No time to lose hope

Central Europe at breaking point

19 February 2016
Only in en
There is a genuinely European future for central Europe, insists Michal Koran. But it won't come to fruition without a frank look at the deficiencies that accompanied the transformation of central European societies during the last two decades.

It has become something
of a rule lately that when a Central
European country makes it to the front
pages of a big international newspaper,
it is not cause for celebration. The autumn of 2015 proved this rule to be true
more than many central Europeans would
like to admit. Central European governments,
namely those that actively opposed the European Union’s quotas
as a part of the solution to the immigration
crisis, have found themselves in the spotlight of
a very heated and emotional exchange. Just as
the world was recovering from the surprise of
the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia, among others, disputing
sanctions against Putin’s Russia, it once again stared
in disbelief when confronted with what was generally termed
a lack of solidarity and understanding on the part of these
“new members” of the EU.

The blatantly defensive and self-centered position of
central and eastern Europeans first caused a shock and soon
prompted many people to think about the very foundations of
the region’s belonging to Europe and, in particular, to the EU.
Having witnessed the political development in the region
after EU accession, the fact that this was at all shocking is
itself surprising – any involved observer would have had all the
evidence he or she needed on hand to support a claim that the
troubles in central Europe have been brewing for some time.
But, as I will explain later, it was convenient for the West to
overlook this evidence and for central European governments
to benefit from this conscious negligence.

On the other hand, if what has been happening in central Europe
now serves as a wake-up call, all we can say is – better
late than never. Yet, such a critical review of central Europe
must acquire a different form than that of an emotional bashing
from the West, and central-eastern Europe’s no less emotive rejection of the legitimacy of this moral tongue-lashing, which is what we have experienced so far.

If we continue to engage in this kind of dialogue, we run the
risk of losing the single biggest achievement central Europe
has given Europe in centuries; a peaceful, non-antagonist, and
even cooperative way of living with each other and within a
larger entity without being forcefully coerced into it by an outside
power.

Europe truly faces the threat that this region will once again become
a group of largely antagonized states – antagonized within
themselves, against each other, and against anything that they
individually and arbitrarily choose to define as “the other”. This
would be the epilogue to the dream of Europe, whole and free.
In fact, we are sensing a divisive mood in the region already.
Just as we are prone to forget the immense potential that was stifled by the division of Europe before 1989, hardly
anyone can picture today – if this divisive mood becomes
a reality – the costs to be incurred in all imaginable
spheres of life: social, cultural, political, economic, security,
and environmental.

How did we arrive at such a breaking point? A widely used and
meritorious explanation points to the fact that central Europeans
failed to think about the future of Europe beyond the
immediate goal of their EU membership. In the midst of the
revolutions of 1989, a small group of central European activists,
philosophers, thinkers and dissidents (e.g. Václav Havel
and Lech Walesa) acquired executive powers in their respective
countries and began to realize their dreams of ending the
political, cultural, economic and social divisions of Europe.
EC/EU membership was to them one step along this path,
though hardly the end goal. And yet, having secured a wide
(yet possibly shallow) base of public support for EU membership,
broader ideals gave way to the burdensome process of
managing and administrating the EU membership process – but
never quite made it back to the realm of central European
politics. Intellectually, it was easier to adapt to externally
provided conditions than to engage in the demanding and
risky business of thinking about the future of Europe beyond
the more attainable and immediate goal of EU membership.

What we now witness with growing urgency are the effects of the
leading political figures in Central Europe having failed to internalize
the basic principles of European integration. The EU is still present as an external entity in the
minds of the majority of central European politicians, serving
nicely as a source of money, as a straw man to fend off public
frustrations, and as a platform for numerous photo opportunities.
This, of course, is an exaggeration, but only to a degree.
Central Europeans have, in fact, many historical reasons to
keep their minds locked in the narrow confines of their immediate
environs, be it family, community, social class or nation.
Too many times in its painful history, “the evil” came from
outside of central Europe, despite the region making every effort to be invisible
to the European powers. Yet, the more this historical narrative
is utilized, the more it is abused, and the more central
Europeans willingly turn a blind eye to vices of their
own making.

We can see many structural weaknesses in societies and
politics in central Europe on the rise in the rest of the EU too
– populism, xenophobia, distrust in political parties and parliamentary
politics, disbelief in the EU, and so forth. But, while
there are strong political figures promoting these popular anxieties
and frustrations all over Europe, what central Europe
is missing – as opposed to countries with longer democratic
traditions – are those able to offer strong political
leadership and alternatives to populism or hiding behind the
back of Brussels.

This owes a lot to a mutual hypocrisy among
the so-called old and new members of the Euro-Atlantic community.
For more than a decade, central Europe has lived a
blasé life, wrapped in the cozy blanket of the illusion that it had
successfully managed its difficult transformation and become
a fully democratic European region with well-functioning
market economies and responsible societies. It was hoped
that these societies would eventually lead to improvements in the
still murky world of everyday politics. This illusion was further
augmented by both the European Union and the United States
as they – and rightly so – needed success stories of democratic
transition. Not to mention that the world has had
more pressing tasks to accomplish than paying attention to a once
problematic region. Naturally, it was far more effective to see
central Europe as fixed once and for all than to confuse the
world by asking unpleasant questions.

Thus, from being “students” of the European Union and
democracy, central Europeans became “teachers” almost
overnight following EU accession, and happily accepted the
role of providing transformation assistance to countries
further to the east and in the south. As a consequence, central
European governments could focus general attention on the
deficiencies of other countries while happily playing the role of
those who have put their own house in order and are therefore able
to provide some valuable advice.
All these factors contributed
heavily to the increasing volume of economic and democratic
transformation deficiencies that were kept neatly under the
carpet. And these deficiencies are dire – widespread corruption,
a disenchanted public, a weakening sense of responsibility
to name just a few. Of course, it was a convenient way of
doing business for both sides – the central European governments
were able to keep others from looking too closely, and
the EU and the United States could put central Europe on a
pedestal, showcasing success in democratic transition while
avoiding any burdensome, and possibly problematic, inquiries.

We are all now paying dearly for this complacency.
Western Europe must now demonstrate its frustration with central
Europe much more fiercely than it would have if it had paid
attention to the political, social, and economic development
of the past decade. Some central Europeans, on the other
hand, are on the brink of fully utilizing this clash with the rest
of Europe for their own domestic and short-sighted political
goals.

Just as it was wrong to assume that the transformation
process has been successfully concluded in central Europe, it
is wrong to assume that all hope is now lost. As mentioned
above, the challenges that European societies face nowadays are
indeed similar. Large segments of central European
societies feel that they find themselves on the wrong
side of the economic transformation, just as large segments of societies in the rest of Europe feel
that they find themselves on the wrong side of globalization
and European integration. There are individuals and political
movements all over Europe eager to escalate and abuse
this genuine frustration and to transform it into political
power that would later be used not for creating a solution but
for garnering power itself. If there is less political will and
responsibility in central Europe to withstand these populist
trends, this might be due to the lack of experience with democracy
throughout its societies – not because of some inherent
wickedness on the part of the people.

There is no magic formula to tackle this potentially
devastating conundrum. The sterile calls for more political
responsibility, more political leadership, more unity, and more
civic engagement will not have an impact because they underestimate
the nature of politics today. What we might hope for
is that the current crisis will help those positive
elements to resurface that aided the rebuilding of Europe after World War
II and the re-creation of Europe after 1989. We can maintain
an optimism about such circumstances creating potential for candid retrospection about what went wrong with the transformation
of central European societies. There were times in
the 1970s and 1980s when a handful of central European dissidents
were able to act as a biting conscience not only against
the communist regimes but also, and perhaps even more importantly,
against the “consumer happiness” of western societies
that shielded their sights from what was happening in
eastern Europe. This means that there is a lot of intellectual
potential in central Europe. If nothing else, central Europeans
can serve as a reflection of Europe’s own problems. There is a
genuine European future for central Europe, the problem is
that the roads to this future are growing ever more narrow and
steep and there are fewer people to suggest a credible solution.
To look more frankly into the history of the past two decades,
however, might be a good start.

Published 19 February 2016

Original in English
First published in Visgrad Insight 2/2015

Contributed by Res Publica Nowa
© Michal Koran / Visgrad Insight Eurozine

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