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Where Are the Macrons of Central Europe?

Attitudes towards the EU, and optimism versus pessimism, offer partial explanations for their scarcity. 

by Martin Ehl 26 April 2017

French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron has a strong chance to win the upcoming runoff with a decidedly pro-European and liberal program – a novelty in a Europe where doomsayers have been predicting the victories of right-wing populists. And that gives hope to liberals who see Macron as a new kind of European leader – even if we still don’t know what kind of politician he really is.


But let’s take a movement to look more closely at Macron’s  “Europeanness.” From the Central European perspective, one aspect is quite hard to understand at first glance. According to Eurobarometer, the EU's official public opinion poll, France lands among the Eurosceptic member states. A recent survey showed that only 29 percent of the French respondents had positive views of the EU, and those figures seem to be trending even lower. So the Eurooptimist Macron has won in Eurosceptic France, and now needs to attract Euro-shy voters for the election runoff.


In Central Europe, we have a totally opposite situation. Elections here are frequently won by Eurosceptics and populists, while long-term polls show – mainly in Poland and Hungary – stable and strongly positive pro-EU attitudes. As the latest Eurobarometer indicates, 51 percent of Poles and 37 percent of Hungarians have a positive view of the EU, a number on the rise in both cases. The Czechs are very similar to the French (28 percent are pro-EU, showing a declining tendency), while Slovaks are closer to Hungarians (with 34 percent and demonstrating growth).


Where are the Central European Macrons if they should – theoretically – have a broad base of support? The key answer to this question is probably connected to the second part of Macron's political sex appeal: a certain anti-system position and distance from established political parties.


Macron has offered the French both a rapprochement with Europe and a departure from old parties, along with an optimistic spirit. Central European politicians mostly offer fear and bogeymen. The electoral 2015 slogans of the Polish conservative nationalists from the Law and Justice party, which spoke about a country in ruins, is a prime example of that.


Across the spectrum, Central European politicians have also employed tried-and-true nationalistic recipes. At the same time, they take advantage of a feature common to all post-communist societies – a tendency to see the future in more pessimistic terms. And the third factor playing a role is the still limited experience and outlook of Central Europeans, and their lesser ability to compare themselves to the rest of the world. Otherwise, voters would see the obvious changes that have taken place in Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, and Czech Republic with the help of EU funds and EU rules that had to be accepted to receive entry to the club.


The other typical pitch to voters in these parts is a return to unspecified past glory, very well channeled on the other side of the Atlantic by Donald Trump and his “Make America Great Again” slogan. “Make Hungary Great Again” would have a totally different meaning, however, and would be quite dangerous if said loudly and openly. While not proclaiming such things officially, Fidesz is doing its best to fulfill this dream. Precisely such recipes revive the dangerous spirits of past wars and conflicts, rather than optimistic expectations.


Central European voters are as disappointed by their respective political classes as the French are. Look at the present state of the political opposition, which had been the governing majority for much of the last 25 years, and has mostly discredited itself. For example, former Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai in Hungary attempted to join the electoral fray in 2014 but he was too close to the former elites and lacked the charisma of his French colleague (who was once also an investment banker).


To bring something novel and pro-European is actually quite hard. And when you make a breakthrough and get into parliament with a new, fresh force, as Polish economist Ryszard Petru and his did in 2015, you could end up consumed by yourself and your own ambitions, just as Petru did. His last bad gamble was to leave during Christmas holidays to go to Portugal without his wife, to enjoy himself in the company of a female colleague, while the opposition was organizing a blockade of the parliament’s main hall in defense of the rights of journalists.


The credibility of these new liberal politicians is, however, under much closer scrutiny than that of their populist colleagues. Voters often forgive the latter for even bigger mistakes and missteps because the populists often focus on the negative without preaching too much about a bright future.   


That could be the main reason why there are no Macrons in post-communist Central Europe. Unfortunately, optimism and a positive attitude are still considered negative attributes rather than personal assets around here.
Martin Ehl 
is the foreign editor of the Czech daily Hospodarske noviny. He tweets at @MartinCZV4EU.
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