Research Spotlight: Matthew Stenberg on European Politics

by Alex Kaplan

Matthew Stenberg is a Ph.D. candidate in comparative politics in the Travers Department of Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley.  He is also pursuing Berkeley’s interdisciplinary designated emphasis in Global Metropolitan Studies. At Berkeley, he founded the European Politics Working Group in the Institute for European Studies and is affiliated with the Berkeley Program in Eurasian and East European Studies at the Institute of Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies. IES URAP student Alex Kaplan spoke with Matthew to discuss his research interests which cover democracy and democratic institutions, urban and subnational politics, European multi-level governance and the European Union, post-Socialism, administrative capacity, and Central Europe. 

What is your connection to Europe and European Studies?

Europe is something I’ve been researching for the past 15 years since I started out as a European History major during my undergraduate studies. When I studied abroad in Freiburg, Germany, during my last semester of college, I became more interested in contemporary things like the EU as an institution and how it works. 

What are your specific research interests?

I am interested in how multi-level politics in Europe affects democratic backsliding (i.e. regions where there is democratic decline). I study two different sets of things. One is looking at municipal politics in backsliding countries like Hungary and Poland to see how dominant, rightwing parties use local politics to help solidify their control. The other part I look at is the role of the European Parliament and its oversight related to the rise of euroscepticism and the ability of national governments to be held accountable by opposition parties. 

What are some of the past projects you have worked on? What were you investigating?

A recent paper I co-authored (Everyday Illiberalism: How Hungarian Subnational Politics Propel Single Party Dominance) looks at the ways Fidesz (a national-conservative, right-wing political party in Hungary) uses the local government level to reinforce its control of national politics. Fidesz does this primarily by making it more difficult for opposition parties to use local politics to gain credibility and challenge the regime. Such subnational mechanisms include changing city councils’ rules to make it difficult for the opposition to fairly contest elections and exert oversight. 

My dissertation project looks at mayoral elections from 2002-2019 in Hungary. I look at how Fidesz performs in these elections and where they are especially likely to have candidates contest (and win) those elections. I find that Fidesz has been winning at a very high rate in sub-national capitals, akin to county seats in the U.S.These seats essentially let Fidesz control administrative procedures and let Fidesz distribute resources which are used to solidify their control. 

Why do you think democratic backsliding is so pervasive in Eastern Europe?

Existing literature suggests that political parties in Eastern Europe like Fidesz are less programmatic than in Western Europe and that they are less focused on ideological policymaking. This might make them more susceptible to being “captured” by interests who want to use those parties for political gains, but this is not universally true. For example, PiS (a national conservative and right-wing political party in Poland) is very dogmatic, and their dogma is pushing them to undermine democratic institutions because they see those institutions as challenging their worldview.

What impact have these projects had on your career and teaching?

My research has given me the ability to talk about abstract concepts in more concrete ways. I certainly try to draw upon the aspects of my research that tie into the broader concepts that need to be covered in class. And a lot of my research does come up in my classes; my research on backsliding and the European Parliament are very relevant to my European Union course (POLSCI 122A). 

Do you see any parallels between democratic backsliding in Europe and what we have seen in the U.S. under the Trump administration? 

There are very clear parallels and I think it’s not at all a coincidence to have seen the Trump Administration talk about [Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor] Orban in a positive light and vice-versa. There is some affinity between the U.S. and regimes that are pushing forward democratic backsliding, especially (but not exclusively) over the past 4 years. Looking at the state level in the U.S., we have seen major efforts to disenfranchise voters and limit the ability of opposition parties to fairly contest elections. 

What is your forecast about transatlantic E.U.-U.S. cooperation under the Biden Administration?

I think Europe is going to have a feeling in the back of their mind of how credible they will find the U.S. position over the next four to eight years. Trump was very consciously dismissive of NATO, while Biden is pro-NATO, but this is coming on the heels of a schism between the U.S. and Europe that emerged under the Bush administration. The U.S. can only burn Europe so many times before they start to realize what happens when they touch the pot. Europe is going to be perfectly happy to repair relations with the U.S., but I also don’t think they are going to go completely all in. 

What are the most salient political trends in Europe that should be on our radar? 

It’s clear that the E.U. has struggled institutionally to respond to bad actors. Much like many other countries, the laws and treaties that fundamentally undergird the E.U. weren’t designed to take into account a member state that doesn’t inherently believe in democracy. The E.U. wasn’t designed to deal with one bad actor, and now there are multiple. While the E.U. has created mechanisms that could theoretically respond to this, it doesn’t have a clear path forward about how to address it. 

 

To learn more about Matthew’s research and read his published papers, visit his website (http://www.matthewstenberg.com). In Spring 2021, Matthew will be teaching POLSCI 149P: The History and Politics of Germany