In France, the idea that the extreme right Marine Le Pen will win the presidency in May 2022 is no longer considered impossible.
Years of sporadic terrorist attacks, sluggish economic growth and the collapse of the country’s traditional center-right and center-left political parties have left France both deeply divided and uncertain about its future.
The final warning sign of further political disruption: a public letter signed by around 1,000 current and former military personnel, including 20 generals, foreshadowing the civil war. The letter was published on April 21 – the 60th anniversary of a failed military coup against President Charles de Gaulle – and suggested a military takeover if France did not crack down harder on the Islamists.
François Lecointre, the chief of staff of the French army, said he was “repulsed” by the letter and described it as “an unacceptable attempt to manipulate the military”. Cutting through efforts to soften his image, Le Pen gave his support to the generals and urged them to “join me in my fight for France”.
Perhaps this is because Le Pen faces growing opposition within his own far-right ranks – regardless, she has also been the top narrow preference of voters for seven consecutive months in the POLITICO poll, one year from the 2022 French presidential election.
When asked who they would choose between Le Pen and Macron in a presidential runoff, Le Pen follows Macron 54-46%: much tighter than Le Pen’s 66-34 loss in 2017, or the crushing defeat of his father in 2002, Jean-Marie Le Pen (82-18).
With the ongoing Covid pandemic making the impending presidential campaign less predictable than past races, the door is open for Le Pen to peel center-right politicians into a new anti-Macron alliance.
Democracy is losing money
“The idea of democracy as an ambitious endpoint has started to lose value in many capitals,” Csaky said. This account is familiar to those who have followed the transition of satellite and allied states to the Soviet Union since 1991, but the specific findings of Freedom House’s Nations in Transit report – funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) – are often shocking.
Csaky concluded that none of the countries that currently wish to join the European Union can be called a democracy. Democratic institutions have been weakened in 18 of the 29 countries assessed, from Central Europe to Central Asia – a region now in its 17th consecutive year of overall democratic decline, she said.
Candidates for the EU – Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Kosovo, Moldova, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia and Ukraine – all appear on the list of “transitional regimes.” or hybrids ”, with a score below 50 out of 100 in the Freedom House ranking. This puts them on par with Hungary, which is seen as the biggest long-term democratic setback in Europe.
Since 2010, Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian leader of the fire brand, has sought to expel criticism from judicial, media and academic posts, notably by forcing several hundred judges to take early retirement and by removing operating licenses of ‘institutions such as radio stations and the Central European University.
Hungary consistently tops the list of fraud investigations into the misuse of EU funds, with EU investigators finding the misuse of at least $ 1 in 25 the EU spends in the country. More recently, Orbán has resisted EU solidarity by purchasing Chinese and Russian Covid vaccines not approved by the European Medicines Agency, claiming that “there is no such thing as an oriental vaccine or a western vaccine: there is there are only good vaccines and bad vaccines. “
Freedom House recommends that the US and the EU work together to “address the threat posed by undemocratic norm-setting” in EU and non-EU countries through targeted sanctions against corrupt officials and perpetrators of human rights violations, and denying financial aid to governments that obstruct civil society and journalists.
The EU’s most important step in this direction is a 2020 rule that allows the European Commission, the EU executive, to withhold funding from member countries that do not respect the rule of law.
The new law is being tested in Poland – which has slipped the furthest in Freedom House’s 2020 ranking – on two fronts.
In the first case, the EU executive is suing the Polish government on charges that it is pressuring judges not to implement EU law in Poland. This battle is likely to explode beyond the planned $ 65 billion that could come from Poland as part of the EU’s Covid stimulus fund. Polish democracy experts and opposition parties fear that the $ 65 billion will turn into a slush fund for the ruling Law and Justice party.
The wider risk is that Warsaw could use EU money to undermine the legal fabric of the EU across the continent. “Hungary and maybe others could take note and follow in Poland’s footsteps,” Csaky of Freedom House warned. Democracy experts are now calling on the EU to cut funds to Poland.
Piotr Buras, who heads the Warsaw office of the European Council for Foreign Relations, says the time has come to turn off the funding taps. “If the EU does not use its financial resources to stop the spread of autocracy, its post-pandemic recovery will become a Pyrrhic victory at best,” he said.
The second front is the government-controlled Polish Constitutional Court, which has taken it upon itself to decide whether Polish or European law takes precedence in Poland. If the General Court says on May 13 that the Polish courts replace the European Court of Justice (ECJ), the country’s membership of the EU would be in question.
While Poland’s accession to the EU is conditional on the recognition of the ECJ as its supreme legal body, Polish government spokesperson Piotr Müller openly injected the government into the debate on Wednesday, saying he expected the court to rule in favor of the Polish court prevailing over the European court.
Krystyna Pawlowicz, the judge in charge of the decision, is a former lawmaker for the ruling Law and Justice Party who called George Soros “the world’s most dangerous man” and whom Buras describes as “the most radical in the world. left”. and fierce criticism of the EU. ”
While Brussels would do almost anything to avoid a ‘Polexit’ – and would be supported by up to 91 percent of Polish voters who tell pollsters they support Poland’s EU membership – it is stuck between a democratic rock and a hard place.
While Warsaw takes an ever-skeptical stance on Vladimir Putin’s Russia and a warm view of US military engagement in Europe, it is perhaps Washington – and not Brussels – that holds the most influence in bringing Poland back. towards the democratic mainstream of Europe.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken has so far framed US-Polish relations in terms of military partnership and alliance with NATO, and this week expressed “real concern” over the decline in freedom of the United States. press and pluralism in Hungary.
The real test of American influence will come in how the Biden administration structures the invitations and schedule for its democracy summit scheduled for later in 2021.
Alliances will play a crucial role: the EU alone has not succeeded in significantly influencing Warsaw and Budapest. The Obama administration has tried to wield a stick: limit the engagement of senior officials and deny perks like a visit to the White House by Hungarian Viktor Orbán, but came to naught. The Trump administration has used carrots: encouraging Eurosceptic leanings, making visits and sending White House invitations to Hungarian and Polish leaders: the decline continued.
At home, Biden decided to go big in his first 100 days, seizing the Covid crisis to push for bills that would fund billions of dollars in generational change. But if he is to achieve his foreign policy goals of realigning the world around the norms of social democratic governance, he may have to find a way to do all he can on Europe.