As the French presidential election approaches, Emmanuel Macron’s victory remains terrifyingly uncertain. A victory at the polls by his opponent, Marine Le Pen, would have colossal consequences not only for France but also for the whole of Europe. It would mean entering the era of a European Union (EU) without ‘unionists’—those supporting the project of inter-national integration on the Continent. Similar phenomena have occurred before, to name just the Weimar Republic without democrats.
After Britain’s withdrawal from the EU, France’s disappearance from the map of liberal democratic Europe would mean that the EU would be left with one large liberal state that is committed to and interested in European integration: Germany. Alongside them would be the smaller Benelux countries and the less politically stable Italy.
An increasing number of member states—especially those in Eastern Europe—are also increasingly yielding to the illiberal temptation. Today, the battle in Europe is precisely over liberalism, threatened and attacked from the east by Vladimir Putin and his numerous Trojan horse political movements, parties, and figures spread across Europe. On the one hand, we have Russia, the prototype of the modern anti-liberal regime, whose dictatorial policies have now culminated in the ongoing war in Ukraine. On the other hand, there are numerous anti-liberal forces in the EU itself, both on the right (Le Pen in France, Matteo Salvini in Italy, Viktor Orban in Hungary, and the “Alternative for Germany” and the “Freedom Party for Austria”) and on the left (Jean-Luc Mélenchon and his “France Unbowed” party in France, “The Left” party in Germany, and the “Movement for Peace and Socialism” party in Italy) of the political scene. The Western European left is economically anti-liberal, while the right is anti-liberal both economically and politically. The result of these anti-liberal passions is the remarkable phenomenon in which left and right are united by their sympathy for Putin. In contrast, today’s Ukraine, as a promising project of triple liberalism in the political, moral and economic spheres, causes anxiety in these circles. It is therefore difficult for these groups, despite their ideological contrasts, to pronounce condemnatory words about the Russian invasion.
Compared to other ‘Putinist’ populists in Europe, it may seem that Polish anti-Putin populists are an exception, but they are not. Using the rhetoric of official opposition to Putin’s hardline methods (the war), the Polish government frequently seeks to dismantle democratic institutions in a softcore style (by undermining the separation of powers), just as Orban has done in Hungary. This process, however, is not progressing as quickly in Poland as it has in Hungary, partly because of the extent of disinformation and media concentration in the hands of the authorities in Poland has not yet matched the Russian or Hungarian media systems. The only real difference between Poland and the Western political constellation is that the Polish left has not taken any anti-liberal positions since 1989.
The EU has tolerated illiberal elements within its own ranks for years without confronting them head-on, which has greatly weakened its moral standing. And today, the moment has come when liberal Europe hangs in the balance. In the war in Ukraine, in the French elections and in this weblog article—it’s not just about Ukraine, France and Russia—it’s about all of us, west and east of Europe.
With sixty days of warfare in Ukraine, Putin has reminded us how far populism and anti-liberalism can sweep us away from our shared values. Pushed to the edge, Western populist projects could lead to a similar conflagration as the one taking place right now in Ukraine. Some of it we could see in the United States (US). Despite the “carnivalesque” nature of the January 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol Building in Washington DC, the international spread of Trump-style populist appetites could lead to internal unrest (and possibly civil war?) in some of the world’s most resilient democracies.
As for Trump and the US, it is easy to imagine how much worse the war in Ukraine could have been were it to have taken place under the purview of the previous US administration. The consequences of the loss of sovereignty would have been borne not only by the Ukrainians, but by the entire EU. As it turns out, the longterm security of the EU today rests in the hands of the US, Britain and Ukraine.
Ukraine is fighting on our behalf, repelling the Russian attack on Western liberalism. The countries furthest from Ukraine—the US and Britain—support it most loyally and unequivocally with words and weapons. They are ready to defend liberalism despite their extreme caution with respect to stoking a larger conflict with Russia (other countries like Germany and Italy are floundering in their pacifism). They defend Ukraine, and by extension the EU, despite the fact that each of these countries has been withdrawing from the European theater for many years now—with, for instance, Boris Johnson’s “global Britain” doctrine and the US’ “Pivot to Asia” policy. We are at a point in history where there is little-to-no will to fight in Europe, something that can be understood, given the tumultuous history of the twentieth century, but there are now alternative means to struggle for the preservation of liberal democracy. However, these means are not being fully utilized, and Europe is still procrastinating and not coordinating enough of its member states in defense of Ukraine and the Continent more broadly. The EU cannot rely so much on external protection. The time has come to take important decisions in the area of defence as well. This also means another step towards European integration.
Putin is now testing European slogans—on the extent to which we as Europeans constitute an interconnected community of liberal states and societies. In the face of the gauntlet he has thrown down, integration is unconditional. If Le Pen wins the upcoming election, the integration project will be buried, and with it perhaps the entire EU project. Le Pen’s, Orban’s and Kaczynski’s demands for a “union of sovereign nations” and, it must be added, sovereign nationalisms as well, will be pursued to their fullest. And as for the consequences? The temptation of anti-liberalism is dangerous. The war in Ukraine seems to have made this quite clear to us. In Europe, we are not free from a similar threat. Bucha is not about some clichéd primitivism of “Asian despotism.” Auschwitz did not sprout up from the East, but rather the West. We are not immune to the temptation of inhuman violence.
Lidia Zessin-Jurek is a Research Fellow at the Czech Academy of Sciences
Philipp Zessin-Jurek is the Scientific Coordinator at European University Viadrina, Frankfurt/Oder