The ‘Dark Past’ in Merkel’s Backyard

A tainted election victory for the German chancellor betrays the east-west divide in Europe.
Updated on

German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Warsaw in February

Photographer: Kommersant Photo/Kommersant

The surge in support for Germany’s anti-immigrant party in weekend elections is a stark reminder of the fault line that cuts through the European Union.

Chancellor Angela Merkel starts a fourth term with her victory tainted by the far-right AfD entering parliament for the first time after a particularly strong showing in former East Germany. Next door, the Czechs look set to elect a populist leader who opposes further EU integration and links her open-door refugee policy to terrorism. Poland and Hungary already have governments that relish reminding their western allies that Donald Trump-style nationalism is anything but defeated.

The former communist countries were the core EU aspirants in the late 1990s, with westward-looking leaders dismantling the legacy of the Soviet-backed regimes and attracting billions of dollars of foreign investment. But as members, they increasingly look more like EU misfits in Merkel’s backyard, taking billions of euros in aid while railing against the European establishment.

“This is not how we imagined it,” said Karel Schwarzenberg, former adviser to late Czech President Vaclav Havel, an icon of anti-communist dissent. “We thought people learned a better lesson from the communist era. In reality, a lot of this dark past has remained inside us.”

Viktor Orban, Jaroslaw Kaczynski and Andrej Babis.
Photographer: Martin Divisek

Czech billionaire Andrej Babis, who blamed Merkel’s policies for a terrorist attack last year in Berlin, has an unassailable lead before the Oct. 20-21 election. One of his ANO party’s mantras is to reject the euro because it would be “another issue that Brussels would be meddling with,” he said.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who publicly endorsed Trump’s candidacy for U.S. president, is still riding high ahead of elections next spring after scoffing at a European court defeat over having to accept migrants. This month he suggested the EU is trying to “rape” his country into being like western Europe.

In Poland, Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s ruling Law & Justice party is enjoying a popularity surge as the government faces down an unprecedented probe into democratic rule of law after its power grab of the courts and media. It too rejected refugees, and the level of support for AfD “acknowledges” that Poland was right to, Interior Minister Mariusz Blaszczak told Polish television. “The key question for Poland and the European Union is whether Angela Merkel will draw conclusions from the mistake she made in 2015.”

Poland is the most pressing issue for Germany and the EU. It’s the sixth-largest member state, moving up a rank after Britain completes Brexit negotiations. The direction of the government in Warsaw has Berlin worried, according to a senior German government official who asked not to be identified discussing international relations.

European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans warned Poland that its voting rights could be suspended. EU officials have also suggested tying development funds to maintaining democratic institutions. Polish President Andrzej Duda, a loyalist in Kaczynski's party, presented a plan on Monday to boost political sway over the justice system without triggering EU sanctions.

“A year ago, I would have said Poland won’t risk losing EU funds,” said Otilia Dhand, an analyst at Teneo Intelligence in Brussels. “Now I think they will easily risk both paying fines or losing EU funds.”

Should the idea gain traction before the EU’s next budget cycle in 2020, it could spell disaster for Poland. The country has been granted 234 billion euros ($280 billion) in aid, more than any other member on a net basis.

The leadership in Warsaw appears unfazed, as do financial markets. The zloty is among the world’s 10 best-performing currencies against the euro this year, along with the Czech koruna.  

Poland angered Germany with talk of as much as $1 trillion of World War II reparations. It earlier upset the French by canceling a defense contract for new helicopters, with President Emmanuel Macron missing out Poland on a recent east European tour.

“Nobody will impose their will on us from abroad,” Kaczynski, who gave Trump a hero’s welcome in Warsaw in July, said this month. “Even if in certain matters we’ll be alone in Europe, we’ll remain an island of freedom.”

Republikon Institute, CBOS, CVVM

Kaczynski, Orban and Babis say they are simply standing up for the forgotten Poles, Hungarians and Czechs who, they say, have been left behind by corrupt and inept elites fawning to the EU. Living standards skyrocketed since the EU’s big expansion east in 2004, but per-capita income in most places remains below that of Greece even after the country’s financial meltdown.

The real political tension between the EU’s east and west started two years ago during Europe's worst refugee crisis since World War II. While Merkel allowed them in, political parties in Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic joined in an anti-Islamic chorus that boosted their popularity. A July survey showed 57 percent of Poles would rather leave the EU than let in refugees.

“There’s a new fault line inside the European Union,” Orban, who has vowed to turn Hungary into an “illiberal state” based on Russian and Turkey, told lawmakers this month. “The way immigrant countries want to deal with our differences is by suggesting that we too become immigrant countries. And if we refuse, they rape us and force us to become one.”


— With assistance by Andrea Dudik, Radoslav Tomek, and Alan Crawford

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.