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Policy Paper: The illiberal challenge of the EU – Value divergence in Central and Eastern Europe?

Sara Kurfess / Unsplash
Sara Kurfess / Unsplash

Some governments in Central and Eastern Europe are more illiberal than their populations. They support most of the EU’s liberal values. We analyse and explain the origins and conditions of illiberalism in the region.

Most people in Central and Eastern Europe support the liberal values of the EU, or at least do not explicitly reject them. How can illiberal parties like the Polish Law and Justice ("PiS") party or "Fidesz" in Hungary stay in power while dismantling the rule of law?

The policy paper is a condensed and updated version of our comprehensive study "Value Preferences and Political Trends in Central and Eastern Europe". The study, published in January 2022, is based on expert and population surveys conducted in Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, the Czech Republic and Hungary between April and May 2021.

Research findings and recommendations

Research findings highlight that authoritarian-populist rhetoric usually serves to mobilise one's own supporters as well as to secure power. Illiberal positions are particularly popular among three social groups within a society: 1) the self-perceived losers of Europeanisation, 2) people with low educational qualifications and 3) culturally and politically illiberal but economically liberal minorities.

Hopes for a young generation in Central and Eastern Europe that without exception would view European values positively are not confirmed by our analysis. Younger people are not significantly more liberal than older sections of the population. The divergence from the values defined in Article 2 TEU, therefore, remains a challenge that European decision-makers cannot simply sit out.

Nevertheless, a majority of people in all the countries surveyed have a positive attitude towards the values of the EU and the effects of their country's accession to the EU - especially in Romania, Poland and Hungary. Illiberal parties are therefore often voted for despite and not because of their illiberal rhetoric.

In light of these findings, the policy paper puts forward the following recommendations, among others: The German government should permanently prioritise the protection of democracy and the rule of law at the European level. Furthermore, it should ensure that the EU is making full use of the instruments at hand to protect the rule of law.

Team & authors

About the Value preferences and political trends in Central and Eastern Europe project: The consensus on the content and binding nature of European values is increasingly being called into question in the EU. The IEP analyses the causes and effects of this divergence of values in the four Visegrád states as well as Romania and Slovenia.

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