“The 2019 EP elections resulted in a strengthening of the main governing parties in all the Visegrád countries except Slovakia. The parties of the Czech, Hungarian and Polish prime ministers all came first with a clear lead. In the Visegrád countries, a marked right-wing dominance is observable, with the majority of elected MEPs coming from right-wing parties, and with a few exceptions joining the EP’s right-wing parliamentary groups.”
The election of new members of the European Parliament (EP) in 2019 garnered far more interest among voters of the Visegrád Four group than previous elections. May 2019 saw the highest participation rate in all four countries since their accession to the EU in 2004; and, except for Slovakia, this has resulted in a clear majority for the political right and the governing parties in the region. The EP election results have brought new opportunities for the Visegrád Four (V4): their MEPs can now have a more influential role in the next European Parliament, and in the coming period their governments may be capable of even more visible and effective action than in recent years.
THE V4 BEFORE THE 2019 EP ELECTIONS
Almost immediately following the collapse of the Communist bloc, a desire and need was expressed for the countries of Central Europe to act in concert with regard to security, economic and other policy issues. A permanent member of this coalition, alongside Hungary and Poland, was Czechoslovakia, which split into the two independent states of the Czech Republic and Slovakia in the early 1990s. Back then, the main objective was to attain NATO and EU membership, which was regarded as the guarantee of integration with the West, and which were achieved by all concerned in the 2000s. Within the new framework, initially all four of the countries under discussion attempted to go it alone, each upholding their own national interests within the system of EU institutions, and this pushed even the cooperation announced following the change of political system into the background, watering it down into a series of protocol events.
By the 2010s, however, the governments of Central Europe realised that they were finding it increasingly difficult to represent their countries independently; given the steps aimed at deepening European integration (e.g. the establishment of a banking union) and the greater power of the wealthier, larger states to push forward their own agendas, they could only show strength by forming alliances. This process was speeded up by the migration crisis of 2015, and the proclamation by the EU institutions and larger member states, especially Germany, of a system of quotas for the distribution of refugees (Geddes–Scholten, 2016: 85–86).
A sign that the V4 had recognised the geopolitical situation and their dependence on one another was that the cooperation between them became closer precisely at a time when the countries concerned were governed by parties belonging to different groups within the European Parliament. Hungary’s ruling parties, Fidesz and the Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP) are affiliated with the European People’s Party (EPP). Poland has been governed since autumn 2015 by the Law and Justice Party (PiS), which is a member of the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group within the EP. Slovakia’s main governing party has been the social democratic Direction–Social Democracy Party (Smer) since 2012, and the leader of the Czech ruling coalition was also a social democratic party (ČSSD) between 2013 and 2017, before being replaced in 2017 by Andrej Babiš’s party (ANO 2011), which is a member of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe in the EP. So clearly, geopolitical and national interests in the region have proven stronger than European Parliament groupings based on flexible ideological foundations, and this has ultimately boosted the political weight of the cooperating nations.
THE INTERRELATIONSHIP OF ECONOMIC AND POLITICAL STABILITY AMONG THE V4
In recent years, Central Europe has differed markedly from the majority of EU member states in two respects. The first relates to its economy, and is reflected in the region’s economic growth, among other factors. From an economic perspective, Central Europe has strengthened since 2010, with economic growth regularly exceeding the EU average and the average for the eurozone states since 2014 (see Table 1).
Furthermore, for a long time this economic stability has been accompanied by political stability. Substantial political power and a considerable electoral base is concentrated around Fidesz in Hungary, and around the Civic Platform (PO) and later PiS in Poland. This has made it possible for single parties or small coalitions to form governments, which have remained in office for several parliamentary cycles, which contrasts with the increasingly rapid erosion of the classic estabilished parties and the rising political polarisation in the West. In Slovakia this role was relatively short-lived for Smer, which governed alone between 2012 and 2016, then remained in power from 2016 but as part of a coalition. However, although there have been plenty of challenges to the party’s popularity, it remains the most influential and well-organised political party in Slovakia. In the Czech Republic, Andrej Babiš has gradually become the strongest politician. In 2017 he took office as Prime Minister, and with it the central position in the party system, rising to stand out from the changing Czech political landscape. The “textbook example” of a central party system is Hungary (Tóth–Török, 2014); but similar trends, and efforts to establish a similar position, can be seen in the other countries of the region, too: an actor who stands out from the political competition faces a divided opposition, in contrast to which he offers political and economic stability to voters and the business community, complementing this political direction with an emphasis on national sovereignty and interests. These three elements have become the mutually reinforcing, closely interrelated constituents of the political stance that was tested at the end of May 2019, in the context of the EP elections, in all four states concerned simultaneously.
THE RESULTS OF THE EP ELECTIONS AND THEIR IMPLICATIONS FOR THE V4
There are two main features of the V4 that are worth highlighting in relation to the 2019 EP elections. The first is the marked dominance of the political right. A total of 76 out of the four countries’ 107 seats were won by right-wing parties. The second-most populous delegation of the EPP was Polish, and the third biggest was the Hungarian contingent (if we add the MEPs from the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania (RMDSZ) to those from Fidesz–KDNP, and not to the delegates of the Romanian People’s Party), while PiS has become the dominant player in the ECR group, which was launched by the British Conservative Party in 2009.
The other feature does not apply to Slovakia; but in the other three countries, the main governing parties swept to a resounding victory. The circumstances of this, and its consequences, are explored for each country in the following subsections.
Similarly to the other Visegrád nations, by the second half of the 1990s Czech politics, too, were about the rivalry between the social democrats (ČSSD) and the conservatives, with the difference that the orthodox Communists (KSČM) were able to form an independent political pole for decades, although nobody was willing to govern with them (Enyedi–Bértoa, 2010: 14). At the 2010 election, however, the large parties weakened (Dúró–Gallai, 2012: 71–72), and after the fall of the right-wing coalition in 2013, the Czech party system was fundamentally changed, with numerous new actors emerging. The business magnate Andrej Babiš and his party (ANO 2011) emerged victorious from this new situation, winning the parliamentary elections in 2017. As the head of government, Babiš’s political pragmatism was reflected in his willingness to cooperate with the Communist Party, which had formerly been treated as a pariah.
The 2019 EP elections brought another victory for Babiš, while the trends defining the changes in Czech politics continued. The May elections saw the fall of the old left wing. The social democrats finished below five per cent, losing all four of their seats, while the Communists only managed to keep one of their existing three mandates. Similarly to 2017, the postmodern left-wing Pirate Party (Piráti) and Tomio Okamura’s anti-Islam party Freedom and Direct Democracy (Svoboda a přímá demokracie – Tomio Okamura, SPD) performed well, with the former winning three, and the latter two seats. This result also means that Babiš continues to stand out from the field of Czech political actors, and he remains at the centre of the party system, a position from which he is capable of forging one-off or longer-term partnerships both with those to his right and those to his left.
From the second half of the 1990s, the Hungarian party system was characterised by competition between two blocs led by Fidesz and the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) respectively. After their electoral victory in 2006, the popularity of the MSZP and its liberal coalition partner (SZDSZ) fell away dramatically, and the resulting new positions had essentially already emerged by the 2009 EP elections: With Fidesz–KDNP enjoying runaway support, the opposition was made up of a much weakened left-wing (MSZP), a radical right (Jobbik) and a green (LMP) party, which for years were unable to work together. This was the “formula” in the run-up to the 2010 election, resulting in Fidesz’s first two-thirds majority in a parliamentary election (Enyedi–Benoit, 2011; Tóth–Török, 2014), which was repeated two more times, including in 2018, despite the opposition parties’ attempts at loose cooperation.
The result of the 2019 EP election changed the Hungarian positions that had prevailed for almost a decade. The opposition’s situation was further complicated after 2010 by the end of the MSZP’s hegemony on the left. In May 2019, the Democratic Coalition founded by Ferenc Gyurcsány, and the liberal Momentum Movement, both achieved better results than the MSZP. The success of these two opposition parties was also due to the fact that by 2019 not only the MSZP, but two other opposition parties had also lost considerable support: Jobbik only won one seat, while the LMP fell far short of the five-per cent minimum threshold. These results rewrote the pecking order within the opposition in the short term; the dominance of Viktor Orbán and Fidesz remains substantial.
Support for the post-Communists, who had governed more than once after the change of regime (1993–1997, 2001–2005), collapsed after the 2005 parliamentary elections; and since then the country’s political scene has been given over to duelling between the two right-wing parties, the Civic Platform (PO) and the Law and Justice Party (PiS). For a long time, the parties were primarily differentiated by their policy on the extent of the state’s role in the economy, the judgement of cultural policy issues, and the assertiveness and style in which they asserted national interests in the European arena (Enyedi–Bértoa, 2010: 16; Dúró–Gallai, 2012: 20–29). Between 2007 and 2015, PO was ahead in the competition; but since 2015 PiS has been the more popular of the two. Only a few smaller actors were able to hold their own alongside the two large parties, and furthermore, no left-wing parties won seats in the 2015 parliamentary election (Marcinkiewicz–Stegmaier, 2016). Between 2007 and 2015, the PO stood in the centre of the political field, with PiS as the right-wing opposition and the post-Communists on the left. The only change in 2015 was that PO and PiS swapped positions in terms of who was in government and who was the opposition. In spring 2019, however, PO’s leadership of a broad opposition coalition represented a major challenge for PiS.
The 2019 EP elections essentially turned into a clash between the “new” political elite represented by PiS, which had governed since 2015, and the pre-2015 “old” guard, when the PO ran a joint list not only with its former coalition partner the Polish People’s Party (PSL), but also with the post-Communists (SLD), the liberals (Nowoczesna) and some other smaller parties, under the name of the European Coalition. Virtually every pre-2015 head of government and influential politician lined up behind the new initiative. PiS also pitted a series of experienced politicians against them, with the result that a substantial proportion of the Polish MEP seats are held by former premiers and ministers. In the European Coalition, for example, PO candidates who won EP seats included former prime ministers Jerzy Buzek (1997–2001) and Ewa Kopacz (2014–2015), and for the left Włodzimierz Cimoszewicz (1996–1997), Leszek Miller (2001–2004) and Marek Belka (2004– 2005), as well as former European Commissioners Janusz Lewandowski (2010– 2014) and Danuta Hübner (2004–2009), and another four former ministers. For PiS, former Prime Minister Beata Szydło (2015–2017), Education Minister and ECR head (since 2011) Ryszard Legutko, as well as another six ministers, are among the most experienced and prominent ministers. Apart from them, only the left-wing party Spring (Wiosna) managed to win seats in the European Parliament. This means that the PiS–PO duel continues in Polish politics, with PiS not only retaining the advantage that it carved out for itself in 2015, but also increasing its lead slightly in May 2019. If PiS wins again at the parliamentary election in autumn, we will see a continuation of the party’s characterful politics, by no means free of conflicts with Brussels.
The Slovak party system is the only one in the region where the relationship of politicians with the Communist past effectively has no weight, because at the time of the change of regime the former party-state leaders infiltrated every nascent party. In the 1990s Vladimír Mečiar was the primary force in Slovak politics: parties coalesced into blocs that either wanted to cooperate with, or depose him (Dúró–Gallai, 2012: 84). From the mid-2000s this role was taken over by Robert Fico, who was more pragmatic than Mečiar; however, the rivalry between the left-wing bloc containing nationalist elements, led by this charismatic politician, and the alliance of liberal and conservative parties continued into the new millennium (Enyedi–Bértoa, 2010: 15). After the 2016 parliamentary election, which was regarded as a political earthquake, it seemed that this situation could change radically: following a weaker-than-expected result, Fico brought two right-wing parties into the coalition alongside his old ally the Slovak National Party (SNS). Besides Most–Híd, one of the loudest anti-Fico participants in the 2016 campaign, the Network (Sieť) party also joined the government. This created the opportunity for the political centre led by Fico to face a bipolar opposition, with the conservative, liberal (SaS, OL’aNO) and radical (Sme Rodina, L’SNS) parties incapable of forming an alliance against Fico (Rybář–Spáč, 2017).
Since 2016, however, support for the governing parties has declined significantly. Sieť crumbled in a few weeks as a consequence of its U-turn. For Most–Híd, this process ran its course more slowly; but during 2019 it was clearly reflected first in Béla Bugár’s 3.1 per cent result in the presidential election, and later in his party’s 2.6 per cent performance in the EP elections. Not even Smer was able to dodge this decline in support for the governing parties. The increasing polarisation of society, and the protests that followed the journalist killing of 2018, were contributing factors leading up to Fico’s resignation as prime minister in 2018 and his party’s loss of the 2019 presidential election. After this, it was pushed into second place in the EP elections by a new liberal opposition alliance (PS–SPOLU). Zuzana Čaputová’s victory in the presidential election, followed by the EP election success of her associates, means that the struggle between the two blocs that shape Slovak politics continues. During the EP elections it became clear that on the right fringe of the political system the extremist, anti-Roma and anti-EU party of Marián Kotleba, the Our Slovakia People’s Party (L’SNS), with whom nobody is prepared to cooperate, has stabilised its support at around 10 per cent. The EP elections also brought another defeat for participants such as the Party of the Hungarian Community (MKP), which had previously counted as a leading player of the political right. The party was unable to reach the five-per cent threshold; so now, having previously lost its representation in Bratislava, it has no representatives in Strasbourg either.
POSSIBLE IMPACTS OF THE EP ELECTIONS – A NEW CHANCE FOR CENTRAL EUROPE
The 2019 EP elections created a new situation in several respects, and opened up new possibilities for the assertion of Central European interests within the EU. For this reason, it is worth examining the results not only in terms of the impact on the internal politics of the countries concerned, but also from the perspective of the scope for manoeuvre of the V4.
The phenomenon of right-wing dominance has already been mentioned in the previous section, but it is also worth taking a closer look at the internal relationships of the EPP, which continues to represent the largest grouping within the EP. Although the EPP remained the largest group in the EP in 2019, its size and influence were significantly diminished. In 2004, at the first election following the eastern expansion of the EU, the EPP group was made up of 268 MEPs. Five years later, following the election involving 27 member states, it had 265, while in 2014 the group accounted for 221 seats. In 2019, however, only 182 MEPs are preparing for the constituent session on 1 July. The number of EPP MEPs has decreased due to defections (e.g. the British Conservatives in 2009), and later to the considerable weakening of parties from formerly leading and influential large states (e.g. France, Italy, Spain). As a consequence of this, the Polish delegation became the second largest, and the Hungarian the third largest (if the two seats won by RMDSZ are added to the 13 mandates secured by Fidesz–KDNP) contingent in the EPP. Previously, it had seemed highly unlikely that representatives of countries that joined after 2004 would have such a high weight in the groups (EPP, S&D, liberals) that are traditionally made up of the large established parties.
Another sign of the region’s right-wing character is the dominance of the PiS delegation within the ECR group, which was established on the initiative of the British Conservatives. Owing to Brexit and their internal power struggles, the British Conservatives ran no substantive campaign, and the party only won four seats in the shadow of the Brexit Party, which continues to promote the UK’s departure from the EU. More than a third of the MEPs in the new ECR group are provided by the PiS delegation, and over half come from the Visegrád countries. Due to the hostile PiS–PO relationship, however, it is hard to envisage the EPP seeking any partnership with the ECR group, which has also seen a decrease in its membership compared to the previous cycle, while its political influence is set to decline further following the exit of the UK.
The influence of the V4 could increase not only in the EP and the EPP, but also in other EU institutions, provided that their governments can act in concert. By May 2019, the governments of the large Western member states had effectively “stalled”, and the EP election only reinforced this process, creating a new situation as regards the distribution of top EU posts. The situation and future of the UK remains in doubt; and what is more, following the announcement of Prime Minister Theresa May’s resignation at the end of May, the governing Conservatives opted for a succession process dragging on for several months, which has further reduced British activity and influence in Brussels. In Spain, no new government has been able to form since the early elections in April. In Germany, the coalition’s activity is being obstructed by the protracted crisis in the Social Democratic Party (SPD), and the internal conflicts of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Furthermore, the dramatic rise in support for the Greens is prompting the governing parties to concentrate even more on domestic policy issues. Italy’s scope for manoeuvre is restricted by the “strange coalition” that took office in 2018, and which is not only embroiled in a serious dispute with the EU institutions, but is also finding it increasingly difficult to manage its own internal tensions. The government’s most assertive and active politician is not the prime minister Giuseppe Conte, or a politician from the strongest party in the parliamentary election, the Five Star Movement (M5S), but the anti-immigration and eurosceptic leader of the Northern League (Lega Nord), Matteo Salvini.
In these circumstances a chance has arisen, Donald Tusk having taken the office of President of the European Council in 2014, for another of the EU’s key positions (e.g. High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy) to be held by a politician from the region. Besides this, the Visegrád nations will now be able to argue their case more effectively when the other influential posts are being distributed than they could following previous EP elections.
The 2019 EP elections resulted in a strengthening of the main governing parties in all the Visegrád countries except Slovakia. The parties of the Czech, Hungarian and Polish prime ministers all came first with a clear lead. In the Visegrád countries, a marked right-wing dominance is observable, with the majority of elected MEPs coming from right-wing parties, and with a few exceptions joining the EP’s right-wing parliamentary groups (EPP, ECR, ID). The result of the EP elections suggests that the political and economic stability will remain in the Visegrád countries in the near future. (In Slovakia, despite the weakening of Smer, no clear alternative has yet begun to emerge.) If the governments further strengthen the cooperation that became more intensive after 2015, then the Visegrád countries will constitute a stronger, more visible and more influential group within Europe’s changing political scene.
Translation by Daniel Nashaat
* Expected groups within the European Parliament as at 22.06.2019. EPP: European People’s Party, Christian democrat. S&D: Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, left-wing. RE: Renew Europe, liberal. Greens/EFA: Greens/European Free Alliance, greens and ethnic-regional parties. ID: Identity and Democracy, radical right. ECR: European Conservatives and Reformers, conservative. GUE/NGL: Confederal Group of the European United Left/Nordic Green Left, radical left-wing and communist parties.
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