Democratic Decline in the European Union: Grassroots Autocratization or Authoritarian Diffusion?


With his recent initiative, France’s President Emmanuel Macron put the issue of malicious foreign interference in European democratic processes back in the spotlight. Although his proposals for banning foreign financing for European parties and establishing a European agency to protect electoral processes from cyber-manipulation are worth considering, they seriously overlook the real nature of democratic decline in Europe. Indeed, influence by authoritarian players, like Russia, China or the Gulf States,  can easily penetrate Europe, as GPPI’s Thorsten Benner wrote recently. Russian interference in European politics, which has by far the largest impact through the support the Kremlin provides for Eurosceptic radical-right and other anti-establishment parties and the online manipulation of electoral campaigns, is in fact very often also “invited” by Russia’s local allies and the long-time negligence of official counter-intelligence policies in several European countries. However, authoritarian diffusion from Russia and elsewhere has a supplementary character; it supports Europe’s democratic decline, but is not the root cause of it. Combating authoritarian influence from abroad may render European representative democracy more transparent, genuine and fair, but alone it is far from being sufficient to stem the rising tide of illiberal populism and authoritarianism in the EU.

Let’s call it interest driven cooperation…

Western political actors flirting with the Kremlin, may they be populist radical-right parties like Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National or the German AfD, or Central Eastern European statesmen like Czech President Miloš Zeman or Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, are neither in a subordinated position to Moscow nor are they “useful idiots.” They are all rational interest driven political players pursuing their own political goals; their cooperation with the Kremlin is based on shared interests and common enemies. Obviously, sovereignist and anti-pluralist national-conservative forces of the West show in their value structures distinct commonalities with Putinism, but also demonstrate significant differences.

Furthermore, it is worth mentioning that not only value conservative radical-right parties maintain friendly and cooperative relationships with Russia, but often also left-populist parties representing progressive social values, like the German Die Linke or Greece’s governing party Syriza. Moreover, due to the domestic historical and cultural environment, certain vanguards of Europe’s current autocratization, like the Polish Law and Justice (PiS), are certainly far from being Putin’s admirers and from being the supporters of growing Russian geopolitical influence in any way. If one considers these barely disputable facts, it is hard to argue that the ideological appeal of Russian authoritarianism would be the key driving force behind cooperation between the parties, both considering the motivations of the Russian “sender” and the European receiving end.

In fact, authoritarian patterns often go hand in hand with pro-Russian attitudes in the case of a large number of European political actors. However, correlation may not be confused with causality. An overwhelming part of these cooperative relationships can be convincingly explained by shared common interests, and even more importantly, shared common enemies, which is the European Union in the case of the right-populist parties, and very often NATO in case of the left-populist ones.

It is true that Russia’s strategic intention with its toolkit is spreading disruption throughout the Western world, splitting the political and security integrations, like EU and NATO, which are perceived as threats from the perspective of Moscow, and – if possible – destabilizing the political systems of Western democracies. Furthermore, the Kremlin exchanges favors with national governments that are ready to demonstrate some understanding for Moscow’s grievances, pursue mutual economic benefits, and to realize common strategic projects. As a vicious circle, obviously the cooperation projects are also used as vehicles to increase Russian leverage over these governments.

Obviously, cooperative domestic partners are not necessarily needed for certain patterns of Russian disruptive behavior that are nowadays very much in the limelight. Cyberattacks on pro-establishment parties, manipulative social media campaigns, or active intelligence measures like the “Fall Lisa” and maybe the radical-right atrocities in Chemnitz do not necessarily require domestic partners from the ranks of Eurosceptic, radical right or even right-wing extremist forces. However, these measures work significantly more effectively if they complement and support political campaigns with real stakeholders that benefit from Russian information measures in the domestic arena. We will most likely never learn whether the cyberattack hitting the Macron camp in April 2017 before the French presidential election was coordinated with Marine Le Pen or not. Although, the recent results of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation did not prove the claim that the Russian cyber measures targeting the Democratic National Convention might have been coordinated with the campaign staff of Donald Trump, the crucial importance of the existence of a pro-Russian domestic players cannot be denied even in this context. Most of the Kremlin’s European partners must be well aware of what tools Vladimir Putin deploys to support his friends and fans abroad.

Grassroots domestic autocratization

Russia is seeking disruption. In contrast, Eurosceptic radical-right and some radical-left parties are not disruptive as a result of a kind of authoritarian diffusion from Russia. Just the contrary, they enjoy the Kremlin’s support because they are disruptive actors on their own merits in the current framework of European integration and transatlantic alliance.

The open doors that are inviting malicious foreign interference to Europe should indeed be all closed for once. That is the straightforward European and in a broader sense Western interest, which might be able to decrease the organizational capacities and political resources of Eurosceptic parties to some extent. However, it would be a huge mistake to believe that this could also reverse the tide of democratic decline in Europe. The contemporary authoritarian and populist challenge to representative liberal democracy is a grassroots phenomenon in the Western world. Russian support might have played a crucial role in maturing it, but it is definitely not essential to its survival. As ECFR’s Zsuzsanna Végh recently wrote, European democracy today is also threatened from within.

Against this backdrop, it would be high-time to complement Macron’s latest package and the initiatives against malicious external influence with a toolkit that is able to ensure a substantial compliance of Member States with liberal democratic norms and prevent a spill-over of authoritarian developments from the domestic to the European political stage. However, first of all, such political strategies to empower mainstream parties to address the populist tide’s root causes in a proper way are desperately needed.

Daniel Hegedüs is fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. (Image credit: Luis Vazquez/©Gulf News)

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