May 15, 2024

If Voters in Europe Become Responsive to Russia’s Messages, Our Liberal Democracy Loses

Large posters have been drawn to the European Parliament building in Strasbourg calling in French, English and German for participation in the European Parliament elections in early June.
Large posters have been drawn to the European Parliament building in Strasbourg calling in French, English and German for participation in the European Parliament elections in early June.

Right-wing and left-wing extremism are united by the notion of a society without liberalism. It is noteworthy that the language has changed already and so quickly, because only ten years ago no one could have imagined that liberalism would become a clear political target in Europe. However, in divided societies, it is extremely difficult to find the strength to respond to external threats, said Stefano Braghiroli, Associate Professor of European Studies at the Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies at the University of Tartu, in an interview to Diplomaatia.

The year 2024 is a big election year worldwide that will potentially test the limits of democracy. In June, EU citizens will vote on the next composition of the European Parliament. Is there a threat that Europe is going to turn right and how far right?

There is a concrete threat of the growth of the far-right, national conservative forces. I would also add that there is a risk of a general growth of what we call non-mainstream, which includes both the far right and, to some extent, the radical left. What is less likely — but I wouldn’t exclude it completely — is that it will severely affect the balance of power in the European Parliament (EP) and the overall decision-making in the EU. We know that in many countries in Western Europe and some in Central and Eastern Europe, these parties are in demand because the voters look at the EP elections as less impactful. Thus, protest voting is much more common, and these parties’ popularity will grow.

Now, the point is how this will translate into the balance of seats in the European Parliament. Traditionally, mainstream parties have 2/3, and the non-mainstream have 1/3. Things will become complicated if the non-mainstream parties gain 35% or more — this is the first indicator to keep in mind. In this way, they will be able to change the balance by making the grand coalition in the EP — which traditionally consists of the European People’s Party (EPP), the Socialists & Democrats (S&D), the Liberal Democrats, and Greens —less likely. A very strong increase in the far right or the national conservatives could also convince the EPP to invest more in a right and centre-right coalition rather than the grand coalition. If that’s the case, we can expect the balance to change.

Lastly, for this to happen, far-right national conservatives would have to be united and cohesive. At the moment, what we know is that the far right might produce relevant numbers, but they are not really good at sticking together as one group, which, to some extent, is the luck of the system.

Today, we have two groups: the Identity and Democracy (ID) group is on the one side (these are basically the far right that has traditionally been fairly close to the Kremlin, just to put a little footnote), and on the other end, there are the national conservatives (who tend to be more on the soft Eurosceptic side and traditionally fairly sceptic towards Russia). One of the main reasons why the far right didn’t manage to stick together as one group in the past was exactly because of the Russia factor. Now, the Russia factor is clearly there again — and much more prominent than in 2019. So, it will be fairly complicated to put together parties such as the National Alliance (All For Latvia! or For Fatherland and Freedom/LNNK) in Latvia, Brothers of Italy (Fratelli d’Italia, FdI), or Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwosc, PiS) in Poland with the Alternatives for Deutschland (Alternative für Deutschland, AfD), the National Rally (Rassemblement National, also known as the National Front) in France, or Fidesz (Hungarian Civic Alliance) in Hungary. If that continues to be the case, a significant change is almost impossible. However, if they manage to stick together, that is when I will get concerned about the decision-making in the EP.


Is there some kind of autocratic international forming right now inside and outside of Europe?

There absolutely is. This is where ‘the outside of Europe’ and ‘the inside of Europe’ find a convergence. This is what brings together political actors who used to be very distant. In most of the Western European member states, there has been a long tradition of the far right and the radical left. Traditionally, the radical left in Western Europe has post-communist roots. In the past, we could not imagine, for example, the voters of the French Communist Party to look with sympathy or at least with some degree of understanding to the National Front. Nowadays, we see that Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Marine Le Pen may frame things in slightly different ways, but their goals are the same.

I think that when we look at this as ‘far right’ and ‘radical left,’ we only see part of the picture: what really brings them together is the idea of an ‘illiberal’ society. The target and, very often, the declared enemy is ‘liberal democracy.’ And it’s also interesting because up to maybe 10 years ago, no one would have guessed that the ‘liberal’ label would become a clear political target — maybe in the US but not here. Nowadays, what we hear — from both the far right and the radical left — is that the ‘liberals’ are the biggest threats to their peoples. So, the language has changed.

If we look at it from the outside, we see that this is exactly what the Russian autocracy says, what other autocracies say. Russia currently is the main focus, but other autocratic regimes, for example, in China or Türkiye also say that the biggest problem is the liberal democracy and the ‘global west,’ which they see as the voice of the ‘liberal world order’ that is naturally ‘unfair’ to them. Here is where the two sides bridge the ‘illiberal international’ from ‘the outside’ with what happens inside liberal democracies.

The weakness — and also somehow the strength— of liberal democracies is that we often don’t have the legal tools to tackle these challenges. Instead, we must debunk and expose these links — not in legalistic terms but by showing the voters where these connections come from.


When those forces lose elections — as was the case in Poland — problems associated with them do not go away. Moreover, there is a threat of some domestic political issues being brought to the EU level. How dangerous is it to the decision-making in Brussels?

Poland is a very good example of a divided society, which is more common in Europe than we think. PiS has lost the elections, Donald Tusk has formed a coalition, and, as we read in the news, everything must have changed: we have a new, liberal democratic government. No, it’s not the case and, I would say, for two main reasons. One is of course related to the institutional dimension. Democracies are complicated machines: yes, the government is controlled now by a centre-right, moderate, progressive coalition, but there are also courts, economic interests, and the subnational and administrative levels that have all been basically nurtured by PiS for the last 10 years. And this is just one part of the story. Primarily, we have a divided society: half of the country thinks that PiS is an absolute evil, while the other half thinks that PIS is the only force that can save Poland from destruction.

As long as we have this sort of contraposition, it’s extremely difficult to find the strength, as a society, to respond to external threats.  I think that we have lost this ability in many Western European societies. This is what Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky highlight in their book How Democracies Die: first, political forces increasingly define themselves — and are seen by their voters — as mutual enemies and not as competitors. Second, they try to use institutions to make their power perennial, which also means that they parasitise institutions. Third, they try to make democracy not ‘a repetitive game.’ Basically, they say, “Since we have won once, it gives us democratic legitimacy, so we don’t need to risk putting the country under that stress anymore.” This is a much bigger problem because this is also very much internalised by societies: they destroy mutual toleration, without which democracy becomes a complicated game. We see it happening at the European level as well.


It also echoes in the US — another country that has a highly divided society and another critical election in which Donald Trump is strongly positioned to win. Is the second Trump Administration going to be different for Europe? How real are the threats of candidate Trump to Europe? And is Europe taking them as seriously?

I think they are very serious, and Europe, at least from what I see, is not taking it seriously enough. We already know what Trump did during his first term in office when he was a ‘newcomer’ and still had to learn the game. He had some restraints because he was surrounded by the ‘mainstream’ Republicans. What can we expect in case Trump wins again? Of course, we shouldn’t speculate, but Trump will likely have a strong desire for revenge against his domestic competitors, both inside and outside the Republican Party, as well as his fellow heads of state and government. And there is none in Europe who, over the last five years, has not criticised Trump. We know that personal relations are what matters to him.

The other thing is that unlike during his first term, he has made it very clear that he neither respects nor deems relevant not only the EU, which of course was fairly evident, but also NATO and the Allies themselves. Would this imply the US completely disengaging and leaving NATO? Some say ‘yes.’ Frankly, I tend to be a bit more cautious. I don’t think that this is necessarily going to be the case, but the US might take — and, in fact, has already taken — a step back.

We had examples in the past when countries stayed within NATO but quit certain parts of cooperation, with France being one of those. It would give a clear signal to hostile actors — first of all, to Russia — that its hands are free. Trump made no mystery when he told Russia to do “whatever the hell they wanted” to the Allies who did spend 2% on defence, which I absolutely believe was an excuse. No one should expect that once we have reached 2%, Trump will do everything for us. No, this is just an excuse to try to undermine NATO, because there will always be someone who doesn’t do everything they are supposed to do.

Trump has also shown that he manages to build, at least in his understanding, a better relationship with autocrats at a personal level. It doesn’t mean that they look at him in the same way — as at a good partner. Yet, we can expect Trump to spend more time dealing with Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping than with traditional partners.

I don’t want to make the situation look even more bleak than it is, but even in the best-case scenario for the Europeans of a Biden victory, we should not expect the US to be committed 100% either. There are several reasons. First, Republicans will continue to play the same game that they played in the past by not recognising Biden’s victory as legitimate — this time, even more so. Second, American society will still be divided because the MAGA Republicans will never consider Biden a legitimate president. Third, unless there is a landslide victory for Biden, we can expect institutions to be hijacked. For example, Republicans could use veto powers or slow down the processes in the Senate. We can expect Republicans to become more anti-Ukrainian and more isolationist.

Are we doing enough? It looks like we are not. This might simply be a perception, because let’s be frank: no European leader will go in front of a camera and talk about what they will do if Trump wins. This is not a normal thing to do. It is even an unacceptable thing to do in the context of elections in an allied country. It does not mean that such conversations at a high level are not taking place. I believe that there might be some contingency plans. However, in terms of security and defence, it will very unlikely be enough, because these things take time, and we don’t have time. Moreover, multilateral solutions and responses, for example at the EU level, are difficult as they require a common agreed position.

There is more and more emphasis being put on European security and defence, as part of NATO. There is now a proposal to create a European Commissioner for Security and Defence. We can discuss how feasible and practical this is or whether it goes beyond the buzzwords. Yet, in the medium term, the idea is to create what we can call a ‘strategic autonomy’ — a European military and security capability that remains within NATO. In a way, it is a substantiation of the European pillar of NATO that is also able to act by itself whenever something at the level of the US does not go in the right direction — something that can be either part of the European pillar of NATO or act as a European force when it has to. With the US when we can and as Europeans when we must.


You have already mentioned several obstacles to this European defence effort, and I would like to mention one more. A recent poll found that only one in 10 Europeans believes in Ukraine’s ability to defeat Russia, whereas the prevailing sentiment is that Europe should push Ukraine to negotiate some kind of settlement instead of supporting it in taking back its territories. How are such public opinions going to affect the high-level discussions?

We cannot expect Europeans to think that Ukraine can win if the European leaders don’t think that Ukraine can win. The first responsibility is for the European leaders to find the courage —this is really a matter of courage — to say what their goal is. They are giving weapons and economic support to Ukraine; they are providing weapons and training to the Ukrainian army. But to achieve what? Some Europeans have been able to say what the goal is. Of course, in these latitudes, it’s easier. Yet, we also see that, for example, the UK and France are finally, able to say that the goal is for Ukraine to win. Once there is a common understanding of what our goal is, it will also be clear what we should do to make it happen.

Obviously, it implies that Russia loses. What it entails should also be clearly communicated to the European people by their leaders and politicians. Of course, the idea of Russia losing does not imply that Moscow will be conquered. When we think about the European electorate, we cannot expect voters to be master strategists in security and defence. When we say that Russia must lose, what they see is an image of Russia conquered and in crumbles — that is the first thing that comes to an average voter’s mind when we say that Russia loses. In fact, Russia has lost many times: the Russian Empire lost in Japan in 1905, the Soviet Union lost in Afghanistan, and Russia can lose again in Ukraine — it does not mean that Moscow will fall. It simply means that Russia will have to leave at least a very large part of Ukraine. If these kinds of myths are debunked very openly by the European leaders, it will be much easier for the European people to understand what our goal is. Our goal is not the conquest of Moscow. Our goal is to make sure that Ukraine gets most of its territory back.

Will Ukraine get all of its territory back? That’s a question that we cannot answer. Even if we think of a settled agreement, a settled agreement will only work only Russia has a clear understanding that it might lose a lot and that Ukraine has the upper hand. Only in this case, we can expect — not even a fair negotiation and an honest negotiation but — a meaningful negotiation. Without that, it makes absolutely no sense.

The other thing when it comes to voters is this kind of perceived ‘European fatigue,’ a term that I think is extremely unfair. The only country that can feel ‘fatigued’ is Ukraine. But we do see some sort of heaviness in European society that directly and indirectly relates to the war in Ukraine. Again, voters cannot be expected to be master strategists and understand the nitty-gritty of security, diplomacy, and foreign affairs. European citizens had two years of COVID and its economic backlash, and then, the war came. Even if it is unfair, it is also stupid to completely dismiss that sentiment.

First, what is important is to understand which audiences we are talking to. In the Baltic states, Prime Minister Kaja Kallas can say that energy is expensive, but freedom is priceless. People here know what Russia is and what it has done in the past. In Italy, France, Germany, or Spain, we cannot talk like that. Second, the European governments, especially in Western Europe, must take care of the most disadvantaged segments of their societies by providing a welfare state and not reducing support of these vulnerable sectors, because these are the very voters that Russia is trying to court. If too many of them become responsive to Russia’s messages, the liberal democracy in our countries loses.

This article was written for ICDS Diplomaatia magazine. Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s).


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