Political Earthquake Ahead

Yascha Mounk, author of “The People vs Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It”, about the rise of populism and authoritarianism in Europe

Körber-Stiftung: Mr Mounk, are you concerned that the elections to the European Parliament in May 2019 will be the next occasion for populist parties to score a major victory?

Mounk: A political earthquake in those elections is possible. It is likely that populist parties will do very well. First, they are currently very strong in opinion polls at the national level across Europe. Second, European Parliament elections tend to have relatively low turnout, which means that people with more extreme political views and who are perhaps more motivated can outperform the fundamentals.
Since the European Parliament still has a lot less power than national governments, this is not the thing to be most worried about. For the future of Europe, it is much more concerning if populist forces should take over governments in a number of national capitals over the next year or two. Because what we have seen in countries like Poland and Hungary is that once the government is elected, it is able to corrupt the other state institutions so much that it becomes essentially impossible to replace it by democratic means.
The established parties need to show how we can radically reform some of the existing institutions while staying true to our values. This is not a matter of giving up on our values because somehow the populists have shown that they are inadequate. Our values are absolutely right; the reality does not conform to them as much as it could and we need to show that we are willing to fight for the re-implementation of our values.

Körber-Stiftung: In your book, you argue that Hungary is no longer a democracy and Poland is on the path to becoming undemocratic.

Mounk: The EU now faces an existential threat from Poland and Hungary. Now that populist parties have managed to win there, they have been able to make vast changes that have done real institutional damage. If countries like Poland and Hungary continue their descent into authoritarianism and no longer respect the most basic liberal democratic rules and norms, I do not think they can be members of the EU. Otherwise, any pretence the EU has of standing for democratic values and trying to ensure peace in Europe is frankly a transparent sham. If we do not manage to act quickly, we can kiss goodbye to the EU as we know it.
Either we put real pressure on Poland and Hungary and – with a little bit of luck – the opposition in Poland wins in the next elections, and perhaps there is enough of a popular movement to somehow oust Victor Orbán in Hungary or the membership of those countries in the EU will become untenable. But rather than asking what is so different about Poland and Hungary, we should see it is as a warning sign about what may be to come in other European countries as well.

Körber-Stiftung: Could the EU have prevented the rise in populism and authoritarianism?

Mounk: I do not think that there is anything the EU could have done to stop this. Although it could have made it harder for these aspiring dictators to make fun of Brussels by paying closer attention to those European commissioners that pretend to act seriously, while continuing to cash in vast amounts of structural funds that boost their national popularity. The EU has been feckless in the face of all of this and has failed its most fundamental values in a way for which the European Commission will be judged for decades to come.

Körber-Stiftung: In the context of the Eurozone and debt crisis, populist parties argued that the EU was a tool of German dominance. Do you agree?

Mounk: I don’t think that Germany takes any particular pleasure in dominating within Europe. Of course, a set of northern European countries were reluctant to bail out Greece in a more radical way. It was not just Germany. This is due to the underlying structure of the single currency zone. Without a major structural reform, which is not going to happen any time soon, the underlying dynamics are going to keep delivering the same results. This causes a lot of political resentment – not a sustainable state of affairs.