my take on

Europe and the World • by Ralf Grabuschnig

Groundhog day in Austria: Presidential elections again

Vienna's Hofburg, where the President of Austria resides

The race for the Hofburg, where the President of Austria resides, might finally be over

Today, we inevitably have to talk about the presidential elections in Austria one last time. After more or less continuous campaigning for the last ten or so months, two rounds of elections, one embarrassing annulment and one even more embarrassing postponement, Austria’s new president might finally be chosen today. We will find out tomorrow, whether we have elected the first far-right president in Europe since 1945 or dodged the bullet by a millimetre. Either way, this election will send a clear message.

I have a bad feeling about this

I like to think of myself as an optimist. After the first round of elections, when Alexander Van der Bellen was trailing behind Norbert Hofer by almost 14%, I was certain he could turn it around and was actually quite surprised when he “only” won by 30,000 or so votes in the end.

Back in May, I still had the feeling that when worse comes to worst, centre-left and centre-right voters would come together to prevent a far-right president. This is what happened very impressively in the last regional elections in France and it seemed to make sense to me as a logic that also applies to Austria.  In short, I had a firm belief that after all, reasonable, non-radical status-quo voters are a majority and a 50% plus vote for radical change is unlikely.

Since then, this belief took one hit after the other. First of course, there was Brexit. Also there, I was almost 100% certain that people in the UK would not take chances and vote for such radical change. I was certain they would prefer stability over uncertainty but as it turned out, I was very, very wrong about this. Like many others, it seems I greatly underestimated the sense of frustration and blatant anger, simmering in Western societies like the UK’s, that led people to vote against their own best interest out of an overpowering sense of powerlessness.

This trend was of course taken to a new peak with the US Presidential elections and the circumstances were quite similar: rural, white working class people voting for radical change in their masses and against their best interest.

These developments made me wonder: why should Austria be any different? Yes, sure, last time around people voted for the reasonable candidate. But that was by a 0.2% margin. Compared to that, Brexit seems like a landslide! Additionally, Austria has always been a European forerunner when it comes to right-wing populism. Already in 1999, Norbert Hofer’s FPÖ won almost 27% in parliamentary elections and today, the party is leading all national polls and were there elections now, it would probably win with up to 35% of the vote.

Prepare for the angry 48%… or 49.8

All in all, it would be remarkable if Austria of all places would withstand the populist tide today. I truly hope it will but my sense of optimism has taken a huge blow over the last months.

In any outcome, we will probably see the 48%, or the 49.8% take the streets tomorrow. Any President, to almost half of Austrians wouldn’t be “their President” and that is truly no positive outlook.

Can psychology explain right-wing populism?

Authoritarian minded people tend to value authority, perceive the world as threatening and prefer conventionalism

The “authoritarian personality” sees the world as a threatening place, values authority and uniformity

The other day, while browsing through Facebook, I stumbled upon a post that raised my interest. In a local group, where people talk about things happening in our town, someone started a, let’s say, discussion about cyclists and their behaviour in traffic.

What he posted was one of these typical internet memes and while the topic itself was nothing peculiar, the reactions it provoked really were. This is the meme:

 

A screenshot of the Facebook post provoking authoritarianism in the comments

 

Roughly translated it says: “Dear cyclists. I have a crazy idea. It might sound daring but how about TURNING ON THE LIGHTS AT NIGHT?!”

So far, so unspectacular, you would say. That is, until you scroll down to the comment section. This was when the post really raised my attention and made me think about the issue over the next couple of days. I started to see a connection between how people reacted to this seemingly unimportant topic and something I learned back at university: the phenomenon of right-wing authoritarianism. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s first take a look at the comments.

What people had to say on the post

While I tend to agree that having the lights on when cycling at night does have some advantages (duh), people in the comments turned it into much more very quickly. Here are some of the comments:

“Dear police. I have a a tip on how to increase your budget a bit. Just send someone to the town bridge at night and fine every cyclist riding without the light on. You’ll probably need reinforcement very quickly.”

“I would like to see more police controls for cyclists as well and this could add to the state budget quite a bit. One out of two cyclists doesn’t have the light on, one out of five doesn’t have his hands on the handlebar and one out of three has headphones on. Not to even mention the mobile phones! 10€ per offence and the police force would pay for itself. Maybe that would also bring some learning success. Who knows.”

“They all need to be punished, if necessary by taking their licences when they don’t learn their lesson.”

“The ridiculous fines we have here in Germany don’t suffice in these cases.”

“Fines have to really hurt. Otherwise traffic offenders just suffer a laughing fit, as they do with our fines at the moment.”

“I would just like to drag them across the asphalt until they come to their senses.”

These are signs of right-wing authoritarianism

I found these comments deeply troubling and quickly discovered why. They reminded me of something I learned at university – the concept of right-wing authoritarianism.  Back then, I actually wrote a paper on that concept, contrasting it with the 2013 campaign of the Austrian Freedom Party. You can find that here if you’re interested.

Right-wing authoritarianism is a concept from social psychology that is designed to explain certain beliefs like ethnic prejudice and ethnocentrism through psychological processes. The creator of the concept, psychologist Bob Altemeyer, in the 1980s worked out a test, in order to map such “authoritarian preferences” in people. He described a person ranking high in this test as someone who generally sees the world as a threatening place, who is as a result willing to submit to authority and who appreciates uniformity and conventionalism.

Like any personal belief system, Altemeyer traces back such preferences to a diverse set of social factors, parenting and childhood experiences. Crucially though, his test proved a powerful tool to predict convictions like ethnic and religious prejudices, hostility towards outgroups and ethnocentrism amongst its subjects. The test worked!

The implications of this should not be overlooked

Now this is exactly what I saw in the comments above. Statements based on authority, conventionalism and a black and white view on the world, sparked by nothing but some cyclists. Authoritarian minded people exist out there, they are numerous and increasingly open about their beliefs. Having in mind that these beliefs are proven to be a powerful indicator for prejudice, outgroup hostility and ethnocentrism, it is not hard to see why this is a problem. Additionally, it can explain a lot of our current politics – right-wing populism in particular.

After all, it is exactly these kinds of authoritarian convictions – the notion of the world as a threatening place, the idea that a homogenous and uniform society is better than a diverse one, the belief that authority needs to stand above everything else and that things were better in the “good old days” – that fuel the rise of populists like Trump, Le Pen, Hofer and the Brexiteers. These socio-psychological factors are too often overlooked besides all the legitimate social and economic factors for populist success.

This is unfortunate as widespread authoritarian convictions are ultimately nothing but an open threat to our liberal societies and they are now more shamelessly shared than ever. To make things worse, parties like the Front National, AfD and FPÖ also openly cater to these authoritarian beliefs, rendering them more mainstream.

The fact that a banality like careless cyclists spark calls for heavy punishment, law and order measures and “dragging them across the asphalt” from otherwise reasonably looking people therefore cannot be ignored. This is a real problem and lies at the root of the populist surge.

Slovakia’s “plan” on migration

Migration, EU solidarity and Slovakia don't seem to go together very well. Robert Fico's new "migration plan" won't change that.

Bratislava is working on an “alternative migration plan” for Europe. Unsurprisingly, it’s no good.

It’s no secret that the Visegrád states, especially Hungary and Slovakia, are no big fans of the EU’s migration policy. Last autumn, they were outvoted in the EU Council that pushed through the refugee relocation theme and they have called for a different approach ever since. Now, the Slovakian EU presidency finally presented one and unsurprisingly, it’s  no good.

Slovakia’s plan on migration: what do they want?

So what is the plan presented by Slovakian PM Robert Fico? Well, they call it “Effective solidarity: a way forward on Dublin revision” and it doesn’t get much more detailed than that, really. But here are the key points:

  1. The introduction of a three-pillar system, categorising the “severeness” of the “migrant situation” in EU countries from normal via deteriorating to severe
  2. Once a country’s situation is deemed deteriorating, an EU “solidarity mechanism” should set in. This can either take the form relocation of migrants or financial aid
  3. In “severe cases”, the EU Council should furthermore decide on “additional supportive measures, on a voluntary basis”

Why this plan is utter nonsense

There are more obvious flaws with this “plan” than I can list. First of all, it assumes that the situation in EU countries can be easily and objectively categorised. But apart from this basic misconception, who should even do that? I assume – as for everything else in their plan – they envision the EU Council to decide, so nation states can obstruct the process from the very beginning, not even labelling a situation as “deteriorating” in the first place.

Secondly, financial aid or more contributions to the EU asylum agency and border guard – as the plan suggests for “deteriorating cases” – are not sufficient and definitely no solution to the problem. More importantly still, it is definitely no European solidarity, as they claim. Leaving thousands upon thousands of migrants on Lesbos and then sending money to Athens is not showing solidarity, it’s a disgrace!

But the last and most important point: what the hell do they mean by “additional supportive measures”? What is this and why is it again the EU Council deciding on it? And as if that wording wasn’t vague enough already, these measures are also supposed to be voluntary! Give me a break!

This so-called plan, my dear Robert Fico, is no plan at all. It’s wishful thinking at best and a cheap excuse at worst.

We finally need a strong answer

This newest proposal is further proof that we cannot count on the Visegrád states to show solidarity with their European partners when it comes to migration. The plan is a pretext not to offer any substantial help also in the future and the EU must finally find an answer to this!

We can no longer accept that countries like Slovakia, Hungary and Poland cherry pick what part of European solidarity they would like to participate in. It is unfair that some five countries are left with the burden of accommodating virtually all refugees coming to Europe. It is equally unfair that Slovakia and others, who are all receiving more money from the EU than they pay in, simply choose to deny their solidarity.

Last year’s relocation plan was not perfect. Of the 160,000 people to be relocated, only a fraction actually was. But this is not really a problem with the plan itself. It was exactly countries like Slovakia that made the plan fail in the first place. So instead of even discussing this new non-idea amongst responsible EU-members, let’s instead make relocation work. If necessary against the will of the Visegrád four.

Get ready for the populist age

Trump's victory might just be the beginning of a populist age

Trump’s victory might just be the beginning of a populist age

What a year. After the Brexit vote in June, Donald Trump now won the US presidential elections and will be the 45th President of the United States. This is truly shocking to anyone believing in liberal democracy, equality, human rights and damn it, basic human decency. But it happened, there are reasons why it did and these reasons do not only exist in the United States. In fact, we might actually be heading for a populist age.

People are evidently angry

Of the many factors that contributed to Trump’s surprising victory, one in particular was repeated a lot recently: anger. People all over the United States, especially the “disenfranchised” white working class, are angry with the system as a whole and with politicians representing it. Hence, they happily took the opportunity to throw a brick into its façade.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? We have heard the exact same thing after Brexit. It was the working class in neglected post-industrial English and Welsh towns. It was the shrinking middle class, the “losers of globalisation”, the “ordinary people”.

But what can we make of that? Unfortunately, I think not much. The fate of these people almost certainly will not improve in the future and we should better prepare for more anger to come.

The “angry white men” will not disappear any time soon

The problem is – contrary to what populists like Trump say – people in America’s rust belt and in the north of England are not disenfranchised because politicians chose to neglect them. They are because their communities were eaten up by modernisation. Mining towns and industrial cities are bound to decay in the West, there’s no way around that. And whatever Trump and Co. say, they won’t fix this problem. There simply is no easy way to fix it.

Now of course, this is nothing new. The economic decay in these areas goes back to the 1970s at least. The difference now is that these people got politically active and that’s the decisive nature of the populist age. Demagogues like Trump, Nigel Farage and Norbert Hofer manage to tap this group of voters that for so long abstained or silently voted with the majority.

We are almost certainly going to see more of that in the future and we need to look no further than to the Austrian presidential elections on December 4th.

All eyes on Austria, the cradle of modern populist politics

As I have described before, Austria has for long been a front runner of populism. Since 1988, the country has had a powerful right-wing populist movement embodied by Jörg Haider, reaching 27% in parliamentary elections as early as 1999! It seems only consequential that the populist wave hits Austria next.

And the presidential run-off there already looks a lot like the US election, with the country almost evenly split between the Green candidate Alexander van der Bellen and his right-wing populist contender Norbert Hofer.

The reasons for people to vote for Hofer are by and large also the same as for Trump. They vote for him out of a feeling of disenfranchisement, political impotence and to throw a brick into the window of a system they think is broken. This is accompanied by similar rhetoric about rigged elections, conspiracies and evil foreigners. Even the ridiculous talk about Clinton’s health is mirrored in Austria, where van der Bellen had to release his health report!

You better get ready for more

Whether we like it or not, this has not been it. Brexit and Trump might just be the beginning. Next up is Austria and in 2017, France and Germany hold their general elections. No people, this is far from over. We can only hope that Brexit and Trump actually work as a cautionary example for voters in Austria and elsewhere. My feeling is that it might not.

People are angry. They feel disregarded and powerless and no US-Presidency or Brexit, however devastating it may end up, will change their minds. Only the populists themselves can end their age and they will, as they inevitably fail to deliver what they promised. In ten years’ time, the angry white men in former industrial towns and mining communities will still be in despair and no populist will change that. More likely, they will go back to abstaining from voting. And that this is the most positive thing I can say about the topic is the real tragedy.

Parliament will have a say on Brexit – so what?

The British Parliament in Westminster will have a say on Brexit

Brexit was a mess from the beginning. It just got even messier.

Brexit has been a mess ever since June 23rd. Yet, it just got a lot messier. On Thursday, the UK’s High Court ruled that PM Theresa May cannot trigger Article 50 and thereby start the process of leaving the EU by herself. She will need the Parliament’s consent. But what exactly are the implications of this ruling?

Uncertainty… even more uncertainty

In the short run, the ruling won’t do much. The government immediately announced it would appeal, which will now be taken up by the Constitutional Court in December. However, it seems unlikely that the ruling will be overturned. After all, it seems quite consequent and logical. It states that Parliament – the traditional centre of power in British politics – needs to decide on a constitutional question like this. This only makes sense!

What the ruling does however, is adding even more uncertainty to the Brexit process. As Politico put very nicely in an article this week, only two things about Brexit were certain until now: when the UK will leave the European Union, and how. The High Court’s ruling questions even this. And while remainers and pro-Europeans might instinctively rejoice over these news – after all Westminster is known to be predominantly pro-Remain – this is no good news for them either.

Things will get complicated, protracted and possibly dirty

That Parliament needs to give its consent to a Brexit deal first of all means further delay. What it doesn’t mean is a significant change to the nature of Brexit. After all, the PM still holds all the power in her hands. If Parliament doesn’t do what she wants them to, she can just call snap elections and likely win them in a landslide. The best pro-remain MPs can do is try to get some concessions in the process.

While Tory MPs are most definitely not going to defy Theresa May under these circumstances, for Labour, all this could well add to the continuing meltdown of the party. Many Labour MPs might feel inclined to oppose May on this to strengthen their profile but Jeremy Corbyn likely won’t have any of that. And neither – I am quite certain – will he take advantage of this situation himself.

The only ones who are likely going to oppose a Brexit bill introduced by the government are the Liberal Democrats who right after the referendum already started rebranding themselves as the remain party. But their eight MPs are not going make a decisive difference, even if joined by the Scottish National Party.

So hard Brexit nonetheless?

All in all, Parliament will therefore most likely have little influence on the terms of Brexit and definitely won’t stop it. In the meantime, what the UK and the EU desperately need has moved even further away – clarity.

Things will now go on as they did for yet another couple of months. The Pound might further lose value, EU summits will continue to be dominated by Brexit, stopping the EU from facing their internal problems and ultimately, it all changes very little. Theresa May is still heading for a hard Brexit. What Britain and the EU truly need right now however, is not a hard Brexit, it’s a fast Brexit. While we therefore have to accept that Parliament will have a say and therefore stall the negotiations, it is nonetheless unfortunate.

But I guess that’s what happens when the oldest parliamentary democracy in the world decides to hold a damn referendum. For more Brexit outrage, make sure to follow me on Twitter and subscribe to receive my newest post per mail! See you next week.

What the elections in Moldova say about Europe

Moldova on the crossroads

Moldova: a country at the crossroads between East and West

To continue last week’s discussion of the EU’s eastern neighbourhood, let us turn our attention to another place on the edges of Europe this week: Moldova. This small republic holds its presidential elections today, which are widely seen as an indicator for its future path. Will the country continue its way towards the EU or turn to Russia?

Moldova – a country at the crossroads

Similar to Georgia – as seen last week – Moldova is a country at the crossroads. As a former part of the Soviet Union, its most recent history is strongly tied to that of Russia. However, it also has close cultural and linguistic links to EU-member Romania. Most people there speak Moldavian – essentially another name for Romanian – while a significant number of people also speak Russian and Ukrainian.

This constellation – as in Georgia – led to serious uncertainties and even open conflict after the end of the Soviet Union in 1991. Moldova declared independence that year, strongly driven by pro-Romanian parties at that time. Even a unification with Romania was on the table, an idea the country’s minorities strongly opposed. Like in the Georgian case, secessionist tendencies were quick to heat up in Moldova, which ended up in Transnistria in the country’s east declaring independence. Until today, this remains a “frozen conflict” with no solution in sight.

While Transnistria turned strongly towards Russia for protection – there is still a Russian army division stationed there – the rest of Moldova was for long caught in a limbo between pro-Western and pro-Russian forces. Since the late 1990s, it moved closer to the EU however, resulting in an association agreement in 2014. Yet, this has always been controversial with the population, that is believed to be almost evenly split between pro-EU and pro-Russian groups.

A symbolic election

Today’s elections are symbolic in several ways. They are the first direct presidential elections in Moldova in 20 years. Until now, the president was elected by parliament, a practice that the country’s constitutional court overturned just recently. The mentioned divisions in society regarding Moldova’s geopolitical orientation are therefore bound to clash directly.

The pro-Russian candidate Igor Dodon is currently the front runner, uniting almost all anti-EU vote behind him. He is facing pro-European Maia Sandu, who after several other pro-Western candidates have ended their campaigns to support her is now gathering most pro-EU vote. It is therefore highly likely that today’s elections will not produce an outright winner and we’ll see a run-off in two weeks.

It’s already bad news for the EU

My message is the same as always. If the EU can’t manage to stay an attractive option for a country like Moldova, we are in serious trouble. The renaissance of Russian influence we see there is something that is mirrored all over the region. From Armenia and Belarus to Eastern Ukraine (one could be provocative and include Hungary or Czechia here), people and politicians increasingly turn to Russia for direction.

But how is that possible? Clearly, the EU has more to offer than Russia! Pretty much every EU country is wealthier than Russia (at least certainly wealthier than the numerous Russian puppet states) and can offer far more personal freedom to its people. Yet, the EU’s appeal in places like Moldova is losing to that of the Kremlin by the day.

Now you could blame this on Russian propaganda, Putin’s hands-on image and economic pressure but that would be too easy. Europe must be able to compete with an autocracy like Russia on the marketplace of ideas and political offers. If we fail to do so, who can seriously believe we will be able to solve our internal problems?

Europe’s long forgotten frontier

Georgia likes to portray itself as a modern, western-style country. Reality often does not uphold this image.

How Georgia likes to see itself. The seaside resort of Batumi.

Today I come to you from beautiful Georgia (not the US-state). I want to take that chance to draw this little country into the spotlight but also apart from that, there are quite some good reasons to talk about this place on the edges of Europe a bit.

Earlier this month, Georgia had its parliamentary elections and the question of EU-visa liberalisation for the country’s citizens has entered its final stage in Brussels. But what else is there to say about it?

Georgia: a pro-Western democracy (?)

This would be the optimist’s description of Georgia. And on the surface this mainly holds true. The country is indeed amongst the most pro-Western states in Europe’s surrounding. In fact, in the Caucasus region it is by now the only country seriously on its way towards EU and NATO membership at all, a course backed by all major parties in parliament.

While this is of course still a distant option, the idea has strong backing in Georgia’s population. For a large part, this strong pro-Western leaning is also due to a heavily burdened relationship with Russia. Only eight years ago, Georgia went to war with its powerful neighbour (you can imagine how that went) and, as a result, has now all but lost its two breakaway regions Abkhazia and South-Ossetia.

But how about the “democracy” part of the statement above? I mentioned, Georgia had its parliamentary elections this month so they obviously do have free(ish) and fair(ish) elections. However, after the governing party “Georgian Dream” has won in a landslide with likely around 50% of the vote (there are no final results yet), the opposition was quick to call the election rigged. Also concerning independent media, Freedom House only ranked Georgia as “partly free” recently.

Nonetheless, ever since the peaceful Rose Revolution of 2003, that ousted then autocratic leader Eduard Shevardnadze, Georgia has had a tradition of accepting changes of power and reforms concerning corruption and media plurality are at least underway.

Europe should not give away its chance

All in all, Europe should not give away its chance to embrace this strong pro-EU sentiment on its edges. With Armenia leaning ever more strongly towards Russia, and Turkey moving away from Europe by the day, Georgia is one of the few states in the region still on a Euro-Atlantic course. I have said many times that this soft power to influence countries is the EU’s single most powerful tool. We’d better use it and offer a credible European option.

To be clear, Georgia is still miles away from achieving the democratic, economic and social standards to join the EU. There is widespread corruption and strong homophobic sentiments in the population, to name only a few issues. However, the country is increasingly opening up and EU-Visa liberalisation is an important step in the right direction.

Europe’s Eastern neighbourhood is an unsafe place with an ever more aggressive Russia, an ascending Sultan Erdoğan, not to even mention neighbouring Syria. The EU should embrace every hint of progress it can get. Georgia is a damn good place to start.

It’s now hard Brexit or no Brexit for Theresa May

Hard Brexit: Nicola Sturgeon answers with a new independence bill for Scotland

Nicola Sturgeon announcing a new independence referendum bill. Picture: SNP (snp.org)

“Britain’s only real alternative to a hard Brexit is no Brexit”. These were the words used by EU-Council President Donald Tusk last week. And most recent developments show that PM Theresa May is now well on her way towards the first alternative. A “hard Brexit” seems increasingly inevitable.

May shifting to the right, or is she?

Last week, Theresa May gave a speech at the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham, where she for the first time outlined the Brexit process and named March 2017 as a date to trigger Article 50. What she said was not really unexpected, yet it took many by surprise. She confirmed once more that Brexit means Brexit and made clear that immigration is going to be her major concern. Many (in my opinion rightfully) saw that as a choice for a “hard Brexit”. But why are they surprised?

It was clear that immigration was a hugely influential motive in the referendum, which is May’s job to implement, so it is only consequent that she now tackles it. Also – as many people seem to have forgotten – as Home Secretary May already had a record for her tough stance on migration. That such a stance will not prove very reconcilable with the EU’s free movement of people is equally evident.

The largely pro-European Tory MPs will have no choice but to accept this. The conservatives are now the Brexit party – and the hard-Brexit party for that.

Things are heating up for May

After that speech, pressure on the Prime Minister rose almost instantly. Her own backbenchers start to cause her some serious headache, the 168-year (!) low of the British Pound definitely should as well and now, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon re-enters the stage.

At the Scottish National Party’s conference this week, Sturgeon strongly criticised May and her path towards a hard Brexit and announced a new referendum bill for Scottish independence to be held before the UK leaves the EU. The fact that May now did not even include the Scottish (and Welsh and Northern Irish) secretaries of state in her “Brexit committee” certainly won’t help to ease this pressure.

Honeymoon is definitely over for Mrs. May.

Some good news for Europhiles (outside Britain…)

While all that sounds pretty nasty, there are some positive things to note here.

  • First of all, May’s approach is consistent. What the PM delivers now is what the people (at least in England and Wales) voted for. Any watered down strategy vis-à-vis the EU would have been construed as her ignoring the “will of the people”. Her current approach leaves no room for doubt.
  • A hard Brexit, and one that is not pushed for by the EU but by Britain itself, might be good news for Europe. Boris Johnson (of all people) already said that Brexit is great for Europe and he might just be right. Such a strong precedent combined with the end of British privilege within the EU might just strengthen the Union in the long run.
  • And finally, a new Scottish independence referendum is a chance for the EU as well. If things continue the way they do and Edinburgh holds and wins a referendum before March 2019, when the UK will leave the EU, things will look very different to their last referendum in 2014 and the EU needs to be prepared to take the opportunity.

A hard Brexit is unpleasant – but there are upsides

No one in their right mind wanted a Brexit, however, there are also chances in all of this. Europe might grow stronger in the long run without British blockade and a Brexit deal could end up being harsh for the UK without being punitive from the EU’s side. A powerful precedent.

Even more importantly, for Scotland, a smooth transition is now conceivable and even realistic.  The EU wasn’t able to give real support to Scotland re-joining the Union in 2014 due to Britain still being a member but that would be quite different this time around.

As I have said before, a 62% approval rating for the EU is rare, even in core member states. To have Scotland in would be a godsend for the EU and send a powerful message. This option must be realistically prepared for.

Conspiracy theorists in power: the case of Poland

Poland's crazy conspiracy theory about Lech Kaczyński's death

Not quite Lech Kaczyński’s plane but you know: copyright

When I talked about conspiracy theories taking over politics recently, I was mainly discussing right-wing populist parties, catering to conspiracy theorists all over Western Europe. However, there is a whole different level to this phenomenon that I haven’t discussed. In Poland, a conspiracy theorist is basically running the country.

In the article linked to above, I was discussing some popular right-wing theories like the “lying press”, the “system against the people” and so on. While these are generally ill-informed and paranoid fears, the case of Poland and Jarosław Kaczyński is on a completely different scale!

The Smolensk conspiracy

Kaczyński, head of the ruling PiS party and man behind the scenes in Poland, actually believes that the plane crash that killed his twin brother Lech – then President of Poland – was an inside job.

As a reminder, in April 2010, the Polish President’s airplane crash landed in Russian Smolensk, killing all passengers, including Lech Kaczyński. There have been intensive investigations in the months that followed and both Polish and Russian investigators came to conclusion that it was human error that caused the accident. The inexperienced crew tried to land the machine in heavy fog and failed.

There is no serious doubt regarding these results and yet, Jarosław Kaczyński never let go. By now, the crash of Smolensk has become something of a founding myth amongst his party’s supporters. Many of them believe that it was the Polish government – then under Donald Tusk – that orchestrated Lech Kaczyński’s assassination in collaboration with Vladimir Putin. Now that’s what I call batsh** crazy!

Investigations are reopened

After Kaczyński’s candidate Andrzej Duda won last year’s presidential elections, he immediately reopened investigations into the crash. Six years after the event, bodies may now be exhumed to finally “prove” what Kaczyński has been certain about all along. That this must have been an inside job.

This week, Kaczyński further announced that the Polish government will likely not support Donald Tusk in securing a second term as President of the EU Council. He even hinted that the new investigations are likely going to result in a charge against Tusk!

So how is this guy running Poland again?

A scary lot of Kaczyński’s actions can be explained by his believe in this conspiracy theory. But (unfortunately) this is only one facet of the troubled man, Jarosław Kaczyński really is.

To quote Wikipedia here, “he lived with his ailing mother until her hospitalization” and said “his only sleeping partner was Alik, his cat.” He is also a fervent nationalist, to the point that – even though he was serving as Poland’s Prime Minister in 2006/2007 – he has only left the country once in his entire life and that was back in the 1960s!

But the craziest story is probably this: after his brother died, Kaczyński actually tried to hide the fact from his ill mother by printing fake newspapers, stating that Lech was stuck in the US due to the Eyjafjallajökull volcano! So how is this guy the most powerful man in Polish politics again?

Conspiracy theories can be powerful

While a lot of this can be attributed to Kaczyński’s questionable mental state, this man also embodies the power of conspiracy theories in today’s world. We have seen how right-wing populist parties and movements like Pegida exploit them everywhere in Europe but in Poland, the whole government is obsessed with one!

How else can you explain that now – six years after the incident – investigations into a plane crash are reopened and a former Prime Minister might be prosecuted and blocked from seeking a second term as EU Council President. Damn it, they might even exhume bodies to prove that!

Facts are increasingly unimportant in politics. We see that with Donald Trump and the failed fact-checking attempts in the US presidential debate, we see it with Brexit, with right-wing parties in Western Europe and we see it – very clearly –  in Poland.


Oh and by the way: if you need some more reasons to dislike Kaczyński, have a look at my open letter from earlier this year!

Hungary on migration: a response to András Gyürk

Fences against migrants in Hungary. Defended by András Gyürk

Fences against migrants: Hungary’s approach to the refugee crisis for the last year

Today, Hungarians are called to the polls for a controversial referendum on whether the country should accept refugees as part of the (non-functional) EU relocation scheme. Earlier this week, András Gyürk, one of FIDESZ’ MEPs, wrote an op-ed for Politico, defending this referendum and Viktor Orbáns refugee policy in general.

Contrary to what I normally do on this blog, I today want to look at the arguments put forth there and answer Mr. Gyürk on his – mostly nonsensical – article. You can find the original article here.

What did Mr. Gyürk say?

In said article, András Gyürk defends Viktor Orbán’s refugee policy and calls for a new European approach to migration. His proposed “solution” is basically twofold:

  1. Give more autonomy to nation states to decide on migration policy
  2. Install common European migration controls outside of Europe (i.e. the “Australian model”)

In only 700 words, Mr. Gyürk then managed to completely entangle himself in these issues, without giving any reasonable answer to the refugee crisis. Neither on the national, nor the European level.

What are his “solutions”?

Mr. Gyürk calls for more national autonomy regarding migration, saying that member states should be able to decide “who has the right to live in one’s country”. He also strongly criticises last year’s attempts to relocate refugees across Europe for the same reason. Instead, he calls for a way to “process asylum claims outside the EU”.

Now, leaving the question whether that is feasible, legal or moral aside, Mr. Gyürk completely fails to provide an answer on what to do with migrants, once they are accepted in such centres. Will Hungary take its fair share of accepted refugees then? Following Mr. Gyürk’s argumentation, I highly doubt it.

In fact, his case against taking in refugees does not relate to their legal status at all. They follow a very different line: the “will of the people”. Hungary won’t accept any migrants simply because (as Gyürk claims) people are against it. And proving this is the one and only point of today’s referendum.

I can only conclude from this that even if migrants were to be registered outside the EU, Hungary would therefore not be willing to take in any of them. “Budapest is listening to its people” after all.

What about the refugee convention?

According to Mr. Gyürk, Hungary therefore simply cannot accept migrants because people in Hungary are against it and “other European countries should do the same”. His proposed registration centres outside the EU would therefore only serve one purpose: to keep asylum seekers out for a bit longer.

This seems tragically at odds with the 1951 refugee convention, which obliges all EU countries to accept refugees from war torn regions. So Mr. Gyürk’s solution is basically this: keep migrants out until their claim is processed and then send them to Germany or another country that doesn’t violate the refugee convention. Anywhere but Hungary.

Keep your cheap arguments to yourself please

So please, Mr. Gyürk, keep your so-called “solutions” to yourself. Your and Mr. Orbán’s ideas do nothing to solve Europe`s migrant crisis. Simply keeping refugees out of Europe, without even thinking about a solution once their claim is processed, is nothing but cheap propaganda. And so is your referendum.

And please don’t try to justify your populist moves by resorting to the right-wing threat and saying things like that Europe must stop “ignoring the will of citizens” and end “illegal migration before radical parties take the upper hand”.

If anything, experience tells us that it is politicians like you and your party’s leader that are strengthening the radicals by copying their demands. If “there should be no questioning whether Hungary belongs in Europe” – as you say – I truly have to question the state of Europe.

« Older posts

© 2016 my take on

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑