🌊 Christian democracy is to blame for Europe’s democratic backsliding

Christian democracy is the political culture that has been the driving force behind European integration. Yet, according to Martino Comelli, it has also facilitated the democratic backsliding of some countries of central and east Europe by providing an illiberal political toolbox of narratives and policies

From liberal democratic triumph to democratic backsliding

In the space of 20 years, the countries of central and eastern Europe have gone from being living proof of the ‘triumph’ of liberal democracy to constituting the main examples of democratic backsliding. There is now a wealth of literature identifying the origins of eastern European illiberalism. These include populism, the weakness of civil society, the corruption of elites, and social and cultural legacies from the communist period. Such explanations tend to presuppose that a form of ‘civilisational incompetence’ underlines a divergence of these countries from the European mainstream.

Yet this tends to overlook the convergence that has been achieved by East European countries with regard to the respect of economic criteria and demands of the EU. They have, in fact, done this to a greater extent than some Western core countries. The real question, then, is: what went wrong with the politics of East European countries?

Christian democracy has provided the political tools for European integration, at the cost of facilitating democratic backsliding

Some have argued that the EU effectively created an economic space which was sheltered from the realm of domestic politics. This allowed, in central and eastern European countries, an authoritarian equilibrium to develop – a typical Polanyian dynamic. Yet, this European integration would not have been possible without some form of convergence politics. I argue that it is Christian democracy – the main political culture driving postwar European integration – that has provided the political tools to make this integration smoother. But it has come at the cost of unwittingly facilitating democratic backsliding in these countries.

Christianity and liberalism

I posit a morphological similarity between Christian democracy and liberalism. According to the Polanyian analysis, liberalism is a political experiment conducted with ‘evangelical fervour’ to sunder economics from society. This makes economics an autonomous, self-governed realm – as happened in the EU. Christian democracy had a similar goal: to isolate and constitutionalise a pre-political ‘natural law’ from the intervention of society.

An intrinsic hostility towards democracy has made Christianity and liberalism unlikely bedfellows

This intrinsic hostility towards democracy has made Christianity and liberalism unlikely bedfellows. Christian democracy, then, represented the European way of liberalism. Politically, both have worked to tame and present a new version of democracy much more restrained in limits, goals, and possibilities.

Christian democracy is rooted in an age-old conflict between Christianity and popular sovereignty that began after the French Revolution. But, in 20th century Christian democracy, the two ideas have found common cause. 'Authoritarian liberalism' is a paradoxical term invented by German legal scholar Hermann Heller in the '30s to mock Carl Schmitt’s vision of an ideal state where the economic initiative is free within a state boasting a restrictive rule of law and limitations to democratic rule. This vision was further developed by other thinkers of what became known as Ordoliberalism.


Their thinking shows remarkable continuity before, during and after Nazism. For example, Alfred Müller-Armack was the first to draw up economic plans for the Reich. He then helped draft the founding document of the Treaty of Rome while working for the German Christian Democratic Union. Müller-Armack adjusted Schmitt’s vision to fit the different political contexts.

Friedrich Hayek also saw supernational federalism as a way of establishing a restrictive rule of law which would have made local government ineffective. This mindset found a natural home in postwar Christian democracy. Traditionally, Christian democracy was suspicious of democratic rule and favoured 'natural law' based on Christian doctrine as a way of regulating society.

Christian democracy was instrumental to European integration. Because there could be no linguistic or national basis to the project, Christian democracy tried to create a common European identity based on Christian roots. It used the traditional family as the foundation of social order, and avoided class politics. A common market required a common vision of society, too.

Christian democratic influence in central and eastern Europe

Central and eastern European countries later used the same political strategies as those of Christian democracy in Western Europe to strengthen social solidarity. With the realm of economics heavily constrained by the EU, politics has had to focus mainly on identity. Politicians like Viktor Orbán in Hungary have used Christian identarian politics to evoke European values while maintaining a form of national solidarity and implementing the EU liberal agenda.

With the realm of economics heavily constrained by the EU, politics has had to focus mainly on identity

In doing so, they have been using the Christian democratic toolbox and following a well-established trend. This is exemplified in the approval of draconian immigration measures in countries such as Italy, France, Switzerland and Denmark. Small wonder that Angela Merkel declared the multiculturalist project to have failed.

Gender and welfare

And then there are the gender and welfare aspects of identity politics. These represent politicisation of culture and de-politicisation of socioeconomics. They include an erosion of the welfare state and a parallel individualisation of household and care responsibilities that shifts responsibility to women and families.

Bismarckian Christian-democratic social policy had the family at the centre of its welfare efforts. The idea of subsidiarity is one of the tenets of Christian democracy. Like Christian identity, the discourse on gender operates as a 'symbolic glue'. It creates an antagonism to politics and a view of gender emancipation as foreign and hostile to traditional values. EU-imposed austerity has resulted in a significant downsizing of welfare in central and east European countries. These countries have followed the models of continental Western Europe in terms of a ‘Bismarckisation’ of welfare that places heteronormative families and work at their centre.


Politicians in central and eastern Europe have, then, used the Christian democratic political toolbox to their own ends. The repeated mantra of ‘dysfunctionality’ of democracy in central and eastern Europe has had, perhaps, the effect of overestimating the democratic health of Western Europe. Here, paradoxically, is where the trend towards democratic backsliding started. Presenting this political convergence as a divergence has exacerbated the (orientalist?) rhetoric of an east-west divide. Unfortunately, all European democracies suffer similar ills.

No.14 in a thread on the 'illiberal wave' 🌊 sweeping world politics

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Martino Comelli
Martino Comelli
PhD Candidate in Political Science, Central European University

Martino's academic interests include household debt, social policy and economic sociology.


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