To understand populism’s risks for the EU, look at Central Europe

By Lydia Gall, Eastern Europe/Balkans Researcher at Human Rights Watch

In Eastern European countries such as Hungary and Poland, policy makers have not only proposed anti-migrant measures but have also used anti-migrant rhetoric in order to gain public approval. In this article, Lydia Gall of Human Rights Watch examines the prevalence of anti-migrant measures and rhetoric in the Visegrad group (Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic, and Slovakia), and highlights the risks of populism for the European Union.

Public support for populist euro-sceptic parties across Europe has been increasing in the past few years but during the height of the refugee crisis last year and since, it has taken a turn for the worse. Anti-migrant rhetoric is no longer contained to far-right fringe parties. Government and high-ranking public officials in EU member states have increasingly used such rhetoric to whip up ethnic tensions to score political points at home. Such voices are particularly prominent in the Central European EU Visegrad Group countries — Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Populist politicians in Central Europe have skilfully turned the 2015 refugee crisis and the EU’s divisions in how to address it into an opportunity to shore up their own political support

Hungary is a prime example. Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his populist government have been at odds with the EU since 2010, when Orban’s Fidesz Party was voted in for its second term in government. EU concerns about undermining the rule of law and human rights and about government control of key public institutions and pressure on the media have been sidestepped, dismissed and ignored in Budapest.

Orban has managed to successfully portray himself in Hungary as the defender of the Hungarian people against supposed villains in Brussels and elsewhere trying to meddle with Hungary’s internal affairs. He even drew similarities between Brussels and the Soviet occupation of Hungary. With a million asylum seekers landing on Europe’s shores last year, many of them making their way from Greece through the Western Balkans and Hungary, his anti-EU rhetoric got a new boost. Not only was he defending Hungary from Brussels’ interference with Hungary’s domestic affairs, he was also defending Hungary from the menacing threat of the arrival of Muslim “terrorists” and “criminals,” as Orban described it, because of the EU’s failure to address the problem.

The Hungarian government’s solution was twofold: divert as many asylum seekers and migrants as possible away from Hungary and make life hellish for those who did reach it. Hungary erected a new razor wire fence on its border with Serbia, and prosecuted some who managed to cross through it. Others are forced to wait weeks and months at the Serbian border in squalid conditions without government aid to submit an asylum claim, which is most likely going to be rejected. Others are apprehended by border officials, viciously beaten, and pushed back to the Serbian border without any legal procedure.

When the EU established a mandatory asylum relocation quota to share responsibility across all member states and relieve the burden on front-line Greece and Italy, Hungary was initially offered a chance to benefit from relocations too. When it rejected that offer, it was asked to relocate a mere 1,294 asylum seekers. The Hungarian government refused, and is trying with Slovakia to overturn the deal at the EU Court of Justice. Hungary has spent 30 million euro on a taxpayer-funded fearmongering and xenophobic hate campaign against refugees, asylum seekers and migrants, describing them as terrorists, criminals, people unable to conform to Christian values, people who leech off welfare systems, steal jobs and constitute a threat against women and families. As a result, the previously waning popularity of the ruling party is now at an all-time high.

Similar EU scepticism can be traced to other post-communist countries in Central- and Eastern Europe. In a climate of existing Euroscepticism, populist leaders in Slovakia and Czech Republic seized on the refugee crisis to criticize the EU’s relocation scheme and the wider push for shared responsibility and to whip up fears against refugees.

Anti-migrant rhetoric is no longer contained to far-right fringe parties. Government and high-ranking public officials in EU member states have increasingly used such rhetoric to whip up ethnic tensions to score political points at home

In Slovakia, the government stated it would only accept Christian refugees, as the country has no mosques, as well as joining Hungary in the EU Court of Justice case, where a decision is pending. Prime Minister Robert Fico in May declared that Islam “has no place in Slovakia.”

In the neighbouring Czech Republic, host to 100,000 Ukrainian refugees, the government reluctantly agreed to the EU relocation quota deal. But President Milos Zeman has vented his resentment of migrants and refugees, describing Europe’s refugee crisis as “an organized invasion.”

In Poland, attitudes against the EU and refugees are hardly any better. In October 2015, the conservative euro sceptic Law and Justice (PiS) party was voted into government and embarked upon a clampdown on the rule of law and human rights similar to Hungary’s. The government, using its supermajority in parliament, has undermined media freedom and compromised the independence of the constitutional tribunal.

The move against the tribunal prompted the European Commission under its rule of law mechanism which allows Brussels to take action against member states when a threat against rule of law has been identified. But Poland’s government has defied an October deadline to comply with the Commission’s recommendations, dismissing them as “groundless” and “not understandable.”

While Poland has accepted thousands of refugees in past years, many from Ukraine, the new government has made it clear that it does not welcome Muslim refugees. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the leader of PiS, in October 2015 said that migrants could bring diseases and parasites, that Muslim migrants will seek to impose Sharia laws in Europe, and that they use churches as “toilets.” The government has refused to participate in the EU relocation scheme requiring Poland to accept 7,000 asylum seekers. While Poland is not on the Western Balkan refugee route, thousands of people fleeing war and persecution from Ukraine, Chechnya and Tajikistan make their way to Poland. The Ukrainians fleeing war may be granted access to Poland via work visas, but Chechens and Tajiks seeking protection can find themselves blocked at the Polish border with Belarus.

The Polish border officials routinely refuse Chechens and Tajiks access to the asylum procedure, returning them to Belarus, where there is no guarantee for their safety from persecution. Poland’s interior minister, Mariusz Balszczak, said in August said that since there is no war in Chechnya, Poland won’t consider any asylum applications from there. The statement shows little understanding of the dangerous situation for thousands of people who have criticized the Chechen authorities and faced persecution in response. Populist politicians in Central Europe have skilfully turned the 2015 refugee crisis and the EU’s divisions in how to address it into an opportunity to shore up their own political support. But the consequences have been deeply damaging, fuelling xenophobia and hostility among their own electorate toward refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants, deepening political divisions in the EU, and making an effective common EU response to the challenge of global displacement far harder to achieve. And some of those governments, notably in Hungary and Poland, have weakened important checks and balances on the executive, undermining democracy and the rule of law in their own countries and highlighting the shortcomings in the EU’s ability to respond to those threats to its values.

Instead of cherry picking rights and entitlements flowing from an EU membership, governments in the Visegrad group need to fall in line with obligations and responsibilities set out by the EU and start working together to reach a solution to displacement crisis that can only be solved by collective EU leadership. A first step should be for governments to agree on sharing numbers of refugees equitably across the EU. Those governments should replace their xenophobic rhetoric vis-a-vis people fleeing war and persecution with welcoming attitudes and adopt policies and practices in line with international human rights obligations. And they should reverse efforts to weaken the democratic underpinnings of their own states.

Follow Lydia Gall on Twitter: @LydsG


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