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.