Brexit is far from Europe's biggest problem

Staying on an official visit in Hungary new Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, right, and his Hungarian counterpart Viktor Orban inspect the honour guards during the welcoming ceremony in front of the parliament building in Budapest, Hungary, Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2018. (Tamas Kovacs/MTI via AP)
Staying on an official visit in Hungary new Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, right, and his Hungarian counterpart Viktor Orban inspect the honour guards during the welcoming ceremony in front of the parliament building in Budapest, Hungary, Wednesday, Jan. 3, 2018. (Tamas Kovacs/MTI via AP)

The original East bloc was the swath of countries cutting through Cold War Europe's middle -- from Poland to Bulgaria -- that endured four decades of Soviet-imposed communist rule.

The unloved labels of "East bloc" and "Eastern Europe" were demonstrably cast off when the velvet revolutions of 1989 swept across the region, upending the Moscow-loyal regimes and paving the way for free elections and multiparty democracy.

Europe's communist satellites -- and soon after the Baltics as well as Yugoslavia's northern states, reclaimed their identity as Central Europeans -- proudly asserting sovereignty and reconnecting to nationalist and democratic traditions dormant since 1945.

The ultimate confirmation of their return to Europe's fold: their celebrated entry into the European Union in the 2000s.

But today, the contours of a new East bloc are visible: a loose alliance of authoritarian, nationally minded democracies centered around Hungary and Poland that, ironically in light of history, tend to emulate not the liberal Western democracies of France and Germany, but rather of Vladimir Putin's illiberal, autocratic Russia. Unlike the UK, they don't want to leave the EU but rather to revamp it in their image.

In a sign of the closeness of Budapest and Warsaw, new Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki elected to visit the Hungary capital Wednesday as his first port of call -- rather than Brussels or Berlin, as is traditional.

Morawiecki and his Hungarian counterpart, Viktor Orban, reaffirmed their countries' rejection of immigration and refusal to be marginalized within the EU. "We want to have a strong say, as these countries (in Central Europe) have a vision about the future of Europe", said Orban, who is expected to be re-elected handily in April.

But this vision for Europe's future, though led by national populist leaderships in Poland and Hungary, isn't confined to the territories of the old East bloc: It now includes Austria with its new right-wing government, while many of the more liberal-minded of the post-communist states reject it.

Europe's xenophobic far-right parties have fans across the continent, representing, on average, 16% of elected lawmakers in national legislatures and 15% in the European Parliament, according to an analysis of 22 European countries by Bloomberg.

These voters would gladly elect their own Viktor Orban or a figure such as Poland's arch-conservative ideologue, Jarosław Kaczyński, of the ruling Law and Justice Party. Far rightists such as France's Marine Le Pen cheer the Central Europeans' ballot box victories and affronts to the EU, viewing them as the bastions of a Europe-wide movement: national populism in power, exactly where she and her peers want to be.

Despite differences, there's plenty that links the denizens of the new East bloc: heavy-handed state security, rejection of migration and refugees, Islamophobia, fondness for big militaries and fortified borders, tampering with independent courts and media, and friendliness toward like-minded autocrats in power in Russia but also in Turkey, Israel and the United States.

Their affinities find expression in their notion of a "Europe of fatherlands", or Europe of nations, which is a frightening, regressive vision for the future of the EU and Europe as a whole.

The national populists no longer want to exit the EU -- as Britain did and as many such as Austria's Freedom Party advocated for years -- but rather they now aspire to take it over and remake a European confederacy according to nationalist values. (Had the Conservative-led UK been more patient, it might have fit in snuggly.)

The Europe of nations is a loose assembly of Christian European countries that define themselves as a bulwark against Islam, on the one hand, and American-style neoliberalism, on the other. The clash of civilizations is their bread and butter: a dire, existential battle that will determine Europe's fate. Its nucleus is in Mitteleuropa, claims Orban, who boasts that Central Europe is a "migrant-free zone".

In this Europe, national governments would pursue sovereign national courses, unencumbered by dictates from Brussels or Berlin. One of its few supranational remits: a free trade zone that they believe would function without integration.

The core concept of this nativist Europe is the nation itself, understood as a racially pure group that has special rights and a hallowed destiny rooted in genealogy, history and territory. It's a fundamentally different conception of rights than that in the current EU: namely national rights, not human rights.

And national rights, history tells us, reach across borders, for example to neighboring lands considered the rightful domain of that nation. This is how Russia justified annexing Crimea in 2014 and Serbia parts of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina in the early 1990s.

War is a staple of such old-school nationalists -- but only in the name of their tribe, not the likes of Afghans or Kurds. For this reason, this Europe of nations wouldn't -- should it ever come to pass -- last long, as indeed its predecessors such as interwar Europe didn't.

The new East bloc already has leaders in Orban and Kaczyński, who articulate the Europe of nations forcefully and refuse to let the EU stop them from forging illiberal democracies in the heart of Europe. Orban, a power-obsessed strongman, rewrote laws and reconfigured the courts to ensure that his Fidesz party would remain in power for years to come; his attacking of the free media and the state's politics of xenophobia are meant to serve the same end: Fidesz rule for years to come. Kaczyński is a Catholic fundamentalist whose vision of a clerical Poland -- possible, he'd argue, only under Law and Justice Party rule -- dictates his actions.

The outlines of the new East bloc came better into focus just before Christmas when the EU initiated proceedings to sanction the Polish government's rigging of its courts -- an unprecedented move in the EU's history.

Yet just as unexpected and telling was the swift reaction from Warsaw's two main allies -- Hungary and the Czech Republic -- who jumped to Poland's defense, drawing battle lines for 2018.

The moment could be decisive. The European Commission, the EU's executive arm, charged Poland's government of undermining the fundamental values of democratic states. Over the past two years, claimed the commission, the Law and Justice administration has passed 13 laws that open its courts to political interference from the executive.

But Warsaw didn't back down an inch, insisting it is ready for a fight. Indeed, the Law and Justice leadership has been spoiling for one for years.

Neither the East bloc's right-populist governments nor their supporters in Europe's radical nationalist parties are currently muscular enough to bring a Europe of nations to life. But they're trending upward, and they affect the EU's machinery, throwing a spanner in its works by forcefully objecting to European integration on issues from migration to energy -- where they have allies outside their own ranks.

With the announcement of official proceedings against Poland, the EU closed 2017 on an ominous note. Should the union's disunity render it unable to undertake the fundamental reforms that it has planned for 2018, the reality of a Europe of nations will come more clearly into focus one way or the other.

Paul Hockenos is the author of Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall, and the Birth of the New Berlin.

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