To the inhabitants of the British Isles, the nations of central Europe have always existed in a semi–mythical space, near enough to be recognised as somehow European, but too distant to be taken seriously. Neville Chamberlain dismissed them as ‘faraway countries of which we know little’; Shakespeare gave landlocked Bohemia a coastline. In British school textbooks, Poland appears for the first time in 1939 and then vanishes again, just as abruptly.
In the feverish politics of the Brexit era, central Europe has once again returned — and, once again, it is in a semi-mythical form. This time, the region is playing the role of an imaginary alternative Europe, one perfectly suited to the needs of Brexiteers. In their imagination, the illiberal ruling parties of Poland and Hungary are bravely standing up to leftist tyranny, boldly joining Steve Bannon and the intellectual descendants of Mussolini to build a Europe free of Muslims, Brussels bureaucracy and the remnants of communist ideology. Last week, Tory and Ukip MEPs even voted to protect Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian Prime Minister, from being censured by the EU for undermining democracy. Why? In the words of a former Ukip MEP, they wanted to ‘assert the right of a democratic nation to defy Brussels’s interference’.
Unfortunately, this vision of plucky independence is about as genuine as the coast of Bohemia — and the Brexiteers who believe it are being played for fools. Desperate for allies, they have instead become useful idiots. They may think that they are courageously bucking intellectual trends when they meet ‘fellow conservatives’ for a boozy evening at the Hungarian embassy. In fact, they are providing intellectual cover for a profoundly corrupt political party, one which will never voluntarily leave the European Union because its leaders have invented too many clever ways to hijack EU funds on behalf of their friends.
By the same token, nobody is exploring interesting intellectual alternatives by debating with a proponent of Poland’s new ‘judicial reform’: they are merely jousting with a professional liar. There is no judicial reform in Poland, there is just an unconstitutional court-packing exercise designed to give the ruling party the ability to appoint dozens of new judges, influence the outcome of trials and possibly change the results of the next election.
To be clear: I am not arguing here that the illiberal parties of Europe — including those in ruling coalitions, like the Austrian Freedom Party or the Italian Northern League, or those out of power, like Marine Le Pen’s newly renamed National Rally in France — are racist, xenophobic Russian agents or nostalgic for fascism. Some of them are all of those things (and don’t pretend otherwise) but you can read that argument elsewhere.
I am saying something different: they are hucksters. They are con men. They are phoney. Whatever language about ‘European ideals’ or ‘Christianity’ Orbán’s disciples use at their government-sponsored think-tank events, in practice their destruction of institutions, including the media and the courts, has led directly to corruption and the entrenchment of their own power. These are people who want to cheat their electorates, pervert their markets and turn public broadcasters into party propaganda organs. And that, not ‘Christianity’, is the point. [Continue reading…]