Some leaders in Central Europe present it as the center of the European Union. In fact, it is the most Euroskeptic part of the EU, which with the exception of Slovakia will long remain beyond the mainstream of European integration.
In early January 2018, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, during a visit of the new Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki in Budapest, gave an interview to Polish public television, where he stated that „in recent years it has turned out that Central Europe is a significant actor in the European arena. […] Previously, European politics was dominated by German-French tandem. Now there is a second axis, Visegrad. The West must get used to it. […] The future is in Central Europe […] The core of Europe is shifting to the East.”
This optimistic vision of a powerful Central Europe had been promoted also by Jarosław Kaczyński. It is worth asking the question how a region where the three most important countries (Czechia, Poland, and Hungary) are not in the eurozone and actually do not want to join it, can be the center of Europe. After Brexit, there will be an overlapping of the EU with the eurozone, for the EU economies outside it produce only about 15 percent of the EU GDP (what is more, some of these countries may adopt the common currency in the medium term).
In fact, Central European societies themselves seem to be the most serious challenge for tying the region with the EU mainstream. Various Euroskeptic elements appear in this region on a large scale.
Another important challenge for the European ambitions of Central Europe are harmful political changes occurring in Poland and Hungary (building an illiberal democracy and dismantling the rule of law), which remove it from the EU mainstream in terms of values and the legal and political system. The scenario of bringing down the rule of law may also appear, in a more moderate version, in Czechia. Paradoxically, the authors of these changes, Viktor Orbán and Jarosław Kaczyński, are the strongest supporters of the claim about the unique power of Central Europe. Both politicians emphasize high support of Central European societies for EU membership. This support, however, is often self-contradictory and based mostly on mercantile calculations (the EU as a source of money).
In fact, Central European societies themselves seem to be the most serious challenge for tying the region with the EU mainstream. Various Euroskeptic elements appear in this region on a large scale (to the least extent in Slovakia). Undoubtedly, the most important common identity feature of the region, distinguishing it from the rest of the EU, is a strong attachment to ethnic nationalism, which contradicts the idea, foundational for the EU, of the civic nation, which prevails in most member states. These differences in defining a nation are much more important than the alleged struggle of Central European “patriots” against cosmopolitan federal utopias from Brussels.
Ethnic Nationalism and Populism
If you had to find one long-term factor which poses the greatest challenge for the integration of Central Europe with the EU mainstream, it would be the “closed” ethnic nationalism (identification with an imaginary monolithic national community, glued together with language and allegedly homogeneous culture or religion, which should coincide with the state) dominating in the region’s societies. Fidesz and Law and Justice (PiS) made it the crucial foundation for their political legitimacy.
Support for ethnic nationalism in Central Europe has grown significantly in recent years. Its rise has a specific nature in every country, but the key common catalyst for its strengthening has been the refugee crisis, presented in the region as a mortal threat. On the other hand, we should remember that the complex cultural-historical context makes the nations of Central Europe more susceptible to ethnic nationalism. The best example of this phenomenon is Hungary, which for close to 100 years has been cultivating the complex of the Trianon Treaty (the Hungarian counterpart of the Versailles Treaty signed in 1920), seeing itself as a victim of an unjust “dictate” (a term regularly used by Hungarian politicians). The current Hungary is just a rump state and the Hungarian ethnic nation divided between the neighbors constitute the main point of reference.
Ethnic nationalism in the V4 countries is strongly tied to populism, that is, presenting themselves as representatives of the alleged genuine will of the people by some of the political forces.
A comprehensive public opinion survey conducted in the spring of 2017 by Pew Research Centre showed that societies of the V4 countries (the study did not cover Slovakia) prefer a model of a monolithic state (one nation, one religion, one culture) rather than ethnic, religious, and cultural pluralism. The strongest advocates of homogeneity are the Czechs, with two thirds of their society supporting it, and less than 30 percent choosing the pluralist model. In Poland and Hungary, more than 55 percent selected the first option, while about 35 percent went for multiculturalism. The Czechs also stood out in terms of their hostility to accepting Muslims and the Roma as fellow citizens. In the context of the Muslims, only 25 percent of the Czechs did not have any objections, and for the Roma the figure was 35 percent.
The strength of ethnic nationalism in the V4 countries was also demonstrated by our very powerful social opposition to the EU program of relocating refugees combined with a huge increase of Islamophobia. Ethnic nationalism in the V4 countries is strongly tied to populism, that is, presenting themselves as representatives of the alleged genuine will of the people by some of the political forces. Many Central European politicians, instead of calming the xenophobic sentiments, reinforce them through playing the nationalist card and through policy of fear in order to garner social support. The scale of the fears allows us to say that moral panic has gained a permanent presence in Central European societies. Such societies are easy to manipulate, especially through the Internet (social media).
In Poland and in Hungary, nationalism goes hand in hand with promoting by the ruling elites of an often purely declarative conservatism and traditionalism presented in opposition to the Western Europe allegedly posing a threat for their national identities. Fidesz and PiS present their countries as the true West based on conservative, Christian, and national values as opposed to the secular, liberal, and multicultural Western Europe. In the autumn of 2016, Kaczyński and Orbán announced that their countries had started a cultural counterrevolution within Europe, because they are islands of freedom. Therefore, they are entrusted with a historical mission (Messianism) of convincing the West to return to European roots (re-Christianization).
However, the vision of a conservative community of Poles and Hungarians is not based on strong foundations, as there are crucial differences of worldviews between the Poles and the Hungarians. The former are significantly more conservative. What is more, public opinion surveys show an increase of Polish conservatism in recent years and its weakening in Hungary. Regardless of the Constitution emphasizing the Christian roots of the state, practicing religion and identifying with it is markedly less pronounced in Hungary than in Poland. Hungary has a liberal abortion law and the per capita number of abortions belongs to one of the highest in Europe. Registered same-sex partnerships are legal.
Fidesz and PiS present their countries as the true West based on conservative, Christian, and national values as opposed to the secular, liberal, and multicultural Western Europe.
According to the equality index of the LGBTI communities prepared by Rainbow Europe and sponsored by the European Commission, Hungary is the second—after Croatia—Central European country offering the most favorable legal conditions for these communities. Hungary achieved 45 points (zero means full discrimination, 100 means equality). For comparison, Germany scored 54 points, Italy 27 points, while Poland got 18 points.
The EU as a Threat to Security
In the propaganda of Central European nationalists, the “deracinated” decadent West has merged with Islam. Orbán and Kaczyński claim that Western Europe tries to impose Muslim refugees on Poland and Hungary with the aim of destroying the homogeneity of both societies and hence make them easier to control. It is no accident that George Soros, as a symbol of liberalism and allegedly pursuing a secret plan to change the ethnic composition of Europe, has become public enemy number one in the propaganda of both countries.
Identifying the West, because of the Muslim communities (with their allegedly very high crime rates, terrorism, and sexual assaults) inhabiting it, with a serious threat to the security of Poland and Hungary is something unprecedented in the recent history of both countries. Moreover, the vision of both states as enclaves of peace is particularly unconvincing in the case of Hungary. The homicide rate in Hungary belongs to the highest in the EU. The probability of getting killed in Poland is two and a half times higher and in Hungary four and a half times higher than in Austria, where the proportion of Muslims in the population is among the highest in Western Europe. We would get similar results if we compared Poland and Hungary to Holland and Spain. And Muslim communities in the EU are often better integrated with the mainstream society than the Roma community in Hungary.
Identifying security predominantly with terrorism means evading the debate on important threats to the life of Polish and Hungarian citizens. In both countries the number of people dying in car accidents belongs to the highest in the EU, in per capita terms.
Identifying security predominantly with terrorism means evading the debate on important threats to the life of Polish and Hungarian citizens.
And the probability of dying in a terrorist attack is incomparably smaller than the probability of dying in a traffic accident. For example, the Swedish roads are three times safer than Polish ones in this context. The situation in Hungary is only slightly better than in Poland. What is more, Hungary and to a lesser extent Poland belong to those EU states where fatal accidents in the workplace occur most often. Also their suicide and drowning rates in Hungary belong to the highest in the EU.
Dismantling the Rule of Law in the Name of National Democracy
Identity politics invoking ethnic nationalism also has a significant impact on systemic changes, which pose another challenge to the relations of the region with the EU. Since Fidesz and PiS have taken power, they have been reconstructing the political system, moving away from liberal democracy based on the rule of law and guaranteeing minority and individual rights (human rights) towards a system of populist majority democracy, where democratic institutions gradually adopt features of soft authoritarianism. This model of an increasingly hybrid democracy invokes the idea of majority rule closely associated with an ethnically de ned national community.
The central role of the ethnic nation in the ideology of Fidesz and PiS and the historical political traditions allow us to define this kind of political system as “national democracy.”
Starting from such a definition of the nation, Kaczyński and Orbán assume that the will of the nation/sovereign expressed in the elections should play the dominant role in the political system (“democratization” of all institutions). And that means that the power of the parliamentary majority should not be significantly constrained by the judiciary, the non-governmental organizations, and the media. The central role of the ethnic nation in the ideology of Fidesz and PiS and the historical political traditions allow us to define this kind of political system as “national democracy.” Moreover, this term is used by researchers sympathizing with Fidesz as a name for the political system functioning in Hungary.
As a result of constructing a national democracy since Orbán’s rise to power, Hungary each year slips down in the “Freedom House” ranking assessing political systems (three groups: free, partial free, not free) across the world and becomes a less and less free country. In the most recent report published in 2018, Hungary was regarded as a still free country, but situated on the edge of relegation to the category of partly free countries. No other EU member state scored such a bad result. Given Orbán’s domestic policy in 2017 and his plans for 2018, it is very likely that in 2019 Hungary will be downgraded by Freedom House to the category of partly free countries. It would be the first such an example in the history of the EU. This scenario is all the more likely as the Hungarian media dropped down to the category of partly free soon after Orbán had come to power and their freedom is systematically curtailed. Currently they are the least free media in the EU.
Ever since he assumed power in Hungary, Orbán’s policy was treated by Kaczyński as the main source of inspiration. In the opinion of Freedom House, since 2015 Poland has been rapidly “catching up” to Hungary. Polish media have already been relegated to the partly free category. Consequently, Hungary and Poland are now member states not fulfilling the Copenhagen criteria necessary for EU accession.
Dismantling the rule of law caused a remarkable conflict between Poland and the European Commission, European Parliament, and the most important member states. In late 2017, the European Commission for the first time in history launched Article 7 of the European Treaty against Poland, which may lead to the suspension of the right to vote by the EU Council.
In 2018, the European Parliament will vote on the motion to trigger Article 7 against Hungary. The scenario of dismantling the rule of law may occur—in a softer version—in Czechia, where closely working together are President Miloš Zeman, an admirer of Russia and China playing nationalist, anti-immigrant, and Islamophobic cards, and Andrej Babiš, a Czech Trump and candidate of the largest party for the office of prime minister, the second richest person in the country, a man controlling a major part of the media and accused of defrauding significant EU funds. Babiš claims he is innocent.
The scenario of dismantling the rule of law may occur—in a softer version—in Czechia, where closely working together are President Miloš Zeman, an admirer of Russia and China playing nationalist, anti-immigrant, and Islamophobic cards, and Andrej Babiš, a Czech Trump.
There is a serious fear he will put pressure on the justice system in order to defend himself against legal proceedings. He will gain the support of President Zeman. It is worth recalling that in March 2016 Zeman defended the Law and Justice government, saying: “I expressed the view that the Polish government, which was created as a result of free elections, has every right to carry out activities for which it received a mandate in these elections. It should not be subject to moralizing or criticism from the European Union.”
The rise of populism is favored in Czechia by a radical decomposition of the traditional political scene, which for more than a decade was dominated by social democrats and the Civic Democratic Party (ODS), a conservative and moderately Euroskeptic grouping. In 2006, both parties jointly achieved more than two thirds of the vote. By 2010 their combined support was down to just over 40 percent, and in the last elections in 2017 it fell below 20 percent. The main beneficiaries of this crisis of the traditional elite were Andrej Babiš’s populist party ANO, but also the radical nationalists from the Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD) party. In the 2017 elections ANO got close to 30 percent of the vote (today the polls show a 35 percent support) and has to form a government or parliamentary coalition; possible allies are the anti-European authoritarian communists and also the SPD.
The prospect of a clear progress of the integration of the eurozone is of crucial importance for the position of Central Europe in the EU.
Euroskepticism of Central European Societies
The prospect of a clear progress of the integration of the eurozone is of crucial importance for the position of Central Europe in the EU. The progress of integration will at some point lead to identifying the single market with the eurozone within a common legal space. As a result, the latter will become the true Union. EU member states outside the eurozone may consequently be reduced to the status of only association with the single market.
Slovakian membership in the eurozone means that it decouples with the rest of Central Europe, of which its ruling political elite is aware. In fact, the Slovaks belong to the European nations most supportive of the common European currency. In a Eurobarometer poll conducted in the autumn of 2017, 80 percent of the Slovaks supported the euro with just over 10 percent holding the opposite view. The average support for the euro in the EU was 60 percent. Slovakian membership in the eurozone is one of the most important breaks against ethnic nationalism and populism, for it significantly constrains the room for manoeuvres for the political elites. The Czechs are on the opposite pole, their support for the common currency is the lowest in the EU. In a Eurobarometer poll, almost 75 percent of the Czechs declared a negative attitude to the euro, while only slightly over 20 percent expressed a positive attitude. The hostility of the Czechs to the euro explains why they exhibit the most critical approach to EU membership itself among the V4 countries. In a CVVM poll conducted in the summer of 2017, more than 55 percent of the Czechs supported their country’s EU membership, but almost 40 percent were against it. When Great Britain leaves the EU, no European country will be more Euroskeptic than Czechia. It is worth recalling that President Zeman supports Czech membership in the EU, but he also advocates a referendum on this matter.
Public opinion surveys show that Poland belongs to the most Euro-enthusiastic European nations.
Public opinion surveys show that Poland belongs to the most Euro-enthusiastic European nations (more than 85 percent supporting their country’s EU membership). Among the V4 countries, the Poles are the most willing to see their country belonging to the group of EU states most closely working with each other (almost 60 percent of them expressed such a view in a CBOS poll from August 2017). But at the same time, a clear majority of the Poles is against Polish accession to the eurozone, that is just such a group of countries closely working with each other. In the Eurobarometer poll from 2017 we already cited, almost 60 percent of the Poles were opposed to the euro, while 35 percent were for adopting the common currency. Moreover, in other domestic surveys the opposition to the common currency is just slightly lower than in Czechia.
But at the same time, a clear majority of the Poles is against Polish accession to the eurozone.
Another element of Polish Euroskepticism is the growing hostility of Polish society to the European Commission because of the conflict around dismantling the rule of law. In an IPSOS poll from January 2018, almost 55 percent of the Poles said that the European Commission should back o from interfering in internal Polish affairs, while less than 45 percent supported the Commission’s pressure on Poland, including less than 20 percent who were for imposing sanctions. Polish Euro-enthusiasm is also undermined by the fact that the Polish people increasingly associate the European Union with a threat. In the spring of 2017 the polling center IBRIS asked the Poles a hypothetical question: what should Poland do if a condition for its EU membership were accepting more than 6,000 refugees within the relocation program. More than half of the respondents declared that Poland should leave the EU, while less than 40 percent supported taking the refugees in.
In contrast to Poles and Czechs, Hungarians support the common European currency. According to a Eurobarometer poll, more than 55 percent of Hungarians are for their country’s membership in the eurozone and just over 35 percent are opposed to it. A crucial self-contradiction is the support of the Hungarians for the ruling Fidesz, which is only slightly lower than the support for the eurozone accession. It means that Hungarians overwhelmingly support Fidesz, although its domestic policy—dismantling the rule of law and a marked rise of corruption—makes accession of Hungary to the eurozone impossible, because the issue of an independent justice system became a fundamental condition for accession to the area of common European currency after the crisis of the eurozone in 2009.
In contrast to Poles and Czechs, Hungarians support the common European currency. According to a Eurobarometer poll, more than 55 percent of Hungarians are for their country’s membership in the eurozone.
In summary, everything indicates that political elites and societies of Poland, Czechia, and Hungary will remain at the EU periphery for a long time. The prospect of a significant reduction—for various reasons—of the EU funds and the access to the single market may only strengthen Euroskeptic sentiments in these states.
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