When western European political leaders meet their central and eastern European counterparts, all they want to discuss is the crisis of democracy and the erosion of the rule of law. The priority for the latter, however, is the demographic crisis and the depopulation of their countries.

Andrej Plenkovic, the prime minister of Croatia, which currently holds the rotating presidency of the EU, defined depopulation as Europe’s “existential problem” in his recent meeting with the new European Council president, Charles Michel.

But might there be a connection between the twin crises of democracy and demography? Rather than viewing rising illiberalism in central and eastern Europe as the inevitable return of atavistic nationalism and authoritarianism, it might instead be understood as something new: an attempt to preserve the power of shrinking ethnocultural majorities in the face of population decline and increased migration. The UN estimates that, since the 1990s, the nations of Europe’s east have lost about 6 per cent of their collective population, or about 18m people.

In 1939, almost a third of Poland’s inhabitants were something other than ethnic Poles (there were substantial German, Jewish, Ukrainian, and other minorities). Today, ethnic Poles account for more than 95 per cent of Polish citizens. But in this century, those trends have begun to reverse. What the political historian Joseph Rothschild calls a “return to diversity” has become increasingly apparent.

To manage this “diversification”, central and eastern European societies will need to unlearn what many of them still see as the 20th century’s biggest lesson — that ethnic and cultural diversity is less an advantage and more of a security threat.

In a democracy, numbers matter. When they change, political power often changes as well. Central and eastern Europe has witnessed a version of this phenomenon. Millions of people have moved away, mostly to the west, and liberal political forces have seen their influence drop considerably as a consequence, since large numbers of their voters are among those who have chosen to leave.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the new illiberalism is not premised on a policy pledge to keep borders tightly closed. For example, in 2017, Poland, whose government vehemently opposes Brussels’ refugee policies, issued more visas to foreign migrant workers than any other EU member state.

Illiberalism, rather, promises sovereign control over who gets to participate in politics — it reserves the right to distinguish, within countries, between citizens and non-citizens. Foreigners are free to come and work, but they will never be allowed to have any fundamental say in the political process. This is a version, albeit less dramatic in size and scope, of the way the Gulf states treat migrant workers. All are welcome to work, but not to enjoy the benefits of citizenship.

There is obviously a cost to preserving the power of the ethnic majority in diversifying societies. The establishment of a two-tier society, and the resentment it inevitably provokes, is the most obvious consequence. The emergence of a disenfranchised youth is a further, less-obvious outcome. At present, young people constitute a relatively small cohort in central and eastern Europe. Low birth rates and high rates of emigration have seen to that.

This creates a risk that older generations, over-represented in the political system, and who rightly see themselves as the biggest victims of the post-communist transition (with their low pensions and disrupted careers), will block investments in the future. This could trigger a further exodus of young people. Governments face a dilemma, therefore: how to persuade older citizens to sacrifice for their country’s future, even if they suspect that their children or grandchildren will be living elsewhere.

Shutting immigrants out of the political process could, in the space of a few decades, produce a situation in which most working people lack the right to vote, while most voters are retired. In order for such a system to work, either democracy will lose its importance or the regime will become less democratic.

In 1953, following the violent suppression of anti-communist protests in East Berlin, Bertolt Brecht wrote a poem called “The Solution”, in which he sardonically asked whether it would not be “easier” for the rulers “to dissolve the people and elect another”. For today’s illiberal political leaders, Europe is facing its Brechtian moment.

The writer is chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia and fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences, IWM Vienna

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