Who will lead Europe? Recent elections vaulted leaders with radically different designs for guiding Europe to the forefront of the deeply divided continent. Which path will Europe follow?
The European Union, still wrestling with an unprecedented wave of migration, is now facing two other existential crises. The first is how to navigate the departure of a cornerstone EU member such as Britain. The second is how to tame the strong and growing undercurrent of nationalism, populism and “illiberal democracy” spreading in Central Europe.
A new leader emerges from the West
With Britain headed toward the EU’s exit door, Germany and France are left alone as the bloc’s political and economic heavyweights.
Not long ago, Time magazine crowned Angela Merkel the “chancellor of the free world” and “Mrs. Europe,” but her political support crumbled following her handling of the Syrian refugee crisis. In 2017 she was rewarded with the worst election results for her party since 1949.
Mrs. Merkel struggled for months to form a coalition government. This profoundly diminished her image to the point she has even been dubbed “Europe’s weakest link.”
The man becoming the European Union’s leading promoter is a 40-year-old investment banker turned politician with a contagious enthusiasm for the EU. Emmanuel Macron, the youngest president in the history of France, shot to political stardom as a gifted political entrepreneur. He cobbled together a new centrist party from the fragments of dilapidated parties.
The young, charismatic politician emerged victorious in the French presidential election. He defeated far-right candidate Marine Le Pen by declaring that the answer to voter concerns over immigration, unemployment and security is more EU, not less. (Of course, not everyone is taken with his youthful idealism.)
Calls to reject nationalism
Issuing a rallying cry to the European Parliament, Mr. Macron warned members of the 28-nation bloc that “there seems to be a European civil war” between liberal democracy and rising authoritarianism. He urged the continent’s leaders not to become a “generation of sleepwalkers” in the face of growing authoritarianism.
Just weeks later, he demanded closer and faster EU integration toward a European superstate while accepting the Charlemagne Prize for work done “in the service of European unification” and his “decisive stance” against nationalism.
Mr. Macron urged Brussels to move full-speed ahead on greater budgetary union and creating a single foreign policy and defense strategy. He shared his vision of a two-speed Europe, allowing some countries to integrate faster while others maintain the status quo.
Mr. Macron called out Eastern EU member countries hostile to immigration and intolerant of criticism over their alleged backsliding on the rule of law. He said the “music of nationalism is resounding everywhere in Europe,” adding that division is “like leprosy.”
A leader rises in the East
But Emmanuel Macron is not the only one reshaping European politics and posing a serious challenge to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s dominant position on the continent.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has now cemented his grip on power. His broad-based Fidesz party achieved its third consecutive triumph in Hungary’s April 2018 parliamentary election. Even prior to his victory, an October 2017 Financial Times editorial stated that “no EU national leader reigns supreme in the way that Viktor Orbán is lord and master of Hungary.”
Having transformed from a left-wing atheist to a right-wing, populist strongman, Mr. Orbán presents himself as a tell-it-like-it-is guardian of Christian Europe, protecting it from the globalist European project and Muslim immigration. He declared, “We must defend Christian culture.”
Abandoning Western-style democracy
Mr. Orbán’s aggressive actions to consolidate power have led some EU leaders to call him “the Viktator” and “the most dangerous man in the European Union.”
Mr. Orbán is creating “Hungary’s Führer Democracy,” according to biographer Paul Lendvai, in Orbán: Hungary’s Strongman. “There is not a single politician in Budapest or Brussels,” continues Mr. Lendvai, “who has been able to hold a candle to Orbán with regard to his political cynicism, his gifts as an orator and his talent for intrigue” (2017, p. 202).
Mr. Orbán has created what he terms an “illiberal democracy”—a political system with free elections but allegedly scant regard for civil liberties. He has radically altered the country’s constitution and overhauled public media institutions into partisan outlets. “We have replaced,” he boasted, “a shipwrecked liberal democracy with a 21st-century Christian democracy.”
Always direct, Mr. Orbán brusquely declared in 2014 that “checks and balances” are a “U.S. invention that for some reason of intellectual mediocrity Europe decided to adopt.” Not surprisingly, Hungary has been described as “half democracy in decline” or a “soft autocracy.” Freedom House named it the “least democratic country” in the EU.
What makes this astonishing is that Hungary is a member of the EU and NATO, yet defies the values of both.
Historic memories and bitterness
Many Hungarians felt let down by the switch from communism to free-market capitalism in 1989. Instead of being granted a long-denied sense of autonomy, Russian domination was rapidly replaced by EU mandates.
Still, Hungary is not a particularly “Eurosceptic” nation. In advance of the Brexit vote in June 2016, polls showed that Hungarian voters, second only to Poles in the entire 28-state bloc, were the most supportive of the EU. But Mr. Orbán has played on deep-seated Hungarian grievances and a collective memory of foreign invasion by Turks, Austrians and Russians.
A gate to the West
After winning elections in April, the maverick prime minister called on the EU to “give up on its delusional nightmares of a United States of Europe.” “To our west,” continued Mr. Orbán, “is the land of German iron chancellors, to our east is the world of Slavic soldier peoples, and to our south are massive crowds of Muslim people. Berlin, Moscow, Istanbul—Hungary exists in this space. We need to make calculations based on this.”
“We also know our own history,” he said in an October 2017 speech. “Those who wanted to gain a foothold in Europe always came across this route. And Hungary was the last defensive line, if you like, a gate to and for the West.”
Sure to further inflame passions, the year 2020 marks the centenary of the treaty of Trianon. Under that treaty Hungary lost two-thirds of its territory and 3 million Hungarians found themselves living in foreign states after World War I. That national humiliation has filled generations of Hungarians with bitterness and distrust of decisions made by outsiders affecting its borders.
An “invasion” triggers European divide
The continuing European migrant crisis has exposed deep divisions between EU leaders in the West and East while sparking the resurgence of right-wing nationalism throughout Europe. The continuing European migrant crisis has exposed deep divisions between EU leaders in the West and East while sparking the resurgence of right-wing nationalism throughout Europe. The left-leaning German weekly Der Spiegel declared Viktor Orbán as “the political victor of the refugee crisis.”
He has described refugees as “Muslim invaders” and erected a 100-mile razor wire barrier to limit crossings from the Balkans. Prime Minister Orbán stated in a March 2016 speech: “At last, the peoples of Europe, who have been slumbering in abundance and prosperity, have understood that the principles of life that Europe has been built on are in mortal danger.”
Mass migration, he continued, “is a slow stream of water persistently eroding the shores. It is masquerading as a humanitarian cause, but its true nature is the occupation of territory” (quoted by Douglas Murray, The Strange Death of Europe, p. 229).
Spreading out from Budapest
In his book The End of Europe, James Kirchick notes that “in a remarkably short period Orbán has gone from being Europe’s polecat to its phenom, eagerly applauded for his uncompromising stance against Angela Merkel’s immigration policy … anointing himself as the flag-bearer of those demanding a Europe with barbed-wire fences.” “The danger now,” adds Mr. Kirchick, “is that ‘Orbánism’ is proving contagious, particularly in the postcommunist neighborhood of Central Europe” (2017, p. 64).
Nationalism at the polls
A significant number of voters agree with Mr. Orbán’s criticism of the European Union as an undemocratic, overly bureaucratic body and support returning power to national capitals.
Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party is scorned in Brussels almost as much as Hungary’s leader. Austria’s anti-immigrant Freedom Party is now in government, and Italy’s anti-immigrant League party is well-placed to follow suit. The Alternative for Germany (AfD) is now the third-largest party in Germany. In France the National Front made it to the final round of the presidential election, and in Sweden the far-right Sweden Democrats have shown surprising strength.
The fact is, as Ivan Krastev pointed out in a June 2017 editorial in The New York Times, Central Europe will face “a future of deeper integration with Western Europe, or a future where Central Europe is increasingly marginalized.
“It’s a choice between Emmanuel Macron and Viktor Orbán. … The jury is out on which choice governments will make.” Mr. Krastev notes that “Central Europe’s 20th-century experience may be summarized by the adage, ‘If you are not at the table, you are on the menu.’”
The future political scene
Currently, the European Union appears to have more questions than answers, with Britain exiting the EU, ongoing financial crises, migration and terror concerns, and rising nationalism. Despite these serious problems, Bible prophecy reveals that not long from now a new superpower system will arise in Europe to astound the entire world (Revelation 13:1-7) as it strides for a brief period across the world scene.
Scripture reveals that this revived European power will have strong leadership (Daniel 11:3-39; Revelation 17:2-3), but one leader will claim preeminence (Daniel 11:20). Just as today, the strongmen of the future will share dreams of grandeur, but they will never completely forget their own national interests, histories and grudges. This partly explains why the union “shall be partly strong, and partly fragile” (Daniel 2:42).
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