Change is coming in the European Parliament. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, Polish leader Mateusz Morawiecki, and Italian Lega party leader Matteo Salvini held a meeting in Budapest this month to discuss the establishment of a new, conservative European Parliamentary alliance. Forged after the withdrawal of the Hungarian Fidesz party from the centre-right European People’s Party, Salvini claimed the new coalition is intended to ‘make Europe great again’. The trio have agreed to meet for further discussions in Warsaw in May.
The aping of Donald Trump’s slogan suggests an attempt to replicate his brand of conservatism in Europe. Advocating a ‘European renaissance, or an alternative vision to a bureaucratic EU which has drifted away from its citizens’, the new movement has emerged following major disputes between three countries and the EU over cultural issues, such as LGBT rights and migration. Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán has claimed the coalition will focus on ‘freedom, family, Christianity and sovereignty’ – an attempt to reassert conservative values in opposition to the progressivism of the EU’s liberal western and northern members.
Traditional values in Hungary, Poland and Italy are often tied to religion. In a 2018 study, 40 per cent of Polish adults described themselves as ‘highly religious’. A 2016 poll meanwhile found 71 per cent of Italians identified as Catholic. Christian values also form a key element of government messaging in Hungary, as a symbol of traditional national identity.
This strength of religious feeling may be partly responsible for recent controversial policies in these countries, which has put them at loggerheads with Brussels. These policies include Poland’s notorious introduction of ‘LGBT-free zones‘ and its near-total ban on abortion, as well as the Hungarian government’s move to define family ‘based on marriage and the parent-child relation’, which asserts that ‘the mother is a woman and the father a man’. A recent Eurobarometer survey showed that Italy, Hungary and Poland are below the European average on acceptance of LGBT rights, with 46 per cent of Hungarians believing LGBT couples should not have the same rights as same-sex couples.
Another cultural battlefield is migration. Since the migrant crisis began in 2015, Hungary and Poland, along with Visegrád Four allies the Czech Republic and Slovakia, have been staunchly opposed to EU migrant quotas. By 2018, Hungary and Poland were supposed to have taken in 1,294 and 7,082 migrants respectively – in reality, they accepted none at all, leading the European Court of Justice to conclude they had breached their obligations under EU law.
Hungary maintains a tough military presence at its southern border to prevent migration from the western Balkans, and Hungarian politicians cite the migrant crisis as one of the biggest national security threats facing the country. Meanwhile, Lega leader Salvini, a former Italian Minister of the Interior, has long been a stern critic of EU policy on migration, bringing in a controversial immigration and security decree in 2018 limiting the rights of asylum seekers.
In the light of these disputes, the new Hungarian-Polish-Italian conservative group hopes to defend the autonomy of member states on cultural issues, while championing a notion of traditional Christian European culture.
Their stance is somewhat paradoxical, though. By promoting a dubious notion of shared Christian European values (Poland’s neighbour, the Czech Republic, is considered the most atheist country in the world), Orbán, Morawiecki and Salvini imply that conservative concerns about loss of tradition are the same throughout the bloc. In positing an idea of common European conservatism, they undermine the very idea of national individuality – and vitally unique cultural perspectives – which their new movement is meant to protect.
In attempting to safeguard national autonomy, meanwhile, the movement faces difficulties in defining at what point EU interference becomes unwelcome. Having accepted common standards on everything from farming to EU law, leaders such as Orbán and Morawiecki must make it clear under which conditions, and on which issues, external attempts to influence domestic policy pose an unacceptable threat to their countries’ cultural self-determination.
This kind of line in the sand would in fact benefit the EU as a whole. The recent Rule of Law dispute, in which Brussels attempted to make the distribution of budget funds conditional on adherence to common ethical and legal standards, showed how concerns about cultural interference could severely disrupt the bloc. Drawing clearer boundaries for EU integration would be an important step towards preventing these arguments, while providing reassurance to conservative members worried about the EU’s impulse towards ever-closer union.
Yet defining at which point EU interference becomes ‘cultural’ – and a threat to traditional values – is a thorny issue, and a challenge to both sides of the debate. The Polish abortion scandal is a case in point. The fact that national abortion laws come under the sole jurisdiction of the Polish courts did not prevent the issue from being passionately debated in the European Parliament, with MEPs calling on the EU to take action to protect women’s rights in the country.
This new conservative alliance raises important questions about the relationship between national values and the EU’s impulse towards ever-greater union. The EU must find an answer to these questions, before the yawning ideological chasm between member states grows even wider.
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