Interview Anne Applebaum

Anne Applebaum: The EU is increasingly a single political space.

Argelia Queralt: We have read your article on the Washington Post about the European elections and we would like to know your opinion on the result of the extreme right parties in this election.

Anne Applebaum: One of the amusing things about this election was watching afterwards people on social media and, to some extent, on television as well, struggle to find a clear narrative. People wanted to say that the far right won or the far right lost and, actually, I thought the election was really interesting for a lot of reasons but not because somebody won or lost. Clearly the far right did quite well in a number of places, most notably Italy, where its position is  different than what it was a few years ago. And there’s a couple of far-right parties in the European Parliament and one of it is going to be larger. But, of course, there’s also a huge story which has to do with the backlash of the far right, which is taking the form of support for green parties and for liberals. And in a lot of places, the far right is going down. In the Netherlands, it was down. In Spain, it was down. In Germany, it was down. In France, Marine Le Pen technically won, but actually it was really close to Macron and the third party was the green party, so you can’t really say the far right is winning in France either.

What’s interesting to me is… first of all, of course, the big phenomenon that everybody’s noticed is that the two traditional centrist parties, center left and center right, are losing their attraction (apparently not in Spain, but in other European countries). And the second thing that’s interesting to notice was how these were really European wide elections, in which a lot of issues were seemed to have resilience across the continent. What is the green vote? The green vote is happening because people see the only answers to ecological issues are continent wide. And, to some extent, even the far-right is now trying to portray itself as a continent-wide movement. None of these parties want to be considered lonely little weird, strange nationalist parties. They all want to claim that they are part of a national movement. And in that sense, European politics are now increasingly one space. I don’t remember in the past so many people talking about what was happening in other places, and everyone was rushing to see what happened in Spain, what happened in France, what happened in Denmark in order to compare them. There is a kind of European political conversation now, which is happening across the continent.

And the other reflection was the enormous rise in participation, again, not in every country but in several big countries the numbers have gone up in the European elections, and that’s because in the European Parliament now there are going to be some real debates, some real differences, different arguments about what Europe should be or should do, and part of that is positive.

AQ: A few weeks earlier, we had a conversation with Joseph Weiler, who advocated for a more political European Union. So, your conclusions would go in this direction, right?

AA: It seems like European politics are real to people now in a way they weren’t necessarily before. Again, I don’t want to exaggerate, it’s not true in every country and it’s not true in every person, but the fact that these are now crossing… you know, that people in France are worried about the far right in Italy, that people in Poland are wondering how they can form a party like the German greens. People are looking at other countries for political projects and ideals in a very clear way. We could say that people are getting aware of the need of transversal answers for political problems, beyond the inner borders.

AQ: I would like to move to Poland and Hungary. We are very concerned, because there are, as you perfectly know, serious problems with the rule of law values within the European Union. Do you think the European institutions, so far, have done what they should have?

AA: In Hungary, no. To be clear, Hungary and Poland are different, they’re not exactly the same. Hungary is not a democracy anymore. You can’t win an election with Viktor Orban: he controls all the media, including the private media; he controls the business class, most big companies, with very few exceptions, pay fealty to him; he controls Academia; he (or his party) controls the judiciary. So, it’s not a democracy, there are no alternatives. Either you belong to his party or you don’t exist. And the European Union did let that happen without trying to stop it. It’s true that Orban did it very slowly and kind of semi-legally, so it was hard. There were moments when it could have been stopped, he should have been expelled from the EPP a long time ago. He runs this vey racist and anti-European public campaigns so, why the EPP didn’t expelled him and why the EU didn’t cut off his money? I have no idea. A lot of the European money that goes to Hungary is stolen by him or by his friends.

In Poland, the European Union has intervened. There has been some attempt to stop the court-packing process the Government sought, and I have to tell you it was really popular. So, Europe is more popular than ever in Poland, it has something like 91% of polls say they support the EU and they want to be in it. And a lot of people feel the European Union is a kind of protection against this kind of illiberalism. So, the lesson from Poland is that this can work. I mean, it’s helpful and useful, it’s good for all Europeans, because you don’t want to have a country inside the EU where the rule of law doesn’t hold. It’s difficult to do business there, difficult to use the Court system there and so on. And Poland had a perfectly adequate Court system before, and foreign investment was working very well, so I think the European Union gains more respect when it intervenes than when it doesn’t. And it would be a great mistake if it allowed these countries to eliminate democracy and the rule of law. It would be bad for them and it would be bad for Europe.

AQ: Do you think that putting them aside or just directly pulling them out of the European Union would make…

AA: No, that’s a longer-term thing to do. But certainly cutting their budget, certainly kicking Orban out of the EPP, which should have been done two years ago. There are things that can be done yet before we get to the stage of kicking them out of the European Union.

AQ:You just said that academic work in Hungary is in Orban’s party hands. Do you think Universities are in danger in this kind of countries? Because we have now seen Bolsonaro, in Brazil, who’s implementing cuts in Universities. And we have seen the European University had to move from Budapest to Vienna because it was impossible for them to work there. Do you think they have Universities as a target?

AA: Yes, they do. Both as a space of free thinking and as a potential source of new opponents, they see it as a target. With the European University, Orban somehow managed to frame it as a left-wing institution, which is not; and, somehow, he managed to conduct this long campaign against it. And I think it had very little to do with University and very much to do with the fact that he needed some kind of enemy and he found useful to use University and to use Soros as an enemy. He started out using migrants as his enemy, but there are no migrants who want to go to Hungary, so it was always a fiction actually.

AQ: But there are public Universities which are suffering a lot of the Orban politics, as far as I’m aware.

AA: Orban is just… I was reading this today, so I don’t know exactly what stage it’s at, so please check it, but his latest move is trying to take over the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, which is an independent sort of senior body of senior scholars across all kinds of fields actually, not just humanities but hard science as well. And he’s taking away its independence and is trying to take it over, so yes, that’s the next stage.

AQ: And the reason is the same we said before, about kick up the future opponents.

AA: Yes, and to decide what Hungarians think about. Orban’s project is very much an old-fashioned kind of mind-control project in that sense. He’s learned a lot from growing up in communist Hungary, and this is very similar to what he wants to do now: control what people think.

AQ: Is it well planned?

AA: It’s well planned and very well thought. He thinks very much about controlling cultural institutions. Actually, the polls are similar with the Polish government. They have a similar idea. It’s probably going to be less successful, because the opposition in Poland is much bigger and the institutions are stronger. But, you know, they succeeded in completely destroying the state media, so the state’s media is now kind of like Putin’s media in Poland. It’s very harsh, it uses fake videos and invents stories about people… it’s like a conspiracy website. It’s the only media that something like 50% of the people see. There are other people who don’t have cable television, who don’t have other alternative tv, and that’s what they see.

AQ:Moving to the role of internet and social media, do you think that we should build, from the European Union level, something like a Bill of Rights of digital rights?

AA: I’m not sure what good a Bill of Rights would do. It sounds like it could be an empty declaration, but I would be very interested in a very serious European internet regulation project and, really, we should be talking about it now. And by that I do not mean controlling content but much more looking into the mechanics, the algorithms, and particularly the use of anonymity online. I can see why it should be the case that anonymous botnets distributing false information are allowed to exist. I mean, a computerized bot does not have free will, you know, does not have the right to free speech. And the time is coming to eliminate that.

AQ: Controlling companies like Google or Facebook…

R: Look, almost the only power on the planet which can control them, and might be able to control them politically, is the European Union. The United States is not going to do it. Partly because of Trump, but not only. Also, because… first of all in the United States are seen as our companies, they make a lot of money. They are used hugely internationally. We are not interested in controlling them. Also, they spend an unbelievable amount of money on lobbying and trying to convince people in Washington of what they should do. European Union, first of all, these are not your companies, they are upending your politics. They don’t pay taxes here and, if they do, not anything like what they should do. What on Earth loyalty do we owe to them? Why shouldn’t we regulate them?

I’m leaving out other important areas, like, of course, political advertising. It is regulated on TV, it’s regulated in newspapers, it’s regulated on billboards, why can’t it be regulated on the internet? And advertising, not only open advertising but also covert advertising. So, this seems to be absolutely within the realm of what Europe should and could be able to do.

I have no idea why, but Estonia has the system whereby everybody in Estonia has a kind of online passport. Wouldn’t it be interesting if European Union citizens could have at least the option of having an online identity? So your identity online was traceable to you and can’t be cheated. Maybe the technology is not there yet to do all the things that I’m thinking of, but having a direct relationship, having people be real online and not avatars or fakes or in disguise. There might be some areas in which you want to keep anonymity or preserve anonymity for some kinds of conversations, but certainly, even in things like banking, but certainly on Facebook or a big public forum, we should at least be allowed to talk to a real person. I don’t want to get any messages from fake accounts or from people in St. Petersburg pretending to be in Madrid. And it is possible. I know the French are looking at it right now. It’s a law that would force Facebook and Google to make their algorithms transparent. What do they know about us? How do they know it? They’ll have to share some of that information.

AQ:Because actually they are using our data for their economic goals.

AA: Why should our politics be shaped by Facebook’s need to make money? Facebook is interested in maximizing attention. They care they will be able to stay on their site as long as possible, so they serve people the stuff that makes them angry. If that’s increasingly going to be the main space in which people get their political information, why do we want those values to shape what they see? What is in the public interest? Is that in the public interest? I don’t see what it is.

AQ: This would be my last question, on Spain. We read your very long article in El País

AA: Actually, they slightly mistranslated it. The Post did a translation and the El País did a different one, and there were a couple mistakes. And I only know that because a friend of mine was reading it and he compared the two versions.

AQ:About Vox, they may be very determining in order to conform different governments in Spain, like the regional ones. Because last week we had regional elections and also local elections.

AA:I didn’t see how they did in the locals. I saw their European parliamentary result, which was not that good.

AQ:They did not do as good as they did in the general elections, but, as we have a big political fragmentation in our different political levels, the right parties, the Popular Party and Ciudadanos, they need Vox in order to govern in some regions and some cities. We have a big discussion on the cordon sanitaire.

AA: You won’t be able to keep it.

AQ: No, we don’t have it. Because the first time, in Andalucía, they didn’t win but they got 12 representatives and they’re not inside the government but they gave the votes to the popular party so they could govern, and now it could be applied in different regions. And the discussion is, also with the PP but mostly with Ciudadanos, because they’re liberal-democrats, if they should remove the cordon sanitaire or if they should turn to the left and try to talk with the socialist party just to avoid the far right to get into the institutions.

AA: I really can’t advise what Ciudadanos best strategy would be, because I’m not a Spanish political tactician, so I don’t know. I think in original it was such an interesting project, and it’s trying very hard time to be centrist, and it seems to me that there is some value in keeping that centrist label and not somehow becoming another right-wing party. But I’m not in the position to give an opinion.

AQ: But, in general, do you think the cordon sanitaire is a useful tool or should it be avoided?

AA: I know that they often don’t work. This is, what is trying to keep the far right out sometimes has the effect of giving the far right more popularity. There is no general rule. Sometimes letting the far right into the government… you know, sometimes these new far-right parties are full of pretty incompetent people. So, sometimes, giving them more exposure and giving them responsibility reveals their true nature. This just happened in Austria. Excluding them and letting them go on… you know, these are parties that are often very good at being opposition and less good at being government. And sometimes letting them be in the government might sort of diffuse their attraction; they can’t claim to be anti-establishment and to be offering some kind of alternative. But I repeat, I’m not giving you any advice. Ciudadanos has better tacticians and strategists than me, and they understand Spanish politics. I’ve met Albert Rivera, he seems like he really knows what he’s doing.

AQ: One more question about Jair Bolsonaro. Are you worried about him? In Brazil and in Latin America.

AA:What’s interesting about Bolsonaro, just like the totalitarian in Philippines, is… we’ve been talking here about Europe and America ant the West, but the same processes and the same frustration with democracy is now something you see all over the world. One of the sources of Bolsonaro’s support is this feeling that democracy has been too weak and it produces corruption and needs somebody to end it. I’m afraid Jair Bolsonaro is not going to end it, but he’s a very significant piece. I just read a horrible story about police brutality in Brazil being on the rise and extrajudicial murders, which is very similar to Philippines.

AQ: Is it possible to compare Bolsonaro with the President of Mexico, in terms of populism leadership?

AA:They seem different to me. Left-wing populism and right-wing populism have different kind of characters. The rise of populist left in Mexico seems a pretty clear reaction to what’s happening in the United States, it seems to me it has more to do with that. Mexico had really undergone its political transformation over the last twenty years and was beginning to see itself as a real partner of the United States. And then this very negative nasty and actually racist rhetoric from Trump I think it caused a reaction in Mexico, although there are other reasons. I’m not saying that’s why he won, but let’s try not to put all these new leaders into the same category.

But it’s true we live in an era now where everyone is shouting all the time, right? They shout on the internet, they shout on TV, and people who seem to be willing to shout the loudest… maybe this is too different a subject, but I’ve been very struck by the statement by Robert Muller yesterday. He was asked about this report he produced, and he said, well, if we had wanted to say that the President was innocent, we would have said he was innocent. In other words, they don’t think he’s innocent, so they do think he’s guilty. I read that and I thought, well that’s very… and everybody was praising Robert Mueller uses this for a calm and precise language, and it’s very cautious. And that’s all very well, but it means nobody understands him, you know. And what he’s saying is having no impact, because he’s saying it too subtle, and we’re somehow in an age when subtler politicians, who have complicated messages, are having trouble being heard, and that’s true for the right wing and the left wing, it’s general.