international analysis and commentary

Europe, East and West: Is there a Central European anomaly?

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In May 2014, the European Union celebrated 10 years since its Eastern enlargement: between 2004 and 2007 twelve more countries from Eastern and Central Europe joined the 15 member states, symbolically signaling an end in their transition from communism and planned economy to liberal democracy and the free market.

It was a remarkable event – even mentioned among the motivations for the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize awarded to the EU – and yet celebrations were low key. The year 2004 might be considered the zenith point of enthusiasm for the European ideal, as it saw the completion of the second major European project of the 1990s beside the monetary union. To the contrary, 2014 somehow signaled its nadir, with the euro crisis and Russia’s war in Ukraine hampering both the EU dreams of prosperity and peace on the continent.

The ten years since the Eastern enlargement, however, also signaled the remarkable resilience of the European construction. The much feared blockage of the institutions did not appear. Even weak bodies such as the European party federations in the context of the Parliament proved capable of absorbing the political parties of the new member states, organizing the preferences of European citizens along the main center-left/center-right axis, with its generally moderate character. This was attested by the low rates of new non-core power in the European Parliament (the political parties outside the main three European groups of conservatives, liberals and socialists).

Similarly, the much feared post-accession setback of the EU acquis in the new member states did not materialize either, with the new member states keeping score of compliance on a similar level to the older ones even in absence of high powered conditionality. This convergence process signaled both the consolidation of domestic institutions and the take-off of their European socialization.

The entrenchment of the euro crisis after the eastward expansion of the Eurozone (to Slovakia and the Baltics) has shown the blurring of the East-West divide and the development of a stronger – for the time being – dividing line between northern and southern member states (roughly coinciding with the creditors-debtors cleavage). This has gone hand in hand with the deepening of the politicization of the European debate. The fall of the Slovakian government of Iveta Radičová in 2011 on the eurozone bailout fund marked the first time a national government met with a premature end due to European affairs.

And yet, recurrent crises in Romania, the consolidation of a “dominant party” system in Hungary, and the pervasiveness of corruption in Bulgaria have all contributed to concerns about the consolidation and quality of democracy in the new member states. In all of them, the EU has been a strong reference point, both rhetorically for governmental elites and materially for opposition leaders in search of a modernization paradigm drawing upon European resources to fight their domestic battles – as attested recently by the appointment of former Commissioner Dacian Ciolo as the new Prime Minister of Romania.

However, the behavior and motives of the Central European governments and societies remain hard to fully grasp for Western European citizens. Stupefaction has followed the images of new walls being erected in the middle of Europe – specifically in Hungary in the course of the summer – as well as the stubborn opposition of all other Central European new member states to any compulsory plans of redistribution of the mostly Syrian refugees crossing the Aegean and embarking upon the Western Balkan route to open their way from the overcrowded refugee camps in Turkey.

The opposition of Central European governments to solidarity measures in the refugee crisis, and the growing xenophobia (and specifically islamophobia) of their societies have appeared rather incongruous for countries that have an almost zero level of immigration – and whose citizens have recently widely benefited from their freedom of movement towards richer Western countries. All the more if one considers that these countries have been, more broadly, the main beneficiaries of European integration in the last decade, both in terms of trade and of European funds, for rural and urban areas alike. Neither would it help, for instance, to remind Hungarians of the moment in which 200,000 of their people crossed the Yugoslav border in 1956 to escape Soviet tanks, nor as Matteo Renzi recently did to remind Central Europeans of the benefits they drew from EU integration. Rather, this would just bring back to the surface old grievances towards the West.

On the one hand, the islamophobia rising in Central Europe is linked to the paradox of xenophobia – it is easier to hate and scapegoat immigrants when they are a relatively unknown or alien element to society, rather than when they are your neighbor, nurse or customer. This may be the reason why, even in Germany, the Pegida movement has taken off mostly in Dresden, where unemployment is high and immigrants are a tiny presence, rather than in the areas of the Ruhr, where there is a strong concentration of both migrants and economic activities. Similarly, in France, the areas of main support for the Front National coincide with areas of strong unemployment and low migrant presence.

To this, in the case of Central European countries, one can add the still present sentiment of relative deprivation and grievance towards 20th century history. In fear of losing even the little regained in the last two decades, “we’re not yet rich enough to be able to share our wealth” seems to be the common sense answer of Central European citizens to calls for solidarity.

Should it consolidate, a cross-partisan euroskeptic Central European bloc would be a stumbling block for further European integration. In fact, the ideological divide between social-democratic (as in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, as well as in Romania) and conservative governments (as in Hungary) has not hindered the creation of cross-partisan coalitions on issues such as migration and asylum, with Slovakia’s socialist Robert Fico and Hungary’s conservative Viktor Orbán as the spearheads of Central European skepticism to any European solution.

So far, the consolidation of such a bloc, has been dispelled by the closeness of Polish governments to Berlin rather than to Budapest and Prague – Poland being the biggest country in the region, with a larger population than all the others combined. The comeback of a right-wing government in Warsaw following the last election, though, could make this risk real, as highlighted by the populist positions of closure towards refugees fleeing from conflict in Syria taken by the new conservative government in Poland after the Paris attacks.

To avoid a new East-West divide in the EU from crystallizing and reach the needed political compromises in Brussels, it will thus be necessary to take the concerns of Central European countries seriously, even when they might seem less reasonable than their partners would expect, and negotiate relevant “payoffs” while ensuring that the main European values are not hindered. After all, tradeoffs and forms of compensation are a regular feature of EU decision-making.

Equally, Central European societies are not to be taken as monolithic and unchangeable. The debate they are going through is to be followed closely, also in order to appreciate the strong differences between the xenophobic propaganda of right-wing groups and the incredible effort offered by citizens to welcome refugees on the move – for instance by the informal groups of volunteers from the Czech Republic and elsewhere, on the forefront to help Syrians and other refugees while they cross the Serbia/Croatia border.