Rising Illiberalism and the EU


This essay will analyze the changing world order marked by the decrease of liberalism due to the transition from unipolar to multipolar world order and increasing illiberal democracies in the EU. The first part of the essay will analyze the pathway towards illiberalism in the global system in light of the following developments: the rise of China decreased U.S. commitment to globalism in the Trump era, and increasing illiberal actors within the EU, namely, Hungary and Poland. The last part of the essay will evaluate the repercussions of this systemic change on EU politics.

Key Words: unipolarity, multipolarity, EU, illiberalism, world order.


After the end of the Second World War, United States emerged as a powerful actor and pioneered a world system based on liberalism that respects democracy, rule of law, multilateralism, human rights, open and free trade. With the disillusionment of the Soviet Union, liberalism emerged as the sole ideology expanding into different parts of the world. States increasingly opened their borders and joined international organizations like the UN and WTO to become a part of this new world order and to share close ties with the U.S. Unipolarity marked by the hegemony of the U.S. did not last forever. Especially in the last decade, the emergence of powers like China and Russia not only challenge U.S. dominance but also oppose the U.S.-based liberal system that holds the mission of spreading its norms and values worldwide. However, the backlash to liberalism did not solely come from external sources. With the election of Donald Trump, U.S. started to challenge globalization, multilateralism, and open trade and turned inwards in its domestic politics. Lastly, the emergence of illiberal actors in the EU, namely Hungary and Poland, contributed to the decrease of liberalism in the world. This essay will discuss the factors leading to illiberalism in more detail and analyze the consequences of these developments on EU politics.

A Path to Illiberalism

The Fall of Unipolarity and the Triumph of Multipolarity in the 21st century

IR scholars have long discussed the polarities of the international system such as unipolarity, multipolarity, bipolarity, non-polarity; developed definitions and analyzed conditions leading to a more stable and a peaceful world order.

There is an agreed definition in the literature that a pole is a state who is able to control substantial resources to be used for the objectives, outdo the elements of state capabilities that are traditionally defined as possessing military strength, economic power, considerable population, and territory (Ikenberry et al., 2009, p. 4). According to this definition, United States have long enjoyed the position of a unipolar, out shadowing its rivals and dominating the world order with a sublime military expenditure, unmatched economic growth, and immense resources to shape international politics especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, within the last decade, alternative powers are starting to emerge and shape global politics like China, Russia, and to some extent India and Brazil which is transforming the global order into multipolarity. None of these powers have yet exceeded U.S. economic and military dominance, but China is increasingly on the way to catch up with U.S. economic superiority. It is also enhancing its military spending and shaping the strategic climate in the Asia Pacific region. The emergence of China as an active player meant that illiberalism in global politics increased. China and the U.S. do not share similar world opinions. Although China is growingly more liberal in an economic sense, it is far from embracing liberalism socially and politically.

The Chinese Miracle and the Rise of Authoritarianism in Global Politics

Over the past decades, especially starting with the opening of its economy in 1978, Chinese economic growth reached 10% a year on average and lifted 800 million people out of poverty (The World Bank, The World Bank in China, Accessed April 21, 2021). The Chinese economic model, which had been based on the export of low-cost manufacturing goods, cheap labor (The World Bank, The World Bank in China, Accessed April 21, 2021), and Special Economic Zones attracting foreign direct investment (Britannica, Special Economic Zone, Accessed April 21, 2021), was successfully able to manipulate and benefit from the liberal rule-based order. It is now on the road to challenge the U.S. hegemony, by only 6.2 trillion dollars behind the U.S. current GDP (Cheng & Lee, New chart shows China could overtake the U.S. as the world’s largest economy earlier than expected, Accessed April 22, 2021). It should not be surprising that after such a miraculous growth, Chinese economic expansion had spilled over to the political realm, rendering it a much more solidified actor in the international system able to shape regional and international politics. A significant characteristic however is the illiberal and undemocratic nature of Chinese statesmanship. Unlike the liberal order that works for the promotion and spread of democracy and human rights, Chinese foreign policy is strictly based on the Five Principles of Coexistence, namely: “respect for sovereignty, mutual non-aggression, non-interference in each other’s internal affairs” (Wilson Center). As can be seen from these principles, China is not an aggressive actor towards other powerful players per se, but expects the same treatment from other states (Cerulus & Barigazzi, Chinese foreign minister warns of US interference on Europe tour, Accessed April 21, 2021), especially on its red fault lines such as the problems with Taiwan and Hong Kong (People’s Daily, China will never allow any foreign interference in Hong Kong affairs, Accessed April 21, 2021). It also does not want to play the role of the inspector of the universal values in the global system like the U.S. China is simply not interested in the domestic politics of the states it is engaging with and approaches its external relations pragmatically. That may be the reason why they are so much getting along with Russia, another illiberal power challenging the U.S. meddling in world politics. For example their alliance on UNSC on issues about Syria blocs any interference on Russian interests and limits UN’s humanitarian capabilities (AlJazeera, Russia and China veto UN extension o cross-border aid to Syria, Accessed April 21, 2021), a display of Chinese philosophy on non-interference into the domestic politics on the global scale. All of these developments inevitably affect the liberal homogeneity of the institutions in the world system leading to a mixture of liberal and authoritarian powers shaping the politics.

U.S. Protectionism During the Trump Era

After the election of Trump in the United States, the nature of global order has changed since the president was not only reluctant to commit to liberal world order but also against it (Demertzis et al., 2018, p. 25). He argued that the ruled-based multilateral system was far from benefitting the U.S citizens and in reality has negatively affected many of them. (Demertzis et al., 2018, p. 25). Trump’s famous campaign slogan “Make America Great Again” in fact implied great American protectionism and a turn away from globalization. According to Trump, free and open trade was responsible for the real-wage stagnation in the U.S and he promised to revive back the domestic American manufacturing sector and bring people jobs (Demertzis et al., 2018, p. 25). These developments were a complete U-turn from the traditional American norms and values promoting open and free trade and institutional collaboration dominating the system since the end of the Second World War. Not surprisingly this situation had implications on the international system such as the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement or its threat to leave the North American Free Trade Agreement (Haas, Liberal World Order R.I.P, Accessed Date: April 21, 2021). It also deteriorated the relations with the European Union.

The Emergence of “Illiberal Democracies” in the EU

The Fidesz Party of Hungary and the Law and Justice Party of Poland are being known as the outliers of the EU’s liberal system for their opposition to elitist nature of EU politics that is argued to be jeopardizing their sovereignty and nationality (Rupnik, 2017, p. 3). The two countries once remembered as the poster child of the EU integration and democratization process (Pap & Simon, 2019, p.65) are now the ones that explicitly challenge the liberal values of the union. Pap and Simon argue that that the root cause of increasing rift from EU is expanding income inequalities in the economic sense, and in the societal context a recoil of excessive modernity and progressive values (Pap & Simon, 2019, p. 65). Rather than following EU norms and values encouraging multilateralism, open borders, supranationalism and so on, these two governments have chosen a path that promotes a return to Christian values and identity politics embracing nationalism at its core opposing “multiculturalism, modernism or even secularism” (Pap & Simon, 2019, p. 66).

In a speech from 2014, Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban expressed that to reach success in the economy, a state does not necessarily be liberal (Rupnik, 2017, p. 7) Likewise, in July 2019 on the 30th Balvanyos Summer Open University and Student Camp, he said: “yes to democracy no to liberalism”(Hungary Today, Accessed April 23, 2021). He further continued by stating that liberalism should be followed only if it benefits a society and it definitely does not benefit Hungarian society (Hungary Today, Accessed April 23, 2021). Lastly, he disagreed with the notion that democracy is equivalent to liberalism and depicted Hungary as a Christian democracy without liberal components (Hungary Today, Accessed April 23, 2021). Yet, if this definition is in fact accurate, then one must question what democracy means to the Fidesz government since the democratic score of the country according to the Freedom House rating system happens only to be 49 out of 100 (Freedom House, Accessed April 23, 2021). In reality, apart from a rupture from the liberal values, Hungary is also heading towards a less democratic system, defined as a “hybrid regime”, somewhere between full democracy and autocracy (Freedom House, Hungary, Accessed April 23, 2021). Likewise, Poland’s democratic index is on decline ranked 65 by the Freedom House, 2 points below from the previous year which qualifies the country to be a “semi consolidated democracy”(Freedom House, Poland, Accessed April 23, 2021). The most affected areas were “judiciary, local democratic governance, and the pluralism of civil society” (Wójcik & Wiatrowski, Executive Summary, Accessed 23 April 2021). Poland had seen Orban as a role model and embraced most of his methods to unravel liberal constitutionalism followed by anti-modernism, anti-cosmopolitanism, and anti- Europeanism (Pap & Simon, 2019, p. 66). In this manner, both Poland and Hungary established a regime that is not only against liberalism and EU multilateralism but also heading apart from democratic values where suppression of opposition, control over the media, and partisanship play an active role in their domestic politics. Pap and Simon (2019, p. 65) argue that this situation prepared the right environment for the jeopardy of the pre-WWII system promoting human rights and democracy (2019, p. 65).

The Repercussions of Rising Illiberalism on EU

The evolving dynamics of the international system – from unipolarity to multipolarity and from liberalism to illiberalism – have inevitable consequences on the politics of the EU due to the fact that it shares close ties with both the U.S. and China and most importantly it has long been at the helm of the liberal world order. Therefore the rise of illiberal powers both outside and within Europe has hampered the liberal norms, values, and practices of the Union.

First, the increasing presence of authoritarian regimes in the world system defined by illiberal terms led the EU to become more pragmatic in its international relations. As discussed, China is now a considerable power in global politics and holds important strategic and economic ties with the rest of the world. EU is now the primary destination for Chinese exports and the second biggest importer of goods after the U.S. making these two countries strongly interconnected (Christiansen & Maher, 2017, p. 123). When it comes to domestic politics, no matter how illiberal and undemocratic China will be Europe has to sustain this trading partnership since it provides prosperity and wealth to both countries. This interdependency decreased the EU’s maneuvering capability to impose liberal norms and rules. Chinese Five Principles of Co-existence is also not welcoming to foreign intervention. Against a rising power that does not embrace liberal norms in its domestic politics and oppose outside interference, Europe does not have many options but to sustain relations without teasing China and due to this economic interdependency and increasing Chinese power. Therefore in their bilateral relations, Europe has to remain silent to the undemocratic behaviors or an aggressive expansion of China towards its neighbors. This situation renders the EU a more pragmatic actor because now it has to blend in with an authoritarian regime that brings wealth to European soils.

Second, the U.S. and the EU had long enjoyed close ties and became partners in managing the liberal world order. The U.S. was a great supporter of the European Union project and assisted the Union towards closer integration. A strong and united EU was of strategic importance for the U.S. to counter the Soviet threat. Therefore the European enlargement towards to East was not perceived as an aggressive expansion. On the contrary, the more states joining the liberal bloc were welcomed. However, former President Donald Trump did not support this liberal project and was not a strong ally to the EU. Although the Union was founded on liberal grounds and was a great defender of liberal rules and values, there are limits to what a lonely EU can do on its own to steer the world towards liberalism, especially at a time when more and more states moved away from it. Demertzis et al, argue that protectionism would not only reduce the welfare of the EU but also affect the whole system and that Trump’s “America first” policy has threatened to hurt the global trading system (2018, p. 28). Trump had also considered the international trading system as a zero-sum game, a perspective that is completely the opposite of liberalism’s embracement of a positive-sum game (Demertzis et al., 2018, p. 25) where everybody could gain something through establishing interdependency among states so that the welfare would not be monopolized. Without an enthusiasm towards interdependency, the EU has turned its face more and more towards the East in the last couple of years, strengthening its ties with China who is illiberal at home but increasingly liberal when it comes to global trade. Apart from economics, the EU was also not sure about how the committed U.S. will be in terms of global security. Considering President Trump’s statements regarding the membership of NATO, this is not surprising. Trump considered the security committee of the U.S. to NATO as “paying the bill” and demanded his European counterparts to share the burden (Zandee, 2018, p. 3). He also several times expressed his willingness to leave NATO if the EU lags behind from its commitment to contribute more to defense spending (Barnes & Cooper, Trump Discussed Pulling U.S. From NATO, Aides Say Amid New Concerns Over Russia, Accessed April 23, 2021). Under this ambiguity, the EU had reconsidered its security climate and put more assertive goals in the 2016 Global Strategy towards deepening security cooperation among its member states (European Union External Action Service, A Global Strategy for the European Union, Accessed April 24, 2021). As a result, U.S. and EU’s divergences on liberalism have signaled that the EU needs more cooperative security strategies since it can no longer be assured from the U.S. security umbrella it had long enjoyed. It has also brought China and the EU closer since Trump did not support liberal institutionalism and global trade throughout his presidency.

Lastly, although the invocation of Article 7 against breaches of human rights and the rule of law, the European parliament is unable to alter the illiberal and undemocratic practices in these countries. This situation discredits the EU’s role as the model for liberalism and democracy. Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union is an instrument to protect the values of the EU listed in Article 2 of the same treaty, which are democracy, rule of law, and human rights (Consolidated version of the Treaty on European Union, Accessed April 24, 2021). The Article gives European institutions to suspend voting rights and impose sanctions against whom the Article was invoked (DW, What is Article 7 of the EU Treaty, Accessed April 24, 2021). However, the threshold to achieve this is very high. After the Parliament, Commission or the one-third of member states invoke the Article against a member state, a majority by four-fifth in the Council has to be achieved in order to agree that there is actually a violation of the law (DW, What is Article 7 of the EU Treaty, Accessed April 24, 2021). Lastly, to impose sanctions, there should be unanimity (DW, What is Article 7 of the EU Treaty, Accessed April 24, 2021). In 2017, the Commission invoked Article 7 against Poland for the first time and the Parliament did the same to Hungary a year after. Yet, due to the complicated process and the high threshold to reach a conclusion, the process got stuck and neither Poland nor Hungary was sanctioned. This situation showed the internal difficulties to warn a member state that violates democratic values. Although the invocation brought sensation and escalated the relations, it was not enough. It is argued that “ the recent period highlights the inability of Article 7 to correct potential deviations from rule of law in the Member States” (Thinking Europe, the Article 7 proceedings against Poland and Hungary: what concrete effects?, Accessed Date: April 24, 2021). EU is now on the way to find alternative measures to curb authoritarianism within the Union and it is worth admiration. However, it has little to do when it comes to shaping the domestic politics of its member states. The wave of authoritarianism within Europe harms the reputation of EU as being the defender of liberal and democratic values.


The world has witnessed a wave of illiberalism in the past couple of years in global politics. A transition from a unipolar to multipolar order marked by the rise of China and declining U.S. power and rising illiberalism within the EU contributed to the decline of liberalism in the international system. After the end of the Cold War, U.S. had enjoyed the position of the unipolar and led the world towards globalization, multilateralism, and democracy where the EU was a valuable counterpart. However, with the rise of China, the nature of the order is being changed. China does not have the ambition to be the leader of the free world nor it has any intention to interfere with other states’ domestic politics to lead them towards liberalism. The presidency of Trump likewise hindered the established order because of his protectionist stance that was against open trade and international institutions. Lastly, democratic backsliding in Hungary and Poland increased authoritarianism within the EU. All of these developments had consequences on EU politics. Against a rising China, the EU had become more pragmatic. Trump’s protectionism contributed to the questioning of the U.S. security umbrella and the cases of Hungary and Poland led to the invocation of Article 7 which was insufficient to curb these two states.

Aslınur İnancı



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