Democratic Backsliding and Illiberal Democracy in the EU – a twelve-point checklist

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Nick Sitter (Central European University)

Democratic backsliding has become a hot topic in the EU, not just because some states pursue policies that contravene their commitments to democracy and the rule of law, but because the EU is poorly equipped to deal with it. But what does democratic backsliding actually mean? This blog offers a short answer: the twelve institutional aspects of democratic backsliding.

The comparative politics literature covers three distinct aspects of backsliding – backsliding as a process that halts or reverses democratization; backsliding as an ideological alternative to liberal democracy; and backsliding in terms of bad governance.
The notion of backsliding as a process draws on the literature on democratic transition and consolidation, and involved analysis of dynamics that might halt or reverse these processes. Key features include decline in the rule of law and democratic practices, as well as concentration of political, social and economic power and the hollowing out of democratic institutions.

The notion of backsliding as a normative alternative to liberal democracy is linked to the classic ‘democratic dilemma’ – the balance between majority rule and minority rights. Its draws on the populist tenet that the true representatives of the people should rule more or less unconstrained. This brings into question the importance of independent media, civil society and separation of powers, inasmuch as the role of all organizations should be to support the executive.

The notion of backsliding in terms of bad governance is in many ways a mirror image of the academic debates about good governance. Corruption, rent seeking, abuse of public procurement, and the establishment of an oligarchy are classical elements. This can be extended to policies that directly contravene individual and human rights, and in the EU context, core EU values. The result is various forms of hybrid regimes.

In practice, the strategy of democratic backsliding involves four key elements in terms of political institutions – centralization of power, control of the electoral process, state capture, and limiting civil society. Successful pursuit of these goals can blur the boundary between party and state, to the extent that a façade democracy may be maintained by way of elections and institutions that formally resemble those of liberal democracies, but in practice amount to a one-party regime.

The following twelve paragraphs elaborate on the most important aspect of these four sets of institutional changes that a party-leader who has won an election might embark on to build an illiberal democracy.

1. The most urgent element of centralization of political power for an aspiring authoritarian leader is centralization of executive power by way of controlling the legislature. In the long term this might include changes to the legislative structure (e.g. elimination of an upper chamber); in the short term perhaps the easiest measure is curtailing consultation, debate, and scrutiny of parliamentary legislation, or limiting parliament’s ability to hold the executive to account.

2. The second, somewhat less urgent but equally important, step is to exercise control of the judiciary. Changing the personnel in the constitutional court and/or the court’s competence, power, or decision-making procedures is the most controversial type of measures. Other, less visible, forms of control include changes to the personnel, procedures and remits of the ordinary courts, or simply ignoring court rulings.

3. The most effective, but also the most difficult, aspect of institutional centralization is the adoption of a new constitution. If done competently (and unilaterally), with high thresholds for constitutional reform, this can lock-in the ruling party’s policy and personnel preferences for the foreseeable future – even in the event of a loss of power.

4. The whole point of illiberal democracy, however, is that the ruling party does not lose the next election to the ‘enemies of the people’. Re-designing the electoral system, or adopting a new tailor-made electoral law could help secure this goal.

5. But electoral reform is rarely enough. Unless it is banned out-right, a competent opposition might respond to the incentives of the new electoral system. It may therefore be necessary to allow for periodical review of the electoral law before each election (by a government-controlled body), e.g. re-districting and rules about candidate/list eligibility.

6. The third key element of institutional manipulation in the quest of re-election concerns amendments of the regulations for electoral campaigns, including campaign finance and political advertising.

7. Once victory is secured, a central tenet of illiberal democracy is that all power resides with the leadership. Democratic backsliding usually involves both an effort to capture the state and build an oligarchy. The most important measures include corruption, or more specifically a shift from ordinary corruption to grand corruption; from bribes in an open system to a closed system where public procurement, tax breaks or regulatory rules are designed to benefit the oligarchy.

8. Controlling the state apparatus also involves control of the ‘arms-length’ agencies of the state, such as the national audit office and regulatory authorities. Most liberal democracies are based on a number of independent agencies with a high degree of credibility. In the EU system this also extents to the central bank.

9. This third element of democratic backsliding and state capture involved the other levels of the state, including local and regional government – and, in the EU, representation at the EU level.

10. Unlike the classic authoritarian recipe (eliminating opposition), the illiberal democracy model involves limiting or marginalizing independent voices. Control of the mainstream media – print, broadcast and on-line – is perhaps the most important issue. Besides direct and active state ownership, media regulation and oversight is the most direct tool. But oligarchic ownership and political direction of state advertising to supportive outlets can also help.

11. In the same vein, limiting the freedom of action of independent interest groups and NGOs is a common strategy for both authoritarian states and backsliding democracies. In the EU context, this includes efforts to limit, penalize or stigmatize foreign funding – whether private or from international organizations.

12. Finally, in the long term, illiberal democracy also involves silencing independent voices that affect politics more indirectly, by way of culture and education. The list of civil society organizations that can be brought directly or indirectly under political control is almost endless, including e.g. universities, schools, theaters, sports associations, churches etc.

The point here is not to set out an exhaustive list of institutional measures that define democratic backsliding, but rather to focus on a limited set of key institutional changes that – if carried out with due care and attention – limit the operation of liberal democracy to the extent that the regime could be characterized as backsliding on democratic commitments.

Mild versions of many of these types of reform can be found in ordinary liberal democracies, but the higher the number that is combined and the more extensive the reforms, the more solid the basis for the backsliding diagnosis.

Moreover, these reforms must be evaluated in context. A remarkable feature of the recent illiberal challenge to the EU system has been its open attack on the whole idea of the open society, individual liberties and the rule of law – as well as international cooperation. Institutional reforms are supported by both words – the narrative about national, populist, illiberal democracy – and action. Each of the twelve sets of reforms include a raft of abuses of power by way of e.g. bending and stretching the rules on emergency measures, impeaching or arresting opponents, legislating against opposition parties, harassing media or civil society, abusing audit and inspection regimes, and – of course – using the oligarchy’s economic power to support the governing party and weaken the opposition. Even the occasional bit of political violence might be called for. Democratic backsliding is most easily identified in the form of institutional change – but illiberal democracy cannot work without persistent abuse of power and a good story to cover it.

The author is writing in a personal capacity and their views do not represent the TransCrisis consortium as a whole.

Sleepless in Sofia: Can Bulgaria save Poland from Article 7?

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Asya Metodieva (CEU) and Nick Sitter (CEU/BI)


It is the Bulgarians’ turn. When the Bulgarian government took over the EU’s rotating Presidency of the Council on 1 January, it was confronted with both a potential crisis and a golden opportunity to clean up the image of the country known to be among the poorest and the most corrupt among the EU’s member states.

Two hot potatoes – Brexit and Poland – feature prominently on the Bulgarian Presidency’s agenda. Of the two, the Polish question is likely to prove more difficult. Last December, the Commission gave Warsaw three months to reform its plans for judicial reform because these were found to present a risk that the rule of law might be undermined. At a ministerial meeting on 27 February the EU member states will have a first discussion with Poland on this matter – under Bulgarian chairmanship. But Bulgaria would prefer not to have to deal with the Polish case at all.

So far, the Bulgarian government has failed in its attempts to postpone discussions on the Polish case, and kick this particularly tricky ball into the long grass. The minister for the EU presidency, Lilyana Pavlova, observed that the case could easily drag into the second half of 2018, when Austria takes over the Council presidency. But this was not greeted with enthusiasm in Brussels. The Commission continues to emphasise the importance of the three-month deadline that expires in March.

The Bulgarian government – like some of the other Central European member states – is caught between its sympathy for a fellow post-communist state and its broadly pro-EU stance. This Balkan state, which joined the EU eleven ago, has not yet managed to reform its own judicial system and would rather avoid high speed and sharp turns on the Polish question. The prime minister said that rule of law issues are ‘so vague’ and difficult to measure that it is better not to bring them before the Council. Officials in Sofia have therefore expressed considerable reservations about the threat to punish Poland over democratic backsliding, and emphasized the challenges involved in forcing a decision at the EU level.

The first vote under Article 7 will be a decision whether there is a ‘clear risk of a serious breach’ of the rule of law in Poland. This requires the support of a four-fifths majority of member states, which means that six states (not counting Poland) voting no or abstaining is sufficient to block the decision. Hungary has promised to veto any subsequent vote to determine an actual breach, which requires unanimity. But if the EU cannot even muster the 22 votes needed to determine a risk of a breach, this could seriously undermine the EU’s credibility – especially during the negotiations on the Multiannual Financial Framework.

Last summer, Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven suggested that countries that do not follow EU rules ought to be punished by suspending EU funding. At the time, he referred to Poland and Hungary’s refusal to accept refugee quotas. Since then the theme of linking EU funding to compliance with the EU’s fundamental rules and values has since gained traction. It has received some support from several (western) member states. Budget Commissioner Günther Oettinger has also publicly commented on the possibility of establishing conditionality as part of future funding arrangements. In the light of the Norwegian government’s successful confrontation with Hungary over the use of European Economic Area funds in 2014-15 – in which Norway suspended funding until Budapest stopped harassing EEA Grant-supported NGOs – this idea could prove attractive to the EU’s net contributors. But it would exacerbate the developing political cleavage between the north-west and the south-east in the Union.

Bulgarian PM Boyko Borissov’s immediate worry is that the EU member states might be called upon to vote on whether Warsaw breaks rule-of-law standards. He argues that this would create a ‘dangerous precedent’, and that such a vote should be avoided: ‘If we have to go voting, we will have sleepless nights to vote. I hope we do not have to face this’. Sofia therefore needs a compromise that will fudge the issue. On the one hand, the message is: ‘Poland should be listened to’ (Foreign Minister Ekaterina Zaharieva). On the other hand, Bulgaria hopes that its ex-communist fellow Poland will find a way to comply with the EU law.

And Bulgaria is not the only state in this position. Hungary openly supports Poland, and the Croat government has made sympathetic noises. The Commission’s recent warning to Bucharest about rule of law and corruption (24 January) might not make Romania too keen to go after Poland. And in the middle of Brexit negotiations, might London abstain in order not to lose friends in the east? Might a left- and right-populist triumph in the Italian elections on 4 March tip the balance? In any case, Vienna, Prague and Bratislava all have mixed attitudes to their ‘illiberal democracy’ neighbours.

Bulgaria will therefore play the role of balancer in the next 6 months. The Bulgarian Presidency is run under the theme ‘United we stand strong’. These words also feature on the coat of arms of the Republic of Bulgaria. The Presidency has promised to work on unity among the member states and the EU institutions. Its message needs to be ‘remain neutral and impartial’. If the Polish question comes to a vote – where abstaining will count in favour of Warsaw – that might well prove impossible. But if Bulgaria manages to postpone the vote, the EU could be facing an even bigger crisis in the shape of the future budget.


The authors are writing in a personal capacity and their views do not represent the TransCrisis consortium as a whole.


The Czech Presidential Election and Europe’s Populism Crisis

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Elisabeth Bakke (University of Oslo) and Nick Sitter (Central European University)

Czech elections – let alone Czech presidential elections – do not always command international attention. Compared to Hungary and Poland – where the radical effects of the victory of populist right-wing parties in parliamentary elections have given new meaning to the term ‘democratic backsliding’ – democracy in the Czech Republic is not under threat. However, the current presidential election (first round January 12–13; run-off on January 26–27) merits attention both on the grounds of the effects it might have on domestic politics and because of its potential wider impact on European Union politics and on European security questions. 

Nine candidates ran in the first round, and as expected, the incumbent president Miloš Zeman finished first with 38.6 percent.  Zeman did not do quite as well as some of the polls suggested. Zeman’s strongest rival, Jiří Drahoš, the former head of the Czech Academy of Sciences, finished second with 26.6 percent. Polls give Drahoš a good chance of winning the run-off. Unlike Schwarzenberg in 2013, he is acceptable in wider circles. Of the seven candidates who did not make it to the second round, three non-partisans won between 8.8 and 10.2 percent each. The only experienced politician besides Zeman, former prime minister Mirek Topolánek, received only 4.3 percent. All four have publicly endorsed Drahoš for the second round, and one of them (Michal Horáček) even offered Drahoš his prepaid billboards. However, much depends on Drahoš’ ability to match Zeman in (two) TV debates and to mobilize (new) voters. Turnout in the first round was 61.9 percent; and highest in Prague, where Drahoš won. It is expected that the campaign will become uglier in the run-up to the second round. 

Why is it important who wins the run-off? The present impasse in Czech politics means that the next president may have more influence on the Czech political scene than his limited formal powers might suggest. This week the minority government of billionaire prime minister Andrej Babiš, in office since December 6th, 2017, lost a vote of confidence in the lower house. Having won the parliamentary election of October 2017, his party, the centrist populist ANO, is the biggest party with 78 seats in the 200-strong lower house. However, the government only received the backing of the ANO, and therefore resigned on January 17th. As if this was not enough, the lower house voted to strip Babiš and his first vice chairman Jaroslav Faltýnek of their parliamentary immunity. 

The two MPs have been under police investigation for subsidy fraud against the EU in the Stork’s Nest case. In 2008 the Stork’s Nest farm and hotel complex received a 50 million crown EU subsidy intended for small and medium-sized companies. Technically it was at the time owned by family members of Babiš (his two grown children and the brother of his current wife), but before and after this the Stork’s Nest was owned by a subsidiary of Agrofert, and therefore not eligible for EU subsidies. The case has also been investigated by OLAF, the European Anti-Fraud Office. Babiš denies any wrongdoing.

This case is part of the reason why it has been difficult for Babiš to form a majority government. To do so, he needs the support of at least one other party. Babiš stated right after the election that he would prefer to govern with the Civic Democrat ODS (25 seats), also because the two parties – in his view – are politically close. The invitation was flatly rejected by ODS chairman Petr Fiala. A second possibility would be to renew the 2013–2017 coalition with the Social Democrat ČSSD (15 seats) and the Christian Democrat KDU-ČSL (10 seats). Both are willing to negotiate, but neither party will accept as a member of the government, let alone prime minister, a person who is under criminal investigation. As for the rest, Babiš declared already before the election that he would not govern with the extreme left (the unreformed Communist Party KSČM, 15 seats) or the extreme right (Tomio Okamura’s SPD, 22 seats). ANO nevertheless made a deal with these two parties to make sure that Radek Vondráček from ANO was elected speaker. The two small parties on the centre-right, the conservative TOP09 and the centrist Mayors (13 seats combined) ruled out future government cooperation with ANO even before the election. Finally, the Pirate Party (22 seats) has decided not to support or tolerate an ANO government. It is difficult to imagine a majority government without ANO, since neither of the parties wants to govern with KSČM and SPD.   

In this complicated parliamentary situation, the outcome of the run-off election on January 26–27 may well make a difference. According to the Czech Constitution, the president appoints the prime minister, and on his proposal, the rest of the ministers. However, if the government does not win a vote of confidence in the lower house within 30 days, it must resign. This is where the Czech Republic is now. President Zeman has promised Babiš a second go, but to put pressure on the parties, Zeman has demanded assurances that a majority of at least 101 MPs will support the new government. In the meantime, the current Babiš government will continue as a caretaker government. If Zeman wins the run-off, this situation can go on for a long time – potentially to the end of the election period. Already in 2013 Zeman showed his willingness to stretch the constitution by keeping a government in office that did not enjoy the confidence of the lower house. Moreover, he is adamant in his rejection of early elections. 

If Drahoš wins, Zeman has to act before his period ends on March 8th. If he decides to give Babiš a second chance, and he succeeds in forming a majority government, there is little Drahoš can do. If this government also fails to win the vote of confidence, the speaker of the lower house (Vondráček from ANO) decides whether Babiš (or somebody else from ANO) will get a third chance. If also the third attempt fails, the initiative goes back to the president. Drahoš has spoken up against appointing a prime minister who is charged with crimes, and in contrast to Zeman, he most likely will call early elections if also the third attempt fails. If all parties but ANO agree, the lower house may theoretically dissolve itself (with a 3/5 majority), but this is not very likely.

But the Czech presidential vote may also have reverberations outside the country. The contest between Miloš Zeman and Jiří Drahoš reflects a political cleavage that runs through many European party systems and has gained salience since the financial crisis. The Economist labelled this a contest between ‘drawbridge-up’ national and populist protectionists on one hand, and liberal ‘drawbridge-down’ parties. Since 2010, the right-populist Fidesz has taken ever-tighter control of Hungarian politics, to the extent that its commitment to liberal democracy is widely questioned. In Poland the PiS lost no time in copying Fidesz’s ‘illiberal democracy’ project after its 2015 electoral victory. In 2016 the nationalist critics of open borders triumphed in the Brexit referendum and the US presidential election, but failed in the Austrian presidential election. In 2017, the French and Dutch elections saw the liberals defeat right-populist challengers, which the German elections weakened Angela Merkel and the Austrian elections brought a populist coalition to power. On 4 March, the Italian election will pit a centre-left liberal alliance against populist Eurosceptic rivals on both the left and the right in a three-way race.  

The first international dimension of the Czech election is therefore that it is one of a series of electoral tests between liberals and populist nationalists. In the Czech, like the Hungarian and American, case this also involves a Russian dimension. If Viktor Orbán is – as a US congressional report on Putins’s Asymmetric Assault on Democracy in Russia and Europe suggests – Vladimir Putin’s closest ally in the EU, Miloš Zeman comes a close second. The Czech president has pushed for the EU to accept the Russian annexation and explore the possibility of some form of compensation for this ‘fait accompli’. Like the Hungarian and Slovak prime ministers, Zeman has repeatedly criticized the EU sanctions on the Russian financial, energy and defence sectors. Although his foreign policy powers are limited, Zeman’s re-election could reduce somewhat the prospects for the renewal of the sanctions when these come up for renewal in the summer. Perhaps more worryingly, the presidential election has already given rise to fears about ‘fake news’ and Russian interference. Regardless of its limited potential effect on foreign policy decisions, this electoral contest is likely to go down in history as another chapter in Russia’s cyber-attacks on the West.

The second international dimension concerns the future of the EU. The Czech presidential election takes place in a political situation where the Central European states are very divided over the Hungarian and Polish governments’ ‘backsliding’ on their countries’ commitments to liberal democracy and the rule of law, and the norms and laws they signed up to as members of the European Union. Again the formal powers of the Czech president are limited. It will be the government that decides on how to vote on any censuring of Poland. So far, only Hungary’s Fidesz has threatened to veto sanctions against Poland under the European Union’s Article 7 over breach of fundamental values of the EU (in this case, the rule of law). Bulgarian prime minister Bouko Borisov (the chair of the EU Council of Ministers for the first half of 2018), said he ‘would lose sleep’ over the question. Some others, such as Austria’s conservative-populist government (which is close to Fidesz) and the Croat government, are playing their cards close to their chests. While Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán had made it clear that he considers action against Poland an attack on all of Central Europe, his Czech and Slovak counterparts have been more careful to avoid too close association with the EU’s ‘backsliding’ black sheep. Under Article 7, a four-fifths majority of member states (i.e. 22 states) is required to determine the ‘clear risk of a serious breach’ (after that, unanimity would be required to determine ‘the existence’ of such a breach, which could then lead to sanctions). Could a strengthened Zeman-Babiš team shift the balance in the Visegrád 4? And tip the balance if the Italian election in March propels right- or left-wing populists to power, and/or the uncertainty around Brexit makes the UK abstain? 

The answer will depend on how the Czech domestic politics game plays out after the election. When the European Parliament voted on a resolution to criticise Fidesz over its government’s democratic backsliding in May 2017, the fault line in the European People’s Party between the parties that protected their errant sister party ran from north-west to south east: the Italians, Spaniards and Germans joined the Czech, Slovak, Hungarian and Balkan conservatives in closing ranks around Fidesz. But both Babiš and Jiří Drahoš are committed to a pro-EU and Atlanticist foreign policy. More to the point, Babiš has explicitly distanced himself from the Polish and Hungarian governments’ efforts to centralise power and limit the rule of law. In the event of a Drahoš-victory, the prospects for the Czechs moving closer to Poland and Hungary in a ‘backsliders alliance’ are therefore weak. But in the event of a Zeman victory – and especially one that is associated with Russian interference – the waters could become muddier. Zeman has already demonstrated a tendency to disregard constitutional convention, notably when he appointed a ‘technocratic’ caretaker government in 2013 and delayed new elections despite its lost vote of confidence. 

Although the Czechs are unlikely to follow the Polish and Hungarian path, a shift closer to their two illiberal regional partners could have a negative effect on the EU’s will to confront democratic backsliding. The Commission can count to 22. With Budapest and Sofia sympathetic to Warsaw, and question-mark hanging over Zagreb, Vienna and London –  and possibly post-election Rome – even a degree of uncertainty about the position in Prague might be enough to prevent the next step toward a censure of Poland. In what promises to be a turbulent year for the EU, political developments in the Czech Republic could become important for Central Europe’s future in the EU.

The authors are writing in a personal capacity and their views do not represent the TransCrisis consortium as a whole.

The Rise of Transboundary Crises: Surveying Crisis Management Capital

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Arjen Boin, Lavinia Cadar and Maureen Weller

The prospect of transboundary crises forces governments to reassess their crisis management toolbox. In recent years, modern systems have proven frightfully sensitive to disruptions that originated in some unrelated faraway domain. The financial crisis, the flood of immigrants, the threat of cyber warfare – these are all examples of transboundary crises. These crises do not respect borders and create daunting challenges for governance.

The TransCrisis consortium is investigating these challenges and exploring how governments can prepare for transboundary crises. It is clear that transboundary threats require new forms of governance. Time-proven processes and ways of organizing are no match for the transboundary crisis. Governments need to work across boundaries to create the crisis management ‘capital’ that is required to minimize the impact of these events.

What might that ‘capital’ look like? According to our perspective, this includes all the organizational means, processes, and experiences that are relevant to the fulfilment of the strategic tasks that typically demand attention in any large-scale crisis response (these tasks are derived from Boin et al, 2016).

We recognize five tasks:
1. Early detection: recognizing that something is afoot that may have an impact in one’s domain.
2. Sense-making: understanding what is happening during the crisis.
3. Critical decision-making and coordination: recognizing which decisions must be taken now, and making sure these decisions are made and implemented.
4. Crisis communication: explaining to the public what is happening and what people should do (and should not do).
5. Accounting: explain to relevant institutions how the crisis was handled and why it was handled that way.

The underlying assumption is simple: the better these tasks are handled, the better the crisis response is likely to be. If one accepts this assertion, several questions arise: What do we have available? Is our organization ready to fulfil these tasks? What, exactly, should we be looking for to answer these questions?

It is not easy to assess an organization’s crisis preparedness, especially if you do not know what to look for in an organization or in a sector.

The TransCrisis consortium has created a tool to do exactly that. We designed a survey tool that helps to ask the right questions and quickly gauge the crisis readiness of an organization or set of organizations. It measures the transboundary crisis management capital of an organization. The Survey consists of questions that should be answerable without deep knowledge about the organization. The answers provide the input for a ‘performance dashboard’ that one can use to track the organization’s crisis management capital over time. The surveyor is invited to provide a grade for each question, which allows for an overall score. The questions and the scores generate three types of input: on preparation, on available means, and on the legitimacy base an organization or policy sector needs to perform well during a crisis. These are the indicators of the dashboard.

The Survey tool follows three steps:
Step 1: Decide what the object of analysis is. The tool can be used in three different ways:
a) Take a crisis, identify the organizations that play(ed) a role in the response, and score their capacities to deal with that particular crisis.
b) Take an organization and assess its capacities to deal with a crisis.
c) Take a policy sector, identify potential risks, identify the organizations that play a role in the response, and score their capacities to deal with crises that may flow from those risks.
Step 2: Determine the weight of the three performance categories and assign “earnable” points for each question.
Step 3: Collect data to answer the questions and complete the dashboard.

The Survey Tool can be accessed here and also provides for illustrations drawn from TransCrisis research.

This tool serves the needs of both practitioners and academics. For instance, an agency director can use it to assess the organisation’s readiness level to respond to transboundary crises. The survey will help to identify the capacities the organisation is lacking in order to inform strategic decisions on budget and training for crisis management. For researchers, this tool helps to compare the readiness and performance of organizations that may be involved in transboundary crisis responses.

To be truly effective, this tool requires further fine-tuning by being tested against known failures and successes. For that reason, we invite practitioners and academics to use this tool and provide us with their feedback.

Arjen Boin, Paul ‘t Hart, Eric Stern and Bengt Sundelius (2016). The Politics of Crisis Management. Cambridge University Press (second edition).

The authors are writing in a personal capacity and their views do not represent the TransCrisis consortium as a whole. The authors are based at Crisisplan BV in Leiden, The Netherlands (

The Polish Question and the EU’s Illiberal Populism Dilemma

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Martin Lodge and Nick Sitter

On December 20th, 2017, the European Commission formally posed the Polish Question: Can the EU tolerate that a member state breaches the Union’s fundamental laws and values? At some point in 2018, under the procedure laid down in Article 7 of the Treaty of the European Union, the other 27 member states might well be called upon to answer this question; first by a four-fifth majority vote on whether Poland is indeed in ‘clear breach’, and later – if applicable – by unanimity on whether to impose sanctions.

The Polish Question is about much more than the Polish government’s effort to limit the independence and power of its own judiciary. Ever since Vladimir Mečiar’s efforts to centralise political power in Slovakia in the mid-1990s (which the EU dealt with by relegating the country to the membership slow lane, until Mečiar lost power in 1998) and the right wing populist FPÖ joining the Austrian government after the 1999 election (when the other EU states responded by ‘monitoring’ the coalition), the EU has reluctantly prepared to deal with the possibility that a less than fully liberal democratic party might one day come to power in one of its member states. Article 7 provided the means for censuring such a government; Article 50 was designed to give an authoritarian state an exit option.

Since the Hungarian right-populist Fidesz won absolute power (including the two-thirds majority needed to rewrite the constitution) in 2010, that country has introduced a number of laws and measures that push at the boundaries of EU law. Journalists, politicians and academics have introduced the term ‘backsliding’ to capture the state’s gradual going back on its commitments to the fundamental values of the EU, and indeed to (constitutional) liberal democracy. Prime minister Viktor Orbán chose the term ‘illiberal democracy’ to sum up his idea of an alternative political system.

So why has it become a Polish Question, and why has the Hungarian question remained lower-case? Part of the answer is that Hungary could be dismissed as an accident or a coincidence (a long time after the Slovak and Austrian false alarms), and that in any case it was a small country. When the new Polish government took action against its own judiciary in late 2015, backsliding began to look like a pattern. And perhaps as importantly, Fidesz enjoyed the protection that its membership of the European People’s Party offered, whereas PiS’ main domestic rival is an EPP-member. But the Commission’s taking action against Poland also puts the pressure on Hungary. The question is whether other EPP members will continue to back Fidesz if Orbán lives up to his promise to veto any action against Poland. If the Hungarian prime minister’s close relationship with Bavaria’s Christian Democrats (the CSU) and Austria’s Sebastian Kurz is anything to go by, this issue could divide European conservatives (and the German government) right down the middle.

In the wider European context, it is perhaps fortunate for the EU that the Commission targeted Poland rather than Hungary. The Hungarian prime minister has made no secret of his admiration for the Russian president, and hinted that there is always the danger that if the EU is not nice to Fidesz then the more extreme right wing Jobbik lurks in the wings. Poland lacks the obvious (more) extreme-right challenge, and for historical reasons can hardly look to Vladimir Putin for help.

The EU faces a unique challenge from the right-wing populist governments in Hungary and Poland, and their ‘illiberal democracy’ project. The Hungarian strategy can be described as one of disloyalty – an effort to creatively comply with the letter of the EU law (see here). This pattern of creative compliance has increasingly centralised political power to an extent that is ultimately incompatible with the EU’s legal and political system. The big dilemma for the EU is that inaction undermines the credibility of the Union (and timid action against Fidesz emboldened not only the Polish government, but also its Slovak and Romanian counterparts); whereas invoking Article 7 is unlikely to lead to sanctions and might well backfire.

This dilemma is particularly serious because the Polish and Hungarian crisis involves not only regular right-wing populism, but also Euro-scepticism and illiberal ideology. This is not a classic anti-elite revolt by alternative groups that want access to the political power and exaggerate their rhetoric on the campaign trail; it is direct onslaught on the very rules of the liberal democratic game.

It is far too easy to dismiss Fidesz and PiS as part of a broader new populist wave. Although Hungary and Poland are part of a broader anti-elite backslash against consensus politics, they are a far cry from the Nordic and Dutch Protest parties of the 1970s and 1990s and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, or even the hard right of Le Pen and Wilders. Fidesz and PiS fit this broader pattern at first sight, but present a bigger problem for the EU. The Nordic, Dutch and French populists’ rejection of the Social Democrat-Christian Democrat consensus on the welfare state, the social market economy and immigration is a policy challenge. The Greek, Italian, British populist Eurosceptics added political challenges as well. But Fidesz and PiS represent a challenge to the very integrity of the EU system.

To be sure, Fidesz and PiS draw on the three elements of populism found elsewhere in Europe: the Nordic, Dutch and Berlusconian populists’ claim to represent the ‘real’ people; the Euroscepticism of the Cinque Stelle and Greek populists on both flanks; and the nativism of Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders and Matteo Salvini. But they base this on a (self-declared ‘Christian’) nationalist ideology – established in opposition not only to the centre-left but also presented as an effort to define the post-communist right against more pro-EU and market-liberal rivals – and they derive from it an open distrust of the institutions of liberal democracy.

The most important dimension of the Polish and Hungarian populism is that it is a challenge to understandings about what constitutional democracy is about – and that this has brought the two parties to power. Fidesz and PiS go further than most West European populists in their open distrust of liberal democracy, most notably the idea that governments should be constrained by the rule of law. Like other populist parties they claim a unique insight into what the genuine ‘general will’ of the people is; but unlike their counterparts elsewhere in Europe they have both the will and the means to translate this into a power-centralising project designed to diminish the chances of them ever losing another election. Populist parties in Norway, Italy, Austria and Denmark moderated their rhetoric when they entered the corridors of power; Viktor Orbán and Jarosław Kaczyński amplified it – and matched it with action.

It is this challenge to the rule of law and liberal democracy, not the ideological challenge or policies that jar with existing EU policies, that is the big problem for the EU. Protectionism and unorthodox economic policy might be a challenge, but the EU is robust enough to weather that. The problem is when it comes with centralization of political power in a way that undermines the basics principles the EU was established to defend – democracy, freedom and the rule of law.

So where is the dilemma for the EU? The problem is that Poland has so far ignored the Commission’s measures under the EU’s Rule of Law Framework, secure in the knowledge that Hungary can veto any Article 7 sanctions. Inaction encourages further backsliding, but action might simply expose the limits of the EU’s capacity. This probably explains the Commission’s reluctance even to use its ordinary infringement powers against Hungary to their full extent, and its slow and wary road to confrontation with Poland.

But the dilemma is even worse than that. Even a degree of success in the Commission’s confrontation with Poland – such as the German government taking the lead and mobilising a four-fifths majority censure vote in the Council – could end up exacerbating relations between most of the EU and its more populist governments. If this emboldens states such as Sweden in their quest to link EU funding to compliance with EU rules in the next Multiannual Financial Framework, it could tip the balance between the costs and benefits of EU membership for illiberal governments. When Norway confronted the Fidesz government over is abuse of power and suspended the European Economic Area funds, this had the desired effect of reversing Hungarian policy. But a wider confrontation over EU funds could also end up pushing Poland and Hungary out of the Union.

In a real policy dilemma, the only way out is to choose one of the two possible courses of action. Inaction rarely solves the problem. The EU has already lost the opportunity to deal with backsliding when it was a minor challenge. It must now address it before it becomes a systemic crisis. Is it worth taking the risk that the EU loses two or more member states, or is it better to risk that the EU’s legal system is undermined? The Commission has now played the ball over to the member states. Let’s hope it is not too late!

The authors are writing in a personal capacity and their views do not represent the TransCrisis consortium as a whole.

Policy schools in the age of identity politics

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Martin Lodge, Nick Sitter and Kai Wegrich

Back in the post-First World War era, the field of public administration was established to respond to the social upheaval of demilitarization, economic turmoil, expanding electorates, new political parties and labour movements. Similarly, the rise of ‘policy analysis’ was a response to the devastating experiences of the Second World War, and a belief in technocratic solutions and analytical skills provided by ‘wiz kids’. Concern with policy was also at the heart of the expansion of policy-related research and teaching in view of the expansion of the welfare state in the late 1960s and 1970s.

A century since the end of the First World War, national and international politics and economics are again in turmoil. National politics are shaped by new cleavages surrounding identity and the rise of populist parties; European integration is being challenged by referenda (‘Brexit’) and nationalist governments adopting policies hostile to basic principles of the rule of law, in some cases going as far as sanctioning extreme-right movements and anti-semitism. Multilateral organisations are said to face existential threats. Traditional sources of policy expertise are criticised and dismissed; ‘fake news’ have become a defining characteristic of populist leaders with authoritarian ambitions. In short, what has been identified as an age of identity politics is perceived as a threat to many certainties of late 20th century politics.

What role can contemporary public policy schools play in this changing and demanding context? Do they have anything to contribute? Or are they stuck in a world of elite hobnobbing across international conference venues, airport lounges and intercontinental conference calls? At first sight such questions may seem surprising. After all, hardly a month goes by during which one university or another does not announce a new public policy-related initiative. However, a closer look reveals more deep-seated problems. Public policy schools need to seriously reconsider their role in this ‘identity’ politics age of the 21st century.

The rise of public policy schools was about bringing knowledge, expertise and analytical skills to executive government and the design of public service. They were supposed to ‘train’ and ‘network’ leaders and directly contribute to the better design and delivery of policy programmes to address major global, national and local policy problems. Success is measured in terms of contribution to solving specific policy problems, for example, climate change, derelict housing estates or energy self -sufficient bus shelters. Instead of ‘theory’, there is faith in ‘what works’ when designing individual policy interventions. The technocratic economic-managerial problem-solving bias of this undertaking is partly complemented by an emphasis on ‘governance’ that is supposed to signal the importance of hybrid forms of governing (across local, national and international levels) involving collaboration and negotiation among state and non-state actors.

This broad orientation in public policy schools has traditionally been delivered in three different (sometimes overlapping) flavours. One is the particular economics-based flavour. Accordingly, ‘rigorous’ analysis using latest quantitative methodologies is the basis on which all decisions should be taken. A second flavour is more oriented towards the need to address ‘global’ policy problems; accordingly, the search here is for understanding and supporting international actor networks, organisations and transnational regulation. A third, more managerial flavour focuses on questions of measuring performance and supporting collaboration and leadership so as to identify public value.

We observe three responses to the underlying societal, political and institutional dynamics that shape the contemporary context of identity politics. These can be characterised to be of the unreflective ‘must try harder’ kind.

One response, building on the first (economics-based) flavour is to add to the methodological fire-power. Adding a few field and ‘laboratory’ experiments to the tool-set and giving a nod or two to ‘behavioural insights’ is supposed to address questions of great societal relevance (‘usable knowledge’). If evidence gets contested, we need to produce ‘harder’ evidence. Big data is said to come to the rescue. However, whether such a ‘factual knowledge’ approach, based on a continued commitment towards methodological individualism, is going to support organisational decision-making by executive governments in an age of ‘post-factual’ politics is questionable, especially when all ‘facts’ are part of the conflict between highly polarised societal cleavages.

The second response is to increasingly ‘go global’. Transboundary policy challenges are proliferating, and therefore there has to be growing awareness about transboundary governance at the international level. The problem here, however, is that policies are ultimately also local: the ‘go global’ orientation is interested in overcoming horizontal boundaries between states and business and NGOs, but ignores the (vertical) organisational boundaries  and administrative limitations that occur at the national and sub-national levels.

The third ‘must try harder’ response is to rely on ‘better management’ to understand a world full of ‘(mega-) wicked issues’. Hybridity and mediation are said to be defining features of contemporary governance, and so is performance management. Post-financial crisis, a growing concern has also been paid to ‘ethics’. By offering the latest interpretation of how to achieve ‘public value’, social innovation or collaborative ‘leadership’, underpinned by some case study or another, international elites are prepared to respond to critical policy challenges. The problem here is unfortunately that these case-story materials are highly context-dependent. More fundamentally, there is an emphasis on charismatic leadership in which everyone is supposed to be a ‘leader’, setting up and leading their own unit, agency or NGO. Such an emphasis on change-makers reinforces contemporary managerial fashions that have missed the importance of the mid-level in any organisation.

Is this really all that public policy schools can offer? If we take seriously the view that all expertise is part of societal conflict, that elites are part of a cleavage between ‘somewheres’ and ‘anywheres’, and that these somewheres and anywheres communicate in their own exclusive (social media) echo chambers, then can public policy schools move outside their own little echo chambers? Can public policy schools be more than just an amplifier of their own social movement?

We are of course exaggerating the problem. There is plenty of activity among public policy schools to engage with this new age of identity politics, whether it is by hosting conferences, arranging public events or by embarking on new avenues, such as by focusing on digitalisation and democracy. Students need to be exposed to latest scholarship. However, if programmes and curricula are the central aspect of a public policy school’s mission, then some fundamental elements need to be addressed. This means that populism, polarisation and new cleavages have to be taken seriously so as to understand better the context of actual public policy making. This context does not occur in the confines of ‘laboratories’.

Instead, what is required is a greater emphasis on the substantive understanding of policy. While we all know about the importance of ‘analytical’ and boundary-spanning competencies so as to allow for cross-sectoral application of policy-analysis skills, this cannot come at the expense of understanding how organisations in a political context actually ‘work’, how legal and constitutional boundaries need navigating and what the particular technical challenges in certain policy domains are. We also need a growing emphasis on fairness and acceptability of public policies in order to seriously engage with the (usually voiceless) vulnerable.

What is also required is a more direct exposure to the real world at the coalface of public policy. This is the world of the social housing estate, the nursing home, the meat and drinking water inspector, the banking supervisor, prison warden, the data analyst and cyber-security official as well as the tax and welfare office; it is the world of dealing with socio-economic and ethnic difference. It is at this level where the world of great expectations meets complex reality. It is at this level where austerity becomes real, where abstract conflicts become real fights and the coping strategies of the street level bureaucrat become the actual policy that not only decides about the kind of services people need and receive – but also the way the state is experienced and perceived by those that are said to be estranged from politics and institutions.

Such an ambition is far from new. UC Berkeley in the 1960s ran a multi-year Oakland project (under then dean Aaron Wildavsky). One of these research projects eventually fed into the seminal book on ‘Implementation’ (by Pressman and Wildavsky). Students, researchers and faculty were exposed to the coalface of policy making and public administration in a truly unruly context. Such a theory-informed programme is difficult to deliver – it requires trust between the different parties. It is also difficult to deliver in the context of ever-shorter and intensive executive programmes that involve time-poor students with highly demanding jobs. It is also difficult to deliver such courses which are potentially disruptive to a well-healed clientele used to getting their ways in terms of demanding ‘content’.

However, if public policy schools want to be part of the solution rather than remain part of the problem of the contemporary age of identity politics, then they need to transpose an Oakland spirit into their contemporary offerings. This might, at first, prove demanding, given financial business models, donor and student expectations and academic career incentives. However, such considerations should ultimately not trump the ultimate purpose of public policy schools, namely to offer the springboard for an advanced ‘speaking truth to power’, even in an age in which power is dispersed and sources of truth are contested.

The authors are writing in a personal capacity and their views do not represent the TransCrisis consortium as a whole.

The Catalan dispute: A new transboundary crisis in Europe?

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By Jacint Jordana, IBEI

Over the past few weeks, the Catalan dispute with the Spanish government has attracted international attention. While the non-negotiated referendum on self-determination held in Catalonia on 1 October (1-O), which was forbidden, persecuted and partially blocked by the Spanish executive and judiciary, made the global headlines, this case has been incubating for at least the last five years as tension between these two levels of government in Spain has grown.

This is a very complex territorial dispute that we do not aim to interpret or disentangle here. The dispute has increasingly hardened and we still do not know if it will escalate even further. The conflict has diversified into many battlefields; it involves the legal and constitutional dispute, the political legitimation argument, economic struggles to influence firms to move their location, frenetic foreign policy pressure, and competing journalistic narratives on the logic and justification of the dispute.

This is an extraordinary territorial dispute, an (almost) non-violent war in Europe, that also involves two global cities (Barcelona and Madrid) sharing the same state, where the former perceives there to be a lack of state support to compete globally. The dispute has not ended and currently we are witnessing a peak in political tension between these territories. It is therefore very difficult to predict what will happen after the crisis.

Our purpose here is to discuss whether this conflict can be considered a European transboundary crisis. In addition, we consider the potential implications, in the short and long term, of these developments from a European-wide perspective. First, we should establish the preferences of the Spanish and Catalan actors as to the role of European institutions. On the one side, the Spanish government frames the dispute as an internal territorial issue, one of misbehaviour by a subnational government that has to be addressed according to existing constitutional tools. On the other side, the Catalan government aims to Europeanise the conflict, expecting EU institutions to act as mediators in the dispute between the two levels of government.

We can identify some clear evidence of the involvement of EU institutions during the weeks after the referendum. For example, the European Parliament had a debate on the Catalan referendum a few days after the referendum, on 4 October. Also, some EU Commission officials made declarations about the importance of respecting the constitution, but also asked for dialogue and negotiation between the two sides. Possibly more significant was the direct intervention of the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk. On the same day (10 October) the Catalan President was expected to declare Catalonia’s independence, Tusk declared on Twitter: ‘I appeal to @KRLS not to announce a decision that would make dialogue impossible.’ This apparently deterred the declaration of independence that day. Thus, it is clear that different EU institutions were directly involved during the two weeks after the Catalan referendum, not taking sides, but advising on two main issues: respecting the Spanish constitutional rules, but also starting a dialogue between the two parties.

Many reasons exist for EU institutions to be involved in this politico-territorial crisis, but two are most evident. First, there are the European-wide financial risks this crisis could trigger, considering the heavily indebted Spanish state and the weakness of the Spanish economy. A sudden paralysis in Catalonia could have direct effects in many European economies. Existing connections and interdependencies could attract risk-takers from the entire world to bid against the Spanish treasury. Second, a massive violation of citizen rights in Europe, if it happened, could seriously undermine European soft-power worldwide. This is not a minor issue as European soft-power is the most powerful weapon European countries have. Police attacks on voters, even for a non-legal referendum, are not easy to digest and raises concerns about the ability of European countries to manage their territorial conflicts.

Apparently, the EU’s involvement in dealing with this crisis was quite effective as political tensions de-escalated and independence was not declared. However, since then, the expected dialogue has not materialised. The Catalan and Spanish governments did not establish any form of conversation. There was only a letter from the Spanish government to request the Catalan government’s obedience to Spanish law. This letter prompted a critical reply by the Catalan government, which conceded, however, that independence had not been declared. In any case, it appears that this exchange took more account of the respective electoral constituencies than anything else. At the same time, a request made by the Catalan government to look for a conflict mediator, either appointed by EU institutions or jointly nominated, was rejected out of hand by the Spanish government.

This episode illustrates a more profound disagreement: the Spanish government considers a hierarchical logic in its relationship with Catalonia, derived from the unitary nature of the Spanish state and its administrative culture. In contrast, the Catalan government intends to establish a horizontal relationship with the Spanish government, arguing that sovereignty also emerges from the Catalan parliament and the Catalan citizens, as expressed in the 1–O referendum and previous regional elections. Arguing this, the Catalan government would easily concede that, due to the plebiscite’s unclear procedures, there is always the possibility to convene a new, mutually accepted self-determination referendum. However, the Spanish government is not open to this option, insisting on the subordinate character of Catalan institutions to the Spanish-wide ones.

A new episode of EU involvement occurred during the European Council on 19 and 20 October. This was a turning point regarding the role of EU institutions in dealing with this politico-territorial crisis. Despite several attempts by EU officials to include the Catalan case on the Council agenda, the Spanish government successfully resisted, arguing that this was an internal matter. According to some press reports, a final attempt was made during the Council meeting when Angela Merkel asked Mariano Rajoy if he had anything to say regarding the Catalan case. Rajoy did not answer. After that meeting, some politicians recognised the limits of EU institutions in playing a major role in the conflict when the member state concerned is not interested. Tusk said at the time: ‘All of us have our own emotions, opinions, assessments, but formally speaking there is no space for an EU intervention.’

However, the positions of member states were far from homogeneous. While large and centralist countries like France were the most supportive of Rajoy, some small countries with a history of self-determination struggles, or with highly decentralised structures, sympathised with the Catalan position. In the end, a sort of political realism prevailed and an informal consensus emerged in the sense that any reaction against the Madrid government might create problems for future EU decision-making processes.

Backed by the non-discussion of the Catalan case at the European Council, the Spanish government reacted quickly to prepare its intervention on the Catalan semi-autonomous government, taking over the Catalan key institutions and firing top Catalan government officials, including its president. This was consistent with the hierarchical power logic declared by the Spanish government. It discarded any type of external mediation between the two governments that might have opened up a political dialogue as to the restructuring of territorial politics in Spain or any other possible outcome. To this end, Rajoy accepted a vague promise to reform the Spanish constitution soon, aiming to maximise support among Madrid’s political and economic elites, while ignoring or dividing Catalan ones.

The Catalan crisis is still far from being resolved, or even stabilised. The millions of Catalan citizens that did participate in the referendum cannot be disregarded completely. In other words, the elephant is still in the room. EU institutions have stepped back and have not encouraged any dialogue or mediation, despite their claims immediately after the referendum. Thus, is the Catalan case actually a transboundary European crisis? Despite there being no formal involvement of EU institutions, it is evident that it is a crisis that is debated intensively by the European media, closely scrutinised by European institutions, and that might be having potential economic and social consequences for all European countries.  In fact, it is a crisis Europe cannot evade.

Salient transboundary crises emerge in Europe quite often. Those kind of crises relate to the environment, public health, financial markets or other issues that arise from the interdependencies of integrated and integrating markets, entrenched multi-level public policy and the emerging European citizenship. Whatever is creating a big shock in one corner of the EU might have consequences for the entire Union, either in terms of reputation, public health or material welfare. Multiple mechanisms and institutions have been created at the EU level to cope with transboundary crises of this type and, most importantly, to prevent them in the future. The newly created banking crisis schemes are a case in point.

However, Europe lacks effective mechanisms to cope with political crises, despite the complexities of the emerging European polity. Whether it is a threat to the constitutional division of powers, the presence of a salient territorial dispute, or the restriction on constitutional rights, such dynamics at the member state level are currently dealt with through inter-governmental procedures, basically at the European Council. Member state governments are naturally very reluctant to have other member states meddle in their domestic affairs. The existing procedures, as already illustrated in the case of Poland and Hungary, are very slow, they are very modest in their impact, and, what is much worse, they do not provide credibility-enhancing mechanisms to ensure that democratic institutions work, or that political compromises are respected.

The author of this blog writes in a personal capacity and does not represent the TransCrisis project team as a whole.

German politics – steady course in uncharted waters?

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By Martin Lodge, carr

The 2017 federal elections in Germany highlight the fragmented nature of German society. Beneath the appearance of stability under Chancellor Merkel, the tectonics of electoral politics seem to have shifted under the challenges of the Euro and refugee crises. While the vote shares for the two main parties, the Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) and the Social Democrats (SPD) are at historically low levels, another major source of concern is the rise of the right-extreme ‘Alternative für Deutschland’ (AfD). Germany – internationally regarded as the exceptional island of electoral and economic stability only a few days ago – seems not that different from other countries anymore.

But what does the result mean for the forthcoming years, for German and for wider European politics?

Turning to German politics first, few major developments can be any time soon. As the different parties digest the election results of the regional election in Lower Saxony, initial coalition talks will be announced. In the meantime, parties will seek to mark their territory in public, while leaving sufficient room for manoeuvre for the inevitable compromises in the coalition agreement and over cabinet portfolios.

The SPD has indicated that it will not consider joining any government and will therefore lead the opposition in the Bundestag. Whether this position will be sustainable over time remains to be seen, should the other coalition option fall by the wayside. For the moment, this leaves Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats with the sole option to form a coalition with the Liberal FDP and the Greens in a so-called ‘Jamaica’ coalition (signifying the different political parties’ colours). Outside local government, ‘Jamaica’ type coalition arrangements have been trialled only twice before, coming undone in the Saarland (‘Saarmaica’) after two years, but functioning relatively smoothly in Schleswig Holstein. However, that arrangement is only of very recent origin.

For some, it is very difficult to see how economic liberals, green environmentalist and conservatives can easily work together at the federal level, especially after a campaign in which the Greens and the FDP directly attacked each other. Attempts at joint working will become even more difficult given the position of the Bavarian CSU which suffered disproportionate losses and faces its own Land election next year. Any agreement at the federal level is therefore likely to be most affected by an election-nervy Bavarian coalition partner with a keen eye on outmuscling the AfD on issues relating to migration and highlighting that it managed to impose its imprint on the coalition agreement. The regional elections in Lower Saxony are likely to cause further concern. Some will argue that they suggest insufficient understanding by the CDU politicians in power of the need to take the federal election results seriously. FDP and Green politicians will look with some concern at their electoral prospects. Under such conditions, it is difficult to see how a coalition can function for more than a few years before it will come crushing down on internal disagreements, whether it is due to declining electoral popularity in forthcoming Land elections, divided party memberships (especially in the case of the Greens), concern about leadership succession (especially in the cases of the CDU and the CSU) or dissent over key electoral promises.

At the same time, a Jamaica coalition might work if it calibrates its priorities carefully around the different parties’ core interests. There are areas of overlap among these parties, whether it is about tax reform, environmental and agricultural policies, and the need to enhance digital (and other) infrastructures. Agreement on a points-based immigration system is likely to pitch Liberals and Greens against a divided larger CDU/CSU coalition partner. Coalition conflicts are most likely to emerge over the means to achieve certain goals than the goals themselves. In other words, Jamaica may just work if it can overcome squabbling and the various anxieties, for example, that the smaller coalition parties will be dominated by the Christian Democrats on the one side, or the fear that the Christian Democrats will be held at ransom by their coalition parties on the other.

But what about Europe? Anyone hoping that the final months of 2017 would be defined by major EU initiatives is likely to be disappointed, especially if coalition negotiations will take until late December, if not longer. Stabilising the European Union will remain at the heart of German policy, especially, in the context of external challenges, (Ukraine, Brexit, Trump, increasing backsliding on EU commitments by fellow member states, such as Hungary and Poland, Turkey). None of the Jamaica coalition partners disagrees with the view that the European Union and its stability remains at the heart of Germany’s interests.

Despite this broad agreement, the disagreements about the appropriate way forward point to some major tensions in the future. Plans to launch major initiatives to advance European integration at large (as reflected in Juncker’s recent speech at the European Parliament) or deepening the Eurozone by advocating redistributive mechanisms will face resistance by German Liberals and conservative Christian Democrats. They will also be attacked by the AfD. However, there is agreement on the importance of deepening European-level solutions, especially in the areas of migration, in defence or civil protection. And whether resistance to a ‘transfer union’ cannot be circumvented by carefully linking tight financial control with more redistribution in the Eurozone is also an open question.

German politics is moving into uncharted waters with a potential Jamaica coalition in federal government and with a party of the extreme right, the AfD, in the federal parliament. That party is most likely to make headlines for infighting between its ‘moderate’ and radical wings and attempts at scandalising political debate. For some, therefore, new coalition politics and rise of right-extreme parties in parliament highlight a substantial weakening of the ingredients that have ensured that Germany played the role as stabiliser in European affairs in the past (i.e. stable coalitions at the centre, widespread resistance to right-extreme discourse).

There is however also another view that points to broad stability in outlook even when party systems seem to be fragmenting: The inbuilt constitutional mechanisms that emphasise stability and compromise as well as the commitment to seek European solutions means that the broad trajectories in German policy, especially European policy will continue. This stability on the one hand and more complex politics at the national level on the other might encourage continued ‘muddling through’ rather than grand visions at the EU-level, but it nevertheless involves a pragmatic approach to European-wide challenges.


An earlier version of this blog was published here . The author of this blog writes in a personal capacity and does not represent the TransCrisis project team as a whole.

Beware of calls for strong and visionary European leadership

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By Femke van Esch, University of Utrecht

The multiple crises the European Union (EU) has faced over the past decade have triggered repeated calls for more strong and visionary EU leadership. Recently, such calls have been replaced by structural plans to fortify the EU’s internal leadership. In his recent State of the Union, for instance, Commission President Juncker proposed to merge the presidencies of the European Commission and European Council for the EU. According to Juncker, the EU would function better with one captain at the helm. In addition, French President Macron has been touring European capitals, advocating the creation of a European minister of finance for the Eurozone to help weather future crises. Irrespective of the details of these plans, both proposals aim to provide the EU with stronger and more centralised leadership.

The emergence of such plans should not come as a surprise. They fit a general pattern that occurs during times of crisis: When faced with an urgent threat and faltering decision making power, calls for strong visionary leadership are never far away. In the EU context, they are usually directed at the political leader of the most powerful state (‘Empress Merkel’), the Franco-German axis, or the President of the European Commission. Moreover, such calls are often accompanied by nostalgic reminiscing about particular historic European leaders who – according to legend – did have the resolve, personality and vision to provide ‘true’ leadership. According to such claims the EU would not be in such disarray, if only Chancellor Merkel had the European commitment of Helmut Kohl, if only Jacques Delors had still been at the helm, if only the current Franco-German axis was rooted in a personal bond as strong as that between Adenauer and De Gaulle.

Though somewhat naive, there is a certain logic to this perspective: when the institutions, the directives and the inter-institutional agreements fail, when political negotiations appear hopelessly deadlocked, agency and power are the only factors left to turn to. The idea that an institutional perspective explains stability, but a combination of agency, ideas and power is needed to understand change is well-rooted in the theoretical state of the art on (European) policy change. So, when faced with large-scale crises it is only logical that all eyes turn on the transformative potential embodied in key European leaders.

However, as a diagnosis of, and solution to the EU’s problems this view is one-sided, unrealistic and morally flawed. First, accounts of the leadership and achievements of supposedly great historical leaders are often simplified and a-historical. Critical in-depth analyses reveal that the French-German motor often faltered and that the successes of Jacques Delors and Helmut Kohl were highly dependent on the broader political context.

Moreover, academic studies suggest that capable leadership only accounts for a fraction of a successful outcome. It is evident that the opportunity to learn from historical successes is limited for the simple reason that both the European political arena as well as the European electorate has undergone dramatic change. The enlargement of the EU to 28 (soon to be 27) states not only makes reliance on leadership by one (or a tandem of) member state(s) politically unlikely, it also severely limits the room for pan-European agreement.

In addition, recent years have seen a trend towards the polarisation of European politics and the euro crisis has shown that the EU has significant distributive consequences for its member states and people. This has not only led to a divergence of interests amongst the member states, but also contributed to the rise of the so-called ‘dismissive dissensus’ among the ever more critical and better-informed European people. In such an environment even the heroes of Europe’s past would be hard pressed to offer a solution to multiple crises the EU had to face in recent years.

More fundamentally, however, is the normative question of whether we truly want strong, visionary European leaders? I suspect not. In fact, many people would argue that there have been far too many strong visionaries in the history of the European Union. Moreover, when people talk about ‘vision’ in the European context, they often mean ever-closer union, but grand plans for federalisation or political unification of the EU no longer appeal to large sections of the European population.

Finally, strong visionary leadership often implies top-down leadership. The advantages of this type of leadership are clear as it promises determinate and effective action. However, top-down leadership is at odds with the democratic ideals of the EU as well as the sovereignty of its member states and their national parliaments. Moreover, if one takes the idea seriously that leadership is a relation between leader and follower, involving hierarchy and power, the question arises on what grounds is it legitimate for the leader(s) of the EU’s most powerful states, a Commission president or a pan-European minister of finance to exert leadership over the European people(s)?

It is precisely because of these reasons that the EU decision making structure was designed to prevent decision making dominated by a single strong leader, be it a person or a state. Division of power and democracy may hamper swift and efficient decision-making, but leadership is and should be inseparable from follower’s needs and goals and never be left unchecked. There are ample examples in history or even at the EU’s current borders that illustrate the vital importance of this point. So, as Europe struggles to find a way out of its economic, refugee, rule of law, Brexit and legitimacy crises, its first imperative is not to deepen the latter in name of the former.


For a more elaborate discussion of issues related to legitimate EU leadership, see: Van Esch, F.A.W.J. (2017), The nature of the European leadership crisis and how to solve it. European Political Science, 16(1): 34-47.

The author of this blog writes in a personal capacity and does not represent the TransCrisis project team as a whole.

Catalonia’s drive for independence and the emergence of global cities

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By Jacint Jordana, Institut Barcelona d’Estudis Internacionals (IBEI)

The pro-independence movement in Catalonia has created a singular coalition that includes the beneficiaries of globalization, the elites of a global city, and those left behind by globalization.

There are two large metropolitan areas in Spain: Barcelona and Madrid. While Madrid, with a population of 6.5 million, sits in third place in Europe, after London and Paris, Barcelona is in sixth place, with nearly 5 million. The two are global capitals and compete primarily in a European and international arena, although the tensions between them can be seen as drivers of the current political-territorial dispute in Spain.

Both are members of a small group of cities – not more than a dozen in Europe – where resources and information flow at high speed, in a game of planetary dimensions. In this sense there is no direct competition between Madrid and Barcelona; it is only that they compete in the same league, each with its own strengths and weaknesses.

However, the current conflict between Catalonia and Spain cannot be fully comprehended without understanding that, in the context of globalization, both cities, and the large metropolitan areas in which are embedded, are trying to concentrate the prominence and accumulate most of the resources linked to growth and power. For this reason, any analysis of the territorial conflict in Spain should incorporate this dimension if it is to avoid falling into an outdated understanding of the current political conflict.

Asymmetric competition 

It must be understood that a metropolitan area is a top-level node in this globalized world, drawing resources from its surroundings while it distributes them. So, it requires a political articulation that normally implies the recycling of traditional state models that emerged in the 19th century, albeit with some significant changes.

Obviously, if this state recycling does not take place smoothly, adopting new functions that permit develop intense relations with other areas and territories, the development of the metropolitan area and its global position can suffer, even though (of course) it all depends on its competitive advantages. Global cities need states; in fact, they certainly need to make them theirs. A state can serve a single metropolitan area converted into a global city, as in the cases of Paris and London, or it can serve more than one, as we see in Italy and Germany. Logically, if such support is distributed, the capacity and projection of global cities does not reach the same proportions, as shown in the cases of Milan and Rome, or Berlin and Frankfurt; but note that these are cities belonging to two relatively new states, both formed in the second half of the 19th century.

Without digging into historical revisions, tensions between Barcelona and Madrid in recent decades, and especially since the start of the great economic crisis initiated in 2008, contain an element of dispute over the role of the state in supporting the construction of global cities. Barcelona’s economic, cultural and social elites perceive that they do not receive enough support from the Spanish state, since it directs its support towards turning Madrid into a global city. They complain that Spain’s model is a state with a single global city, having the largest possible projection and heaviest possible economic weight.

Madrid’s political and economic elites perceive Barcelona as something alien to their state model, and consider that in any case its global positioning should be subordinated to the objectives of promoting a single great global city in Spain. Unlike Italy or Germany, the Spanish state has bet on a single global city. Or, to put it in other way round, Madrid elites have mainly captured the state.

It is obvious that this is a conflict between the elites of two European global cities which share a state, where one of them has captured the state, to propel its own development in the global arena. Therefore, it is unsurprising that the elites of the other global city in Spain are considering the idea of building a state of their own. The awareness of such a need is a fundamental difference in the political positions in recent years of much of the Catalan elites, compared to their positions over the previous two centuries, when there were no major claims for a state of their own.

This ambition is often formulated through nationalist speech, but also with cosmopolitan arguments, and discussion of investment and the distribution of fiscal resources. In many cases, this involves a similar tension, based on the absence of a state capable of backing and assisting the position of Barcelona and its surroundings as a global city.

Without going more deeply into Spain’s current political configuration, it should be noted Spanish state’s significant weaknesses in knowledge and specialized skills. Outdated and widely inefficient recruitment procedures, an old-fashioned organizational model, and its numerous bodies of civil servants undergoing constant internal struggles and heavily corporate, have together generated a weak state when it comes to acting in a globalized environment. It is unable to autonomous leadership as to territorial matters and depends heavily on the large business corporations that have contributed to made Madrid its global capital. This interpenetration among a few national champions –that benefited from state support, and very much so, in their global expansion – and within the state itself as an organization, has been consolidated in the age of globalization, contributing to the upholding and projecting of its global city.

Will the state evolve into a model of two global cities?

It is difficult to imagine how this model can be reversed, and how Spain could adopt a state model with a number of global cities, or at least two, and evolve into a format of neutrality. There are examples in Europe, but the difficulties of such a transformation would be extreme, given the existing historical and social conditioning.

In fact, one could view the efforts to reform the Catalan Statute in 2006, and the claims for a fiscal pact for Catalonia at the beginning of the 2010s, as a bid by its political and economic elites to establish a model that would permit the absorption of additional resources and capabilities from the Spanish state, yet which would still be compatible with the state’s commitment to support Madrid as a global city.

Divergent perceptions and other commitments – all in the middle of a harsh Spanish fiscal and financial crisis – prevented the completion of such agreements, triggering higher-risk alternatives that had been discarded until that moment by the Catalan elites. Besides, EU single market and globalization also helped to consider alternative scenarios.

There’s something else

A struggle between elites of two global cities favoured very asymmetrically by a state can become bloody, but this would be a limited explanation of the aggravated social and political conflict between Spain and Catalonia over the last few years. As much as one cannot look upon the role of the state in the territory as if we were at the beginning of the 20th century, this alone is not enough to explain the mobilization capacity and the intensity of the feelings aroused. There is something else.

Globalization has not only generated the phenomenon of global cities, it has also produced profound changes in the distribution of income between different social sectors, as well as access to well-paying jobs. Following the studies of Branko Milanovic and other analysts, we know for a fact that among those left behind by globalization there are numerous segments of the middle class and skilled workers from the developed countries.

The reasons for this relative impoverishment are related to global competition that led to open trade agreements and promoted new technologies; its political consequences have become apparent in recent years. Events such as the recent election of Trump in the United States, or the UK voting in 2016 to leave the EU, are in a way related to this process of relative impoverishment of some social groups in the developed countries, to the extent that speeches calling for a reversal of globalization and a return to models of markets protected by states can now be perceived increasingly as a political option.

These developments are also present in Spain and in Catalonia – not in the form of a rise of the extreme right, fortunately, as in France or just recently in Germany, but in forms buried in numerous political behaviours, conditioned political strategies or multiple social mobilizations. We cannot analyse in detail the political implications of these social changes in Spain, but we can highlight some very visible aspects.

One central element is the challenge to the maintenance of the classical benefits of the welfare state, focused on the distribution of resources in a passive way to many social groups affected by economic changes, direct or indirect, as a result of globalization, that are especially intense in some areas of the country. To some extent, strong state support to launch a global city was legitimized by keeping such policies for large social groups across the entire Spanish territory.

To oversimplify, we could point out two large groups. There are several generations of workers who have experienced relatively stable employment and the welfare state benefits established in the 1980s by socialist governments. There are also professional sectors and large groups of young people who have enjoyed hardly any welfare safety nets, and whose prospects of stability and professional advancement are slim. Both groups share expectations and frustrations about the political-economic model, betting on different policy options to avoid welfare dismantling.

Although Catalonia benefited also from the afore mentioned territorial pact, the weight and the visibility of its global city destabilized the equation, as well as its particular social and cultural integration with different legitimate discourses. Yet in Catalonia it has generated an additional alternative, which attracts a broad segment of the second group and, possibly, some members of the first group. That alternative is the option of an independent state of Catalonia.

Setting aside its eventual plausibility, these perceptions encourage the mobilization of broad sectors of losers – or potential losers – due to globalization in Catalonia, and those who in recent years have experienced wage reductions, lack of opportunities, professional stagnation, or even exclusion from the labour market.

Among the attractions of this additional alternative are the expectations of better social benefits, because the new state will have, predictably, a greater income. There may also be higher expectations of growth, with the perception of a more sustainable economic model, as well as diffuse expectations about state-building opportunities and further potential support for professional careers.

A singular coalition

The pro-independence movement in Catalonia has created a singular coalition that includes: beneficiaries of globalization, the elites of a global city, those left behind by globalization, and the popular sectors that are losing opportunities in comparison to previous generations and are witnessing shortages or are being left out of the welfare state.

This alliance, not so conspicuous in daily politics in Catalonia, but very effective, is held together by three very important conditions. First, there is the common perception that it is a non-zero sum game bigger that zero, where everyone will benefit. Secondly, there is the shared perception of belonging to a political community, a well-defined territory with elements of cultural identity, widely recognized; and third, the balance between rural territory and a global city that does not generate major tensions.

Thus, the independence movement in Catalonia is not only a nationalist movement, although there is a strong nationalist component within it; nor is it a movement based on irrational feelings, mired in a glorious past. It is also a political response, with a strong strategic component of territorial base, to the challenges that globalisation is creating in all developed countries, particularly in its current multi-polar phase.

The struggle for survival and well-being of political communities in the developed north has just started. Global cities and regional integration mechanisms have much more capacity to adapt to these changes than European states established many centuries ago -unless they actively transform and innovate themselves. However, cities still need states.

This blog was originally published here (9 October 2017). The author of this blog writes in a personal capacity and does not represent the TransCrisis project team as a whole.