Creeping authoritarianism inside EU is a real threat to the bloc

Swift response to Belarus contrasts with EU’s inability to deal with threats to democracy in Hungary and Poland

Even as Alexander Lukashenko finds ever more brutal ways to repress his own people and aggravate his European neighbours, the Belarusian leader can seem like a throwback to another time.

Overseeing a sclerotic state and an economy modelled on the Soviet system from which he emerged, the macho former collective-farm boss is easily lampooned as the sort of dim-witted but ruthless party man that featured in Armando Ianucci’s satire The Death of Stalin.

Western media frame Lukashenko as a 20th century figure; for more than two decades he has been routinely described as “Europe’s last dictator”, as if his political lineage could be traced directly to the homicidal despots of the 1920s and 30s.

Casting the regime in Minsk in this way, as an anachronistic remnant of another era, risks trivialising the brutality that Lukashenko's one-party state uses against those who disagree with it – like Roman Protasevich, the opposition activist who was detained after Belarus forced his Ryanair flight to land on its soil.


But arguably it also makes it easier for Europe to grasp the threat Lukashenko poses and to respond to that threat. To anyone who has watched the glacial and often inconclusive process by which the European Union decides on its foreign policy positions, it was remarkable to witness the speed with which it moved to act against Minsk after the outrageous arrests of Protasevich and his partner, Sofia Sapega.

In addition to calling for their release, EU leaders urged the union’s airlines not to use Belarus’s airspace and banned Belarusian airlines from flying in its skies or landing at its airports.

The leaders called on ministers to move quickly to adopt new “targeted economic sanctions” and to accelerate another package of measures that was already under discussion. The sanctions will target oligarchs and companies believed to offer funding to Lukashenko’s system, thereby – the thinking goes – increasing pressure on the regime by weakening its domestic support structures.

The EU’s swift and decisive political mobilisation against the dictatorship on its doorstep contrasts starkly with its chronic inability to muster a coherent response to threats to democracy inside the club.

It’s not that the two problems are directly comparable – Lukashenko runs a one-party state that detains and tortures its opponents, and the spark that moved the EU to act against it was not the crushing of internal dissent per se but the prospect of European airspace being weaponised.

Yet the creeping authoritarianism inside the bloc is arguably a greater threat to the EU itself and to its founding values – if one that is more difficult to confront.

The union's failure so far to act in defence of democracy in Hungary and Poland is not merely a failure to grasp what is happening. The bloc's treaties failed to anticipate such a grave situation arising within the club, and Budapest and Warsaw have been adept at blocking collective action against them.

The most dangerous assumption for the EU to make is that modern democracies are self-renewing

Other member states are divided between those who would punish and exclude the authoritarians and those who believe they must be persuaded to rein in their worst instincts.

For others, there are commercial reasons not to alienate errant neighbours. Just yesterday, Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban was received at Downing Street by Boris Johnson.

Demonising minorities

It complicates matters that, in Hungary and Poland, the EU is grappling with a new form of authoritarianism that resists easy categorisation. Those countries’ leaders are in a vanguard of a nationalist counter-revolution that arose through existing democratic structures.

They work those structures while gradually tightening their control over the public space that democracy needs to flourish – by restricting non-governmental organisations, threatening activists, demonising minorities, removing bureaucratic checks, limiting academic freedom and strengthening political control over the judiciary.

Like Donald Trump or Jair Bolsonaro and in contrast to a straight-up dictator such as Lukashenko, Europe's new authoritarians do not ban opposition parties, cancel elections or attempt to dismantle parliamentary structures.

Instead they seek to empower a democratically-elected majority. And because it happens gradually, the broader pattern is harder to discern. But the long-term erosion of democracy is real.

There is no preordained outcome to the authoritarian drift in Poland and Hungary. Trump was constrained in important ways by a combination of resilient institutions and his own ineptitude. Other nationalist demagogues will be ejected from power, preventing true mafia states from taking hold before it’s too late.

But the longer the new authoritarians remain in office – assuming more control and diverting more public resources towards their own propaganda – the more difficult it becomes for a democratic transfer of power to occur.

The most dangerous assumption for the EU to make is that modern democracies are self-renewing. They have always demanded things of citizens: participation, argument, struggle. And when the space in which those things occur shrinks beyond a certain point, as Europeans know well, the entire political order is in peril.