Skip to content

Detangling the European Alliance: Understanding Liberal-Populist Tensions in the EU

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented many challenges for the European Union (EU), including regarding European integration. EU members have turned inward in responding to the virus, in some cases even limiting entry from Schengen Area partners. In recent weeks, however, the most publicized European fight was over the conditions attached to COVID-19 relief aid. Tensions between the Brussels establishment and far right-leaning states are not unique to the EU but are playing out in a worldwide fight between liberalism and populism. Resolving this debate may require policymakers to choose between two conflicting EU identities: The global bastion of democratic values, and the club of states open to all European nations, regardless of their liberality.

The EU is the most integrated state-based organization in the modern world, representing a multilateral institution responsible for political and economic governance. It is also an ideological leader, founded on the principles of upholding commitments to “democracy and the rule of law” and respect for “human rights and fundamental freedoms.” This language couched in the EU charter sets the modern institution apart from earlier continental arrangements. While both the European Coal and Steel Community and the European Economic Community represented important steps towards economic integration, it was only with the formation of the EU that a united Europe came to be seen as a “normative power” or a “moral leader” on the global stage.

Historically, the EU is an anomaly. Alliances have traditionally been thought of as short- to medium-term arrangements built on mutually beneficial political, economic, or military goals. While policy alignment may have strengthened these bonds, realpolitik considerations remained preeminent. It was only with the global bifurcation in the wake of two world wars that alliances came to be viewed as long-term expressions of shared values. During the Cold War, US- and USSR-aligned states developed distinct ideological identities, based in first world commitments to democracy and open markets and second world systems of communist or socialist governance and central control of the commanding heights. The rhetoric of the time reinforced this global split along moral lines, as espoused by Reagan’s warning against “the aggressive impulses of an evil empire.”

It is difficult to overstate the magnitude of this change. Gone were realpolitik considerations of militarily or economically strong allies. Instead, superpowers sought out partners with shared values to carry out their fight for global dominance. For most democratic states, it is this Cold War model that has endured into the 21st century, with ideological principles built into the mission of multilateral for a like the EU.

Despite continent-wide commitments to liberal values, however, the EU retains one important feature of the traditional alliance model: proximity. Alliances have historically fallen along geographic lines, including the Cold War, where the Americas and Western Europe tended to align with the US and Soviet supporters tended to cluster in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. While cultural similarities help explain this tendency towards proximity, issues like border protection also become much harder when a state aligns itself against the superpower in its own backyard. 

The EU is now faced with dueling tendencies, as geography shackles Brussels to the rest of Europe even as far right-leaning states – notably Hungary and Poland – rebel against the institution’s moral strictures. This setup for a perfect storm leaves the EU is in a precarious position. Liberal-minded member states are unhappy that their tax money is going to support populist leaders, and international experts are calling for tougher EU action against Hungary and Poland. These proposed solutions range from summits for resolving disputes to official condemnation of populist leaders to financial penalties for non-compliance with the union’s democracy requirement. Some voices have even proposed forcibly removing populist states from the EU. Crucially, tensions between “old” and “new” Europe have already demonstrated their ability to disrupt policy proceedings. As the EU debated emergency relief funds for COVID-19, Hungary and Europe leveraged their veto power to have the “rule of law” clause removed from the legislation. 

The EU debate is not fundamentally about democracy or authoritarianism, but about the difficulty of maintaining regional alliances amidst ideological underpinnings. Should tensions with Poland and Hungary continue to escalate, Brussels will be in the unenviable position of choosing whether to compromise on the values enumerated in the EU charter, or whether to boot authoritarian states from the body. The former would be the realist move, maintaining economic and foreign policy continuity at the expense of the EU’s international resolve. The latter option represents a liberalist one, ensuring that the EU retains its ideological standing while risking disenfranchised European partners growing closer to global authoritarian powers.

The prescience of the EU situation raises alarming implications for NATO, OAS, SEATO, and other regional alliances imbued with values-based language, but the bottom line is this: long-term relationships are hard. With Brussels, Hungary, and Poland squabbling like warring spouses, the marriage metaphor may not be far off the mark. As EU statesmen struggle to respond to challenges from populist leaders, they would do well to heed the words of this relationship advice columnist: “You did have every right to say what bothered you and ask him to stop. However, once it was clear to you that he wasn’t going to change….the onus was on you to figure out whether you could accept this aspect of him.” Half-measures won’t bring Hungary and Poland in line with the EU establishment. It is up to Brussels to determine whether they draw greater value from regional integration, or ideological alignment.


Kathryn Urban

Posted in ,

Leave a Comment