If You Thought Russia Was the Spoiler for Europe’s Illiberals, Wait for China!
26 May 2021
It is by now conventional wisdom that the question of relations with Russia is a major obstacle to the unification of the ‘democratic Right’ that Viktor Orbán, Matteo Salvini, and Mateusz Morawiecki like to talk about as of late. Indeed, Russia is one of the main issues making Germany’s AfD, Austria’s FPÖ, and France’s Rassemblement National unlikely partners for a larger right-wing formation. Moreover, even the tripartite alliance between Italy’s Lega, Hungary’s Fidesz, and Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS), which might soon end up in a joint group in the European Parliament, has already experienced stormy conflicts over Russia. And although the previously notoriously pro-Putin Lega has made efforts to distance themselves from the Kremlin, the varying responses from Warsaw and Budapest to recent Kremlin aggression is certainly one of the stumbling blocks.
But those differences may well pale next to the foreseeable infighting over China. This has several roots. For one thing, Russia in its current state is obviously on the losing side of history, and is hopelessly lagging behind the West and China, both economically and technologically. China, in contrast, is set to become the world’s premier economic power within the current decade. Technologically, it will likely overtake the West in a number of fields, such as artificial intelligence. As its power has grown, so have its interests across the globe, so much so that there is now a ‘China angle’ to most policy questions worldwide, and an imperative for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to support or obstruct domestic forces in most countries around the world, depending on whether they are considered helpful or not to its interests.
In fact, the stances of the European illiberal right on China are even more amorphous and fickle than those on Russia. Their differing attitudes towards Moscow can at least be traced to their respective nation-state’s historical experiences and strategic culture towards Russia. Put simply, it is as normal for a Polish or an Estonian nationalist to oppose Russia as it is for a French or a German one to court it.
China is both a much more important long-term issue than Russia and a topic that populists have few existing cues to draw on to make sense of. Contrary to Russia, with China, the economic dimension complicates political and ideological calculations. Should China be seen as a welcome Eurasian partner in creating an illiberal counterweight to Euro-Atlantic liberalism, as Viktor Orbán seems to bet on? Or does it represent the mortal danger of de-industrialisation of the nation’s ‘heartlands’, as Marine Le Pen seems to think, following Trump’s ideas? Is Beijing an alternative partner that can be a leverage against Brussels, an idea PiS appeared to entertain in its first months in office? Or is it a Soviet-style adversary to a Christian West, which is the Polish government’s current stance?
No one has faced these dilemmas more than Matteo Salvini. The populist coalition of his Lega party with the Five Star Movement created waves when it decided to join China’s Belt and Road Initiative, making Italy the first European country to do so. Yet Salvini declined to attend his government’s meeting with Xi Jinping, knowing that Lega’s core electorate of Northern Italian small businesses is very suspicious of Chinese ‘state capitalist’ competition.
We know that, in their foreign policy thinking, populists value sovereignty first and foremost, even more so those on the right, who are also strongly nationalistic. Yet the lack of a deeper ideological bond between them means that this basic agreement is the source of division rather than unity. Without a deeper elaboration of what ‘sovereignty’ means in the modern world, beyond knee-jerk Euroscepticism, anti-Americanism, and fear of globalisation, it is impossible to come up with a common, fairly consistent position on a strategic challenge like China.
To be sure, the established European party families such as the centre-right EPP have their own share of internal divisions over Russia and, now, China. But the EPP knows that these different viewpoints can only be reconciled, and European citizens can only enjoy the right balance of economic gains through engagement with China and protection from Beijing’s increasingly hostile practices, within a partly supranational EU and in the framework of liberal democracy.
The pro-European, rule-of-law based centre-right departs from a positive vision of European unity, which helps it make sense of the Chinese problem in all its complexity. The illiberal sovereignist right embarks from a negative vision of national sovereignty that does not resolve, but instead strengthens, the contradictions which the Chinese question poses to Europe.
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