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The EU Must Escape the Mentality That It is not Able to Counter Illiberalism

October 27, 2022 by BSC

This panel discussed the challenges that the rise of illiberalism within and beyond the EU poses to the EU’s internal and external policies and its very own foundations. The speakers discussed the extent of the pressures that democracies within EU member states and candidate states face by providing examples from Hungary, Poland, Turkey, and Serbia. They also exchanged thoughts on what the EU institutions can do to counter the rise of illiberalism.  

The Director of the CEU Democracy Institute Leadership Academy, Zsuzsanna Szelenyi, contended that illiberal systems have evolved rather recently, astutely observing that Orban converted Hungary into a political system that is different from the Western liberal democracies. In his so-called model of “illiberal democracy,” authoritarians capture power without violence. They are democratically elected to office, which creates an illusion of legitimacy and a democratic façade. Later, she noted that “we are not talking about a decline of democracy, but about the normalization of autocracy,” referencing a growing network of illiberal regimes.  

Natacha Kazatchkine, Head of the EU internal policy team for the Open Society Europe and Eurasia Program, expressed her concern regarding the EU’s inaction to address backsliding of the rule of law and democracy within its own member states, notably in Poland and Hungary. This has seriously impacted external perceptions of EU credibility, particularly in candidate countries. Rather than being silent on these problems, Kazatchkine highlighted that “the EU has to get out of the mentality that it is not able to counter illiberalism”.  

Selim Koru, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and an analyst at the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey (TEPAV), agreed that “self-doubt is the biggest obstacle for the EU to act and counter authoritarianism.” He noted how Turkey has become less susceptible to EU influence, it seeks to have its own agenda and distance itself from the EU path. Addressing the question posed by the moderator Una Hajdari on how migration policies in Turkey are connected to Erdogan’s illiberalism, Koru explained that Erdogan is using migration to foster his agenda of conservative values.  

Milica Delevic, Director for Competitiveness, Governance and Political Affairs at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, noted that the challenges within the EU negatively impact credibility of EU values in candidate countries. “These developments inside the EU are making the EU rethink its foreign policies to a certain extent,” placing more emphasis on rule of law. As the perspective of clear benefits for the candidate countries has become increasingly blurred, a critical question is whether the enlargement process can be an effective tool for democratization.