EDITORIAL: Visegrad after Trump

Reflecting on the consequences of Trump’s victory for the countries of Central Europe, we should start by saying that there is no such thing as Central Europe. It is only a concept, albeit with a rich history and extensive bibliography, including works by political scientists and poets, who for the last one hundred years have been trying to define the contours of this elusive territory. Central Europe exists on maps and in the European awareness as a separate and indeterminate entity, that is a non-West, but also a non-East, only during World War I, or to be more precise, as a result of a breakup of three dynastic empires: Prussia of the Hohenzollerns, the Habsburg Austria, and Russia of the Romanovs, which had controlled the geographic center of the continent since late 18th century until 1918.

The concept of Mitteleuropa (1915), justifying the German hegemony in the region and its expected expansion to the east, collided in this period with at least four counterproposals, to name only those of Slavic provenance: the Serb and Croat idea of Yugoslavia, the Czechoslovak idea of Central Europe, the Polish concept of Intermarium, and the boldest Russian idea of a universal proletarian revolution. All of them gradually lost their foundations and finally, in the last decade of the 20th century, gave way to the pragmatic formula of the Visegrad Group.

The only binding factor of this organization was the pro-Western (that is pro-American and pro-European) orientation of the participating countries: Czechia, Slovakia, Poland, and Hungary. They had no ambition of establishing a regional block, they refused to admit new members (although there were some willing candidates), they often disparaged their partners as less advanced and less developed, and they practically cut off their relations with other post-communist states (especially the Balkans and the former Soviet Union). Simply put, it was a completely utilitarian relationship between four post-communist societies, self-appointed leaders of the region not so much interested in each other (or even less interested in each other than ever before, especially in the context of the relations between Czechs and Slovaks), but having a common interest in a rapid accession to the security and economic structures of the Western world (NATO and the EU).

But the West—as we all too often forget— is also just a term or, to quote Professor Jan Kieniewicz, a conceptual aggregate, invented in 18th-century Europe and serving as a tool of cultural domination over the rest of the world. In the second half of the 20th century, as a result of two wars for global hegemony triggered by former European powers and resolved by emerging powers of the East (the Soviet Union) and the West (the United States), the West was identified with the “Atlantic space,” that is the area of American domination. The positive image of the West as a hotbed of such virtues as freedom, private property, the rule of law, democracy, and progress, was traditionally contrasted with the image of the East as a reverse of the West, a reservoir of enslavement, poverty, injustice, despotism, ignorance, and backwardness. The positive image of the West has been damaged to a large extent by the victory of Donald Trump.

This does not change the fact that the common denominator of the Visegrad Group countries today is above all a very profound level of integration with the German economy. In all likelihood this state of affairs not only will not change, but also will deepen, regardless of the future fate of the European Union and the eurozone. The countries of the Visegrad Group in the immediate future will find themselves under an even stronger pressure from German economy and politics. Czechia, Slovakia, Hungary, and Poland (but also Slovenia, Croatia, and the Baltic states) have returned not so much to the

West, but to Mitteleuropa, that is the European space shaped by the legacy of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, or the Habsburg Empire. In the last quarter-century, and especially in the period after the recent EU enlargements (2004, 2007, 2013), this space has experienced an economic revival (despite the ongoing 2008 financial crisis and recession in many European Union countries). But only within the EU, with its 500 million strong market and equal opportunities policy, Eastern European countries may hope that in the next quarter-century they will remain the fastest-growing part of the continent.

The best response to the growth of the German economic power and possible weakening of transatlantic ties is a deeper political integration of the region within a more integrated European Union. Only a close political integration gives European governments (including the government in Berlin) a chance to curb the appetites of international capital. A deeper integration obviously assumes an active participation in European projects (such as a common migration policy). Therefore, it demands from the societies of Eastern Europe that they do what the Germans did and “reinvent themselves,” which means above all that they must reject the myth of an ethnically pure center of Europe.

This may prove impossible in the countries which in the 20th century experienced the greatest ethnic cleansing in modern history – and today are the largest reservoir of job migration in the entire European Union. But the price for the Central European illusion of splendid isolation will be a continued marginalization of the peripheries of Europe, the rule of “political monsters,” exploitation by international–mainly German–capital, and last but not least, the growing threat from Putin’s Russia.

Aleksander Kaczorowski

Aleksander Kaczorowski is an editor-in-chief of Aspen Review Central Europe, former deputy editor-in-chief of Newsweek Polska and chief editor of the Op-ed section of Gazeta Wyborcza. His recent books include biographies of Václav Havel or Bohumil Hrabal. He won Václav Burian Prize for cultural contribution to the Central European dialogue (2016).

Share this on social media

Support Aspen Institute

The support of our corporate partners, individual members and donors is critical to sustaining our work. We encourage you to join us at our roundtable discussions, forums, symposia, and special event dinners.