Erhard Busek: Brussels Has to Learn How to Talk with Central and Eastern Europe

It’s profoundly unfair to blame solely the new democracies of Visegrad group for anti-European sentiments—says Erhard Busek in an interview with Jakub Majmurek.

JAKUB MAJMUREK: Year 2018 marks not only the one-hundred-year anniversary of the end of World War I, but also of the end of the reign of House of Habsburg and Habsburg Empire. Is that issue discussed in Austria today? Do you believe that the legacy of Habsburg Empire is still significant for the Central and Eastern Europe?

ERHARD BUSEK: I wouldn’t necessarily say that it’s very widely discussed here, in Austria. It’s clearly not an issue which would be crucial for contemporary Austrian politics. And as for the Central and Eastern Europe, I’d say that what is still important for the politics of the region is perhaps not the legacy of Habsburgs, but of the disintegration of their rule, and the wave of nationalism following it after the end of the World War I.

One can argue that today as well we can observe a kind of populist, anti-European revolt in the Central and Eastern Europe, led by such politicians as Viktor Orbán or Jarosław Kaczyński. Would you agree with that opinion?

First of all, it needs to be said that a populist wave is going through the whole Europe. There’s a lot of populism in developed, Western democracies. Look at what is happening in France, in Belgium, in the Netherlands, and so on, and so forth. Look at the US, where Trump won presidential elections campaigning with “America First.”

One can also point to Austria in that matter. The government of Christian-Democratic Chancellor Sebastian Kurz is supported by a populist Freedom Party.

Yes, it’s happening for the second time. I think that it would be a challenge both for Europe and Chancellor Kurz to learn how to handle that situation, how to block the Freedom Party from leading the government in the populist direction. But, to come back to the Central and Eastern Europe, I think it’s profoundly unfair to blame solely the new democracies of Visegrad group for anti-European sentiments.

Western European political and opinion leaders are very often lacking basic knowledge about the Central and Eastern Europe, they’ve got no clue what is really happening there.

For a long time I’ve been criticizing the way in which the Western countries, old member states of the EU, perceive what is happening in the so-called East (which is actually the middle of Europe). Western European political and opinion leaders are very often lacking basic knowledge about the Central and Eastern Europe, they’ve got no clue what is really happening there. They’re often treating Central and Eastern Europe like it was one homogenous block. While in reality, the situation in Czechia is rather different than that in Poland, or in the Hungary. Look at the Czech Republic. The economy is really good, the country is cooperating with European institutions, and, despite some obvious problems, the general situation doesn’t look that bad.

 

What do you think about the recent developments in Slovakia, where Robert Fico had to resign as the head of government after mass protests following the assassination of the investigative journalist Ján Kuciak?

I was very impressed with what I saw in Slovakia. It was the biggest mobilization in that country since the fall of communism. Once again, it shows that we can’t treat Central-Eastern Europe as one, homogeneous bloc. That we sometimes have to talk directly to the civil society in the region. We witnessed how the citizens of Slovakia raised against the corrupted politics of their government. This is something which should be supported. But in order to be able to do it, we need the knowledge about differences between the situation in Slovakia and let’s say Poland. Ignorance in that matter is making a genuine discussion about the real problems of the region very difficult.

And the real problems of the region are?

The main problem of Central and European countries is their own history. They’ve all left the communist system still no so long ago. Perhaps not long enough to develop stable democracies. And even the stable democracies are currently facing very grave challenges: globalization, technological changes, mass migration.

I was very impressed with what I saw in Slovakia. It was the biggest mobilization in that country since the fall of communism.

 

It can all understandably lead to some primitive, populist reactions, both in the new democracies and the old. There’s an old joke about a man who says “It’s horrible how everyone is thinking only about himself, only I think about myself!”—and this is how European politics does look like today.

Do you think that Western European elites have a feeling that countries of “New Europe” gave up on integration, that they want to opt-out from European project?

Once again, it’s a misunderstanding. We can’t assume that the people living in Central and Eastern Europe would become Europeans the day after their countries join European Union. It’s a long, demanding process. Visegrad countries and their societies still have a lot to learn about living in integrated Europe and the Western countries should teach them showing some patience and empathy in that process. European leaders have to talk with each other. They can’t just make announcements in the media. I’ve been criticizing Austrian government for some time that it stopped talking with Orbán—we used to have many meetings with Hungarian government. If we still had, it could help solve some problems.

 

Some European leaders, like French President Emmanuel Macron, believe that the differences you’re talking about should be reflected in the structure of the EU, in the project of “two-speed Europe.”

I think it’s a terrible idea. In Central and Eastern Europe it’s—quite rightly I believe—regarded as discriminatory towards new member states. And it’s just natural that when you feel that you’re discriminated, you’re trying to protect yourself—this is how the Eastern part of EU is reacting to Macron’s proposals.

It shows that we can’t treat Central-Eastern Europe as one, homogeneous bloc.

Do you think that Macron’s plans for tighter integration of the eurozone have any chance of success?

I’m not sure about that. If you look at Angela Merkel, she sounds a bit different than Macron when she’s talking about the future of Europe. She’s rather in favor of sort of compromise with Central and Eastern European countries. Macron’s proposals are not generally accepted even in France—French parliament hasn’t yet made any decision on that subject.

One of the main points of a heated discussion between the “New” and the “Old” Europe is the process of relocation of refugees. Why did it become such a huge issue in the Central and Eastern Europe?

Once again: it all comes down to the lack of dialogue. The European institutions are dictating the terms of relocation, there’s no real discussion with Eastern European partners. We should also remember that Western countries did actually very little to help the Italians and Greeks with the refugee crisis. We can’t blame Orbán for everything, can we?

The main problem of Central and European countries is their own history. They’ve all left the communist system still no so long ago. Perhaps not long enough to develop stable democracies.

But don’t you think that the proposition that Poland should accept less than 10 thousand refugees is actually quite reasonable? It shouldn’t be so controversial, should it?

The issue is not with the numbers, but with the lack of debate. The public opinion in “New Europe” can have a legitimate feeling that Europe is forcing them to accept the refugees, that it’s not respecting the democratic decisions of the Central and Eastern European nations.

 

There’s an ongoing argument between European Commission and Polish government about the rule of law in Poland and their reforms of the judiciary. How should European institutions deal with Poland?

I think that European Union is totally correct here. Polish government is breaking the rules of the EU. Brussels should criticize and put pressure on Polish government, but at the same time talk with it. When was the last meeting between any important politician of the European Commission and Mr. Kaczyński?

Well, one can argue that Mr. Kaczyński is just a member of Polish Parliament, he doesn’t hold any office.

Sorry, but it’s a silly answer. You need all your resources to influence the decisions of Polish government. Nothing bad would happen if one of the EU commissioners asked for a meeting with Jarosław Kaczyński.

The problem is that in matters of judiciary reform the Polish government doesn’t seem very eager to make any significant steps back.

Yes, that’s why the European Commission should also bear in mind that the current government and it’s politics is backed only by the minority of Poles. The European leaders should not only talk with Law and Justice Party, but also try to reach the majority of Polish citizens, undertaking dialogue through a vast, dense network of institutions of civil society in Poland.

It’s just natural that when you feel that you’re discriminated, you’re trying to protect yourself—this is how the Eastern part of EU is reacting to Macron’s proposals.

To what end the conflict between Warsaw and Brussels could lead?

It’s up to European Commission and European Council. You can be sure of one thing, though: there’s going to be no “Polexit.” Poland is far too big and far too important for the EU to let it quit.

Law and Justice Party believes that Poland is a natural leader of the region. The government is trying to integrate Central European countries around such projects as Three Seas Initiative. What do you think about the prospects of such endeavors?

I’ve been observing politics for some time now, and after many years of experience I can say that almost every government is inventing new institutions to raise its influence. Many of them are vanishing after more or less brief period of time. To give you an example, I was instrumental in creating Central European Initiative decades ago. Now it hardly functions.

What do you think are the greatest threats for Central European region and EU in general in the near future?

I think that’s part of the problem, we’re panicking about Orbán instead of discussing the real issues. Because the real danger for Europe is not Kaczyński but the politics of Mr. Putin. The real threat may come from the deeds of Turkey. Or from Chinese engagement in Africa, which could result in a new migration crisis. Besides that, Chinese are on a good way to overtake large part of European economy—unless Europe strengthens itself. These are the strategic problems, I’d worry more about them than about Mr. Kaczyński.

 

You’ve mentioned Putin as a “real problem” for Europe. What do you think we can expect from his third term?

It’s going to be a tough one, that’s all that we can predict right now. I think that the West should perhaps reconsider its strategy towards Putin. I’m quite sceptical about the sanctions. They don’t seem to be working, maybe we need a different approach, try some dialogue with the Russian leader. It’s obvious that Putin did break international law many times and Russia clearly deserved to be punished, but when you’re imposing sanctions you also need a plan how to come out from them.

And what about Ukraine in that situation?

The good thing is that it was possible to achieve some kind of armistice. It’s sadly not completely respected on both sides, but it’s partially working. EU should put pressure both on Moscow and Kiev to make them fulfil their promises.

But it doesn’t solve the Ukrainian problem in the long term, does it? What should be the blueprint of European politics towards Ukraine?

Europe has to learn from the failure of its own actions. Member states of the EU have no clue what the situation in Ukraine is really like. In the past we failed to develop a cohesive neighborhood policy towards Ukraine—one that could help the Ukrainian state boost its economy, social affairs, civil society. The events of both Maidan revolutions were the effect of that failure. Now we have to develop a new plan for strategic cooperation.


Erhard Busek

is former Vice Chancellor of Austria, minister for education, and chairman of the Chris- tian-conservative Austrian People ́s Party (ÖVP). In the past he served as a City Councilor and was elected Deputy-Mayor of Vienna. He is the Chairman of the Institute for the Danube Region and Central Europe. He was President of the European Forum Alpbach (EFA) from 2000 until 2012. In 2005, Mr. Busek became Chairman of the Advisory Board of Trustees of “ERSTE Foundation” and President of the Vienna Economic Forum. He is also President of the EU-Russia Centre since 2010, and in 2009 he was an adviser to the Czech EU-Presidency. His most recent book is Mitteleuropa revisited: Warum Europas Zukunft in Mitteleuropa entschieden wird (2018), co-written with Emil Brix.

Jakub Majmurek

is a political pundit, film and art critic, based in Warsaw. He cooperates on a regular basis with media such as the largest Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza, Aspen Review and Kino. He is part of the editorial team of Krytyka Polityczna – a leftist think tank, publishing house and internet daily. Apart from commenting on contemporary Polish politics Mr. Majmurek writes about new social movements in Europe and the US, politics of popular culture, political dimensions of contemporary cinema and art.

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