In France, the thought of far-right Marine Le Pen winning the presidency in May 2022 is no longer shrugged off as impossible.
Years of sporadic terror attacks, sluggish economic growth and the collapse of the country’s traditional center-right and center-left political parties have left France both deeply divided and uncertain of its future.
The latest warning sign of further political disruption: a public letter signed by about 1,000 current and former military members, including 20 generals, foreshadowing civil war. The letter was published April 21 — the 60th anniversary of a failed military coup against President Charles de Gaulle — and suggested a military takeover if France does not crack down harder on Islamists.
François Lecointre, the French Army chief of staff, said he was “repulsed” by the letter and called it “an unacceptable attempt to manipulate the military.” Cutting across efforts to soften her image, Le Pen threw her support behind the generals and urged them to “join me in my fight for France.”
That may be because Le Pen is facing growing opposition within her own far-right ranks — regardless, she has also been the narrow first preference of voters for seven consecutive months in POLITICO’s poll of polls, a year out from France’s 2022 presidential election.
When asked who they would choose between Le Pen and Macron in a presidential run-off vote, Le Pen trails Macron by 54 to 46 percent: much tighter than Le Pen’s 66-34 defeat in 2017, or the 2002 landslide defeat of her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen (82-18).
With the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic making the impending presidential campaign less predictable than past races, the door is open for Le Pen to peel off center-right politicians into a new anti-Macron alliance.
Democracy losing currency
“The idea of democracy as an aspirational end point has started to lose currency in many capitals,” said Csaky. That narrative is familiar to those who have followed the transition of the Soviet Union’s satellite states and allies since 1991, but the specific conclusions in Freedom House’s Nations in Transit report — funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development — are often shocking.
Csaky concluded that none of the countries currently seeking European Union membership can be classified as a democracy. Democratic institutions were weakened in 18 of the 29 countries assessed from Central Europe to Central Asia — a region now in its 17th consecutive year of overall democratic decline, she said.
The EU aspirants — Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Kosovo, Moldova, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia and Ukraine — are all listed as “transitional or hybrid regimes,” scoring below 50 out of 100 in Freedom House’s ranking. That puts them on par with Hungary, which is singled out as the biggest long-term democratic backslider in Europe.
Since 2010, Hungary’s firebrand leader Viktor Orbán has sought to push critics out of the judiciary, media and academic postings, including by forcing several hundred judges into early retirement and removing operating licenses for institutions such as radio stations and Central European University.
Hungary consistently tops the list of fraud investigations into misuse of EU funds, with EU investigators finding misuse of at least 1 in every 25 dollars the EU spends in the country. Most recently, Orbán has bucked EU solidarity by buying Chinese and Russian Covid vaccines not approved by the European Medicines Agency, arguing “there’s no such thing as an Eastern vaccine or a Western vaccine: There are only good vaccines and bad vaccines.”
Freedom House recommends that the U.S. and EU work together to “address the threat posed by antidemocratic norm setting” in both EU and non-EU countries via targeted sanctions against corrupt officials and human rights abusers, and withholding financial assistance from governments that obstruct civil society and journalists.
The EU’s strongest step in this direction is a 2020 rule that allows the European Commission, the EU’s executive, to withhold funding from member countries that fail to uphold the rule of law.
The new law is being put to the test in Poland — which slipped the furthest in Freedom House’s 2020 ranking — on two fronts.
The first sees the EU’s executive suing the Polish government over accusations it is pressuring judges not to implement EU law in Poland. That battle risks exploding over a projected $65 billion that may be coming Poland’s way as part of the EU’s Covid recovery fund. Democracy experts and Poland’s opposition parties fear that the $65 billion will become a slush fund for the ruling Law and Justice party.
The broader risk is that Warsaw could use EU money to undermine the EU’s legal fabric across the continent. “Hungary and maybe others might take notice and follow in Poland’s footsteps,” Freedom House’s Csaky warned. Democracy experts are now calling on the EU to cut off funds to Poland.
Piotr Buras, who heads the Warsaw office of the European Council for Foreign Relations, says now is the time to turn off the funding taps. “If the EU fails to use its financial resources to stop the spread of autocracy, its post-pandemic recovery will at best become a Pyrrhic victory,” he said.
The second front is the government-controlled Polish Constitutional Tribunal, which has taken it upon itself to decide whether Polish or EU law has primacy in Poland. If the Tribunal asserts on May 13 that Polish courts supersede the European Court of Justice, the country’s EU membership would be in question.
While Poland’s EU membership is conditioned on recognizing the ECJ as its highest legal body, Polish government spokesperson Piotr Müller openly injected the government into the debate Wednesday, saying he expected the tribunal to rule in favor of the Polish court trumping the EU court.
Krystyna Pawłowicz, the judge in charge of the decision, is a former member of parliament of the governing Law and Justice party who has labeled George Soros “the most dangerous man in the world,” and who Buras describes as the party’s “most radical and vocal critic of the EU.”
While Brussels would do almost anything to avoid a “Polexit” — and would be backed by up to 91 percent of Polish voters who tell pollsters they support Poland’s EU membership — it is stuck between a democratic rock and a hard place.
With Warsaw taking a consistently skeptical position on Vladimir Putin’s Russia and a warm view of American military engagement in Europe, it may be Washington — not Brussels — which holds the most leverage in nudging Poland back toward Europe’s democratic mainstream.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken has so far framed American-Polish relations in military partnership and NATO alliance terms, and this week expressed “real concern” about the decline in Hungary’s press freedom and pluralism.
The real test of America’s influence will come in how the Biden administration structures the invitations and agenda of its planned Democracy Summit later in 2021.
Alliances will play a crucial role: The EU has failed to significantly influence Warsaw and Budapest on its own. The Obama administration tried to wield a stick: limiting engagement from senior officials and withholding perks such as a White House visit from Hungary’s Orbán, but got nowhere. The Trump administration used carrots: encouraging Euro-skeptic tendencies, making visits and issuing White House invitations to Hungarian and Polish leaders: the backsliding continued.
At home, Biden has decided to go big in his first 100 days, seizing the Covid crisis to push for bills that would fund trillions of dollars of generational change. But if he wants to achieve his foreign policy goals of realigning the world around the norms of social democratic governance, he may have to figure out a way to go all in on Europe, too.