The emergence of strong leaders in Europe or how the European Union produces it’s own opponents

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October 19, 2017
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The emergence of strong leaders in Europe or how the European Union produces it’s own opponents


Viktor Orban in Hungary, Beata Szydlo in Poland and now Sebastian Kurz in Austria. Strong (wo-)men, who claim to be scrupulously committed to their home country’s interest, are not only exclusive to the White House in Washington. They won elections and took over governments in many countries all over Europe. Their uncompromising approach to European politics makes productive solutions to the international crises very difficult. Why are seemingly “strong leaders” so popular? Here, I want to show how intergovernmentalism on the European level leads to the establishment of a vicious circle reproducing conflict and dissatisfaction. Breaking this vicious circle becomes more difficult, the longer it is in place.

In Austria a 31-year old man is probably going to be the next chancellor. Sebastian Kurz revolutionized his party by giving it a fresh and self-confident appeal. In October’s snap elections his party received 31% of the votes. Now, he is going to be the youngest leader of a European state. What is the reason for his popularity? The answer lies in his political past!

Serving as Austrian youngest minister of foreign affairs, Sebastian Kurz received European-wide attention. This was not so much caused by his attendance to meetings of Foreign Affairs Council constellation of the Council, but rather by his very controversial position on immigration during the crisis of the European Asylum System in 2015. Selling himself as someone who is only committed to the interests of the Austrian people, he cooperated with Western Balkan countries’ leaders to close down refugees’ routes to Europe and positioned himself as being strongly in favour of national limits on refugee influx, the “Obergrenze”.

During the electoral campaign, Sebastian Kurz almost exclusively talked about the immigration topic. His message was clear: It was him, who was primarily responsible for the closure of the Balkan route. He was the strong guy able to defeat Angela Merkel in 2015 and was thereby able to argue that he would protect the Austrian population from a further influx of migrants. He preserved “Austrian interests” in Brussels, even against the resistance of his own government.

Kurz’ emphasis on his own strong commitment to the interest of the Austrian people seems to have worked out. His success is not only visible in the electoral outcome of his party. In the OMG index of trust, Sebastian Kurz holds the leading position, having not been defeated by any other Austrian politician for a long time.

The Renaissance of the strong leader in Europe

(Wo-)Men who present themselves as being only committed to their home countries’ interests and are willing to protect them against any resistance on the international level, are not only popular in Austria. Recently, these “strong” politicians have experienced a renaissance in Europe.

Mr. Orban is the European role model of this type of politician. He styles himself as being relentless when it comes to migration policies and legitimizes this position through his own narrowly defined perception of the will of the Hungarian people. To underline his commitment to domestic public opinion, he even organized a national referendum on the Refugee Relocation Scheme, which was introduced by the European Union in 2015. In a similar fashion, Slovakia’s Prime Minister, Robert Fico, “styled himself as an uncompromising defender of Slovak interests”. In consequence, he won last year’s parliamentary election by a wide margin.

Electoral poster of Sebastian Kurz

However, not only in Eastern Europe do leading politicians use a hard-line approach for convincing their domestic people. Also Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, who is now well known for her humanist position during the refugee crisis, successfully played the card of the uncompromising politician. In the context of the Sovereign Debt Crisis, she styled herself as being “heartless” with regard to fiscal consolidation. Without accepting any excuses, she urged the indebted countries to implement painful reforms to bring them “back on track”. Whereas Greece saw massive protests against her policies, back home in Germany she was celebrated as the “Iron Lady of Europe”. Thanks to building up this image Merkel was able to win the federal elections in 2013 by a wide margin, just barely missing the absolute majority.

(New) Intergovernmentalism in Europe

So where does the popularity of strong and heartless leaders in national politics of Europe come from? Recent research on European integration might give us a hint. In a series of papers, Bickerton, Hodson and Puetter show how intergovernmentalism became the (new) mantra of European decision-making. Due to the politicisation of European politics, the big decisions in the EU were relocated to these institutions where the presidents, chancellors and prime ministers have the say, in particular, the European Council and the Council of Ministers. In this way, national political elites could balance their commitment to international cooperation and the demand of their people for political sovereignty.

We owe it to these developments that solutions to the manifold European crises are negotiated in countless meetings of EU member states’ leaders, usually behind closed doors. During the most difficult phase of the sovereign debt crisis, either the finance ministers or the heads of European states met for negotiations every other week. Often, these meetings took place at night and pretended the existence of urgent situations demanding immediate solutions. The same series of Council meetings took place during the high season of the crisis of the European asylum system.

Heading to Brussels, the leaders of state are always accompanied by the national media. During the Council meetings, reporters from all over Europe wait in front of closed doors to be the first ones to interview their respective national leaders on the results of the recent negotiations. Did their own state leaders prevail in the negotiations? Have they been able to push through the national interest in Brussels? After every Council meeting, these questions are heavily discussed in the national media.

Robert Fico, Slovak Prime Minister, heading to a meeting of the European Council

Intergovernmentalism produces strong (wo-)men…

In such an environment, only winners can survive. When leaving the negotiation room and reporting to the domestic public, politicians have to convince their citizens that they did everything in their power to achieve a deal which is in accordance with their national interests as they define it. Otherwise, they risk being blamed by their fellow national politicians for being weak on the international level and thus losing the next election on the national level.

During the negotiations on the refugee relocation scheme, the Polish government had strong reservations accepting any refugees. However, it voted in favour of the decision. However, after the nationalistic PiS party won the following elections on the national level, the new Prime Minister Beata Szydlo turned against the decision of the former government. She claimed that the primary concern of the new government now would be the safety of the Poles and therefore, she argued, that the new government could not deliver on the prior commitment anymore. This decision further accelerated her domestic support. Although many demonstrations in favour of the European Union are visible in Warsaw, the Poles’ support for the PiS Party remains unbroken and most citizens are in favour of closing national borders for refugees.

German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, heading to the European Summit on the 7th of July 2015

…. but strong (wo-)men don’t produce solutions!

What has resulted from all these hard bargains? Are the main crises of European politics solved? Not even close. In the sovereign debt crisis, the indebted countries had to accept the reforms proposed by the lending countries in order to avoid insolvency. However, national citizens are far from being satisfied, especially as domestic economies are only recovering slowly from the previously implemented austerity measures. With regard to the refugee crisis, the positions remain entrenched and there is no prospect of further movement. Instead of solutions unresolvable conflicts and stereotypes of enemies emerge: Lazy Southern Europe countries vs. hard-working Northern European Countries. Liberal and humanistic Western European democracies vs. illiberal and heartless Central and Eastern European ones. The new frontiers in Europe vary in accordance with different fields of politics. In the meantime, measures to prepare the European institutions to solve similar crises in the future are not in place. For instance, although the failure of the current Asylum System got obvious in 2015, a Dublin IV is not in place!

Polish Prime Minister Beate Szydlo arriving to attend an European Union Summit

The vicious circle of European intergovernmentalism

If European institutions are not able to solve the problems the people expect them to solve, European citizens will remain dissatisfied. In these situations, hard-lined politicians are often able to convince their people that they are the right ones to solve this situation in the national interest. The eye-level fight between the pro-European elites and charismatic right-wing populists characterizes recent elections on the national level. In France, Austria, Germany, the Czech Republic and Slovakia charismatic leaders blamed the elites’ approach to European politics for being faulty. They said that European institutions should have to serve the respective national interest again. Right-wing populist leaders promised that they would either make the European institutions deliver on that purpose or that they would withdraw from cooperation on the European level. In some places, they were defeated, notably in France, but in most countries, they achieved unprecedented successes.

To sum up, the emergence of “strong” (wo-)men in European politics is a vicious circle. They appear on the European level, produce conflict instead of solutions, whereas the absence of solutions produces national demand for “strong” (wo-)men able to sell themselves as problem solvers. To break this vicious circle, European leaders should abandon the intergovernmentalistic approach in favour of a supranational one which is committed to finding a reasonable solution for all European citizens rather than merely aiming at winning national elections. However, the more “strong” (wo-)men grab leading positions in the national political arena, the more unlikely a development towards more supranalistic  European decision-making becomes.

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