas Initiative (3SI). Of course, the many years and habits of cooperation, notably in Brussels, have added to the shared thinking of the V4.

In effect, if we extrapolate from the present, and I know this is potentially dubious because it is linear, the V4 is on the way to becoming a new core area in Europe, though it has a way to go before it gets there. With Poland as the leading element, there are those with the ambition that Central Europe could well become the third major player in the EU by 2030, after Germany and France. For this to happen, there will have to be a stronger north-south network in the region and the support of other 3SI states, meaning the V4 will have to think inclusively.

Will the V4 enlarge? I rather doubt it, I don’t think the will to do so is there. I would add that Hungary well understands the need to maintain the best possible relations with its southern neighbours, Croatia included. Here I would add my personal regret that we know so little of one another. So, for example, much of the oeuvre of Miroslav Krleža has been translated into Hungarian – not least he was fluent in Hungarian – but the reception of his work is patchy. And, I don’t know if your readers are aware of this, there is a Miroslav Krleža school in Pécs (Pečuh) with Croatian-language instruction.

The question of the transfrontier Hungarians is not as acute as it once was, though it has never quite vanished from the concerns of Hungarians and the neighbouring states. There have been some positive gestures in Slovakia, tension sometimes surfaces in Romania, matters are quite relaxed with Serbia and very bad with Ukraine. I’m not aware of any issues on this score with Croatia.

What is Central Europe, its characteristics etc. Where is the border (not geographical!) between Central Europe and the Balkans?

Central Europe is best defined as a shared thought-style – shared ways of approaching, formulating and discussing ideas. Elements of this are definitely in existence. The legacy of the Baroque is a part of this, that is to say the north European Counter Reformation and resistance to it have left their mark culturally. Contrast Central European approaches with French Cartesian rationalism or English pragmatism to see what I mean. Obviously this is not a rule-book with clearly marked pathways, but a set of assumptions, often implicit, about the world, as well as a meta-language to articulate them. Then there is the legacy of empire, of having been an unwilling part of a centre of power alien to oneself, like partitioned Poland. This makes the countries of the region sensitive to other powers’ “civilising missions”, including externally driven cultural influences. And together with the non-consensual imperial past, Central Europe has no colonial past of its own and, logically, no post-colonial guilt. The West finds this very difficult to understand.

To this should be added the problematic of the semi-periphery. Whether Central Europe likes it or not, our relationship with the developed West is one of dependence, not an absolute dependence – we are not colonies – but dependence all the same. Have a look at where Europe’s technological innovation is concentrated, in what is known as “the blue banana” (a French term), a zone that stretches from the English Midlands through the Benelux states, the Rhineland to Lombardy, with added areas in France and Catalonia. Central Europe is clearly beyond this zone and, what is striking, our 17 years of EU membership (less for Croatia) have done nothing to change this. So economically, technologically, politically Europe’s development is uneven. This undercuts Central Europe’s possibilities, its agency. EU membership involved a tacit promise that we would catch up, but this hasn’t happened. Hence semi-periphery. Can we break out and catch up? Difficult, indeed existing structures, like open capital and labour markets, hinder this process, which to be fair has been rare in Europe. Ireland and Finland have managed it, but then they did not have the structures and mentalities inherited from communism to contend with.

Europe’s blue banana (la banane bleu) (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Besides, we all share cultural traumas, like the terrible losses of the two world wars, regardless of whether we ended up as winners or losers. The somewhat contingent quality of nationhood and statehood is similarly a part of this mix, again the contrast with, say, Scandinavia is striking. All the states of the region have lost their statehood or had it subordinated to outsiders at one time or another. And then there is communism and the “forced march through history” in order to build a communist-defined modernity, all at a terrible cost. Furthermore, whereas the transformation of a pre-modern peasantry into citizens was mostly endogamous in the West, in Central Europe it was imposed by communist rule. The process was painful for many, especially as the Central European peasantry was far poorer than, say, their French counterparts. Rudolf Bićanić provides a vivid account of this in his Passive Regions.

The boundary between Central Europe and the Balkans, then, is not about geography, but is marked by different thought-styles. Note that with the end of communism, the overlap between the two is greater than it formerly was (or so it seems to me). The cultural influence of the West and the US has been influential in this. Besides, societies in both Central Europe and the Balkans have a better knowledge of the West than beforehand. Many have spent time there. Let me add that the encounter between the West and Central Europe has not been invariably positive.

A footnote on empire. With one tiny exception, Austria-Hungary never had overseas colonies. The exception is the 0.61 sq. kilometres of Tientsin (Tianjin) that it occupied after the 1899 Boxer Rising and held till 1917 when China declared war on the Central Powers.

In one of your works you said that “myths of redemption and suffering” (in Croatia it is a myth of “antemurale Christianitatis”) serve as an excuse for “political and cultural marginalization”. Do you think that, variation of that myth, is used when politicians from south-eastern Europe claim that European institutions (and European union as a whole) “structurally” are more beneficial to the western Europe, or that narrative is basically accurate?.

My article on myth and mythic narratives dates back to the 1990s. It still represents my position, except that nowadays I would put greater emphasis on my use of the word myth as meaning a supra-spatial and supra-temporal narrative of the collective self and not, as many assume, an untruth, a fabrication, a deceit. So Hungarians universally accept that the Magyars arrived as conquerors in the Carpathian basin in the 9th century, so goes the mythic narrative, and that we are their descendants. Current archaeological and historical debates in Hungary are suggesting something else, that maybe there was a Magyar presence in the Danube valley well before the 9th century and that a certain proportion of the conquerors were not Hungarian-speakers at all, but spoke a Turkic language. The debate goes on, the narrative remains.

If we accept this definition of myth, then mythic thinking lives on today and such narratives, having a symbolic quality, are alive and well and are deployed to understand contemporary processes. Mythic thinking is not confined to Central Europe, but is universal. In this sense “Europe” constitutes a form of mythopoeia, a transcendental narrative with real-time consequences. Given that mythic narratives are closely tied to power, those of stronger collectivities will seek to suppress or ignore the narratives of others. The antemurale narrative, shared by all the nations that confronted the Ottoman Empire, has no purchase beyond Central and South-Eastern Europe, but by the same token the Western narratives of empire – formerly positive, now negative –say nothing to Central Europe.

You wrote many articles about the democratic transition in the 90-s. Can you tell us more about Hungarian perspective? Do old elites, from the communist period, still have large influence on Hungarian politics and economy?

Much has changed in the last 30 years when it comes to Hungary. We know far more about the symbolic regime change of 1989 now than we did at the time (and that includes me). In sum, what we now know is that the salvaging of its power by the communist nomenklatura (money, networks, property, organisational skills, connections with the West) was far more extensive than it then appeared, so to that extent, the regime change was as much a surface phenomenon as a real transformation. The outcome is that the heirs of the nomenklatura, having rebranded themselves as democrats, continue to exercise power, authority and influence in Hungary. This is one of the bases of the deep polarisation that we see currently. The labels “left” and “right”, though used universally, have a different meaning to what is ascribed to them in the West, which incidentally strongly supported the “soft” power shift in Hungary. There was a real fear of instability. One of the consequences is that the left foregrounds a radical pro-European position (including support for a “United States of Europe”), while Fidesz emphasises nationhood, which is not necessarily nationalist, even if nationalism is widely attributed to it. The noteworthy contrast here is with Estonia, where there was actually a revolution, and much of the nomenklatura was swept away.

In one of your articles you wrote that “a particularly striking irony in the political development of the postcommunist countries is that they began their passage towards democracy by hitching their wagons to an idealized vision of the West European star at the very time when that star was beginning to appear increasingly tarnished to the West Europeans.”. Can you further elaborate on that, and what are your takes on today’s influence of western “ideal” on the minds of central-eastern Europeans. Is West today a role-model anymore?

This is an issue that transcends all of Europe. The rise of non-European sites of power (as noted previously), the relatively modest economic performance of the EU (since the 2008 crisis), the resulting capital shortage, the political changes and possibly the growing confidence in Central Europe – all the 3SI states, really – that their politics and political structures should draw on local, not just Western models is clearly discernible. To this should be added the decline of social democracy, the rise of a new conservatism, e.g. the Lega in Italy or Vox in Spain; the recent survey made by the French think tank Fondapol, noting a marked shift to the right among the younger age cohorts, is also significant in this connection.

Basically, the West no longer has a monopoly in defining democracy. This development is decidedly unpopular in the left-liberal West, which continues to insist on its being the monopoly owner of democracy, and that democracy is automatically liberal. A moment’s thought will show that liberalism is not a necessary condition of democracy and that democracy is not a necessary condition of liberalism. The two are separate categories. To clarify: there can be no democracy without the consensual exercise of power, the separation of powers, and majority rule exercised with self-limitation. Liberalism, in its current iteration, seeks to empower some (not all) minorities and to insist that the core element of democracy is values rather than the consent of the governed. Can these values override consent? For some, the answer is yes. This is a long way from the liberalism championed by Mill and Tocqueville and, indeed –  closer to our own time – by Isaiah Berlin, who insisted that certain values were incommensurable, meaning that the democratic exercise of power demanded a commitment to an equilibrated governance.

In your last book the European polis you claim that the Commission infringement procedure against Poland is biased and inconsistent with the Commission stance toward the other’s countries legal systems. Why is the Commission especially biased toward Poland and Hungary?

Correctly what we are seeing are Article 7 procedures, not infringement (Article 7 procedures are far more serious). Why? In brief, because Poland and Hungary have made various legal and/or constitutional changes that they insist are within the competence of member states (Articles 4 and 5 of the Treaty on European Union). The EU Commission and the European Parliament, respectively, argue that these breach the Treaty. To my mind, much of this is left-ideological rather than legal. My personal experience of this is that when the Sargentini report was voted in Parliament to launch the Article 7 procedure, my parliamentary colleagues did not vote on the basis of the facts, but their myth-based convictions. They entirely ignored the 158 page refutation prepared by the Hungarian government of the assertions in Sargentini. So this was an ideological and political move dressed in legal garb. I have detailed this, together with Commission’s moves against Poland, in my The European Polis book (available in English).

Interviewed by Tomislav Kardum

György Schöpflin’s views are personal, not official.

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