The Visegrád Group. Involuntary Outsiders

It appears that the experience and distinctive cultural attributes of Central Europe are inconsistent with the West’s image of what a European should look like.

Often when I encounter the West European media’s discussion about the nations of the Visegrád Group, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that they regard these nations as not yet on the same moral plane as the more enlightened regions of the continent. The EUobserver is paradigmatic in this respect. It writes of the “Visegrád troublemakers” and noted that the V4 “has positioned itself as a kind of ‘enfant terrible’ in the midst of Europe”.1 Similar sentiments are frequently expressed by western commentators who convey the impression that the V4 group is toxic and ‘these people’ are not yet true Europeans.

It appears that the experience and distinctive cultural attributes of Central Europe are inconsistent with the West’s image of what a European should look like. At the very least there is still a psychic distance separating the two parts of Europe; one which often leads to the making of moral distinctions. These sentiments are expressed by the conviction that Central European societies still need to be educated in democratic values so that they can become ‘mature’ or ‘fit’ members of the European Union.

The implicit questions raised about the inferior moral status of the V4 and other Central European nations does not simply exist at the level of ideas. A recent report published by European Democracy Consulting highlights the exclusion of Central and Eastern European nations from positions of influence within the EU. It writes not only of this region’s “continued under-representation” but of an “almost complete lack of representation” in the corridors of power. It notes that “Central and Eastern Europe have remained outliers from their accession onwards” always receiving a dramatically far less proportion of appointments than is warranted by its population.2

The report warns that:

In political systems with clearly distinguishable demographic groups, differences in levels of representation may be understandable for numerically insignificant groups, and European Democracy Consulting does not advocate for the exact representation of every sub-group of society. However, a lack of representation becomes indefensible when the group in question represents close to 40% of Member States and 20% of the EU’s total population.3

The exclusion of Central Europe from positions of influence is particularly striking when compared to the position enjoyed by Southern Europe’s representation. Southern Europe has become a welcome ally of Western Europe.

When nations representing 20 per cent of the EU’s population received less than 2.5 per cent of appointments during the period between 2004 and 2016 it seems evident that they have been assigned the role of second-class citizens.

The exclusion of Central Europe from positions of influence is particularly striking when compared to the position enjoyed by Southern Europe’s representation. Southern Europe has become a welcome ally of Western Europe and together they have received a combined 90 per cent of appointments since 2004. Not surprisingly, European Democracy’s study concludes that the patterns set in motion with the ‘Big Bang’ of enlargement of the EU with 10 new member states in 2004, persist to this day. It warns that the exclusion of Central Europe from the EU’s corridor of power could “severely undermine support for the EU’s institutions, values and policies”.

Monopolizing Europe’s Values

Since the overthrow of Communism in Central and East Europe, Western Europe has tended to regard its eastern neighbours as legitimate targets for its values education. Numerous studies have drawn attention to what can best be described as a neo-colonialist impulse to impose EU values on the new East European member states. According to Ian Klinke, such studies have ‘highlighted the neo-colonial overtones that reverberate throughout the EU’s Eastern enlargement, particularly through the ideologically coloured aims of “Europeanizing”, “modernizing” and “liberalizing” a space that was deemed economically and politically inferior’.4

Since the overthrow of Communism in Central and East Europe, Western Europe has tended to regard its eastern neighbours as legitimate targets for its values education.

The EU’s Jean Monnet Programme, designed to promote European integration through influencing academic institutions and exchanges, has often blurred the line between disinterested academic research and political advocacy. Oriane Calliagro’s study Negotiating Europe: The EU Promotion of Europeanness Since 1950 shows that this program explicitly encouraged a de-territorialized version of European history.5 This version of history discourages national narratives, particularly ones that uphold national cultural traditions.

A review of the activities of the Jean Monnet Programme indicates that one of its objectives was to counter and neutralize the influence of traditional values in the intellectual and cultural life of East Europe. Klinke cites Erhard Busek, Monnet chair and special coordinator of the Stability Pact for South Eastern Europe, stating in 2009 that the program would help alleviate the “weakness of the traditional systems” of East Europe. Klinke concludes that “this framing of accession states as traditional and weak reinforces arguments about the EU’s neo-colonial gaze upon the East”.

One reason why so many of the EU’s cultural programs regarded the traditional and national values of the new member states as a problem was because the promoters of federalism have opted to adopt a form of European identity that prides itself on being cosmopolitan rather than national. From this perspective, the emphasis is on distancing Europe’s identity with its supposed messy past promoting supranational rule based technocratic identity. The reason for adopting this approach is because the founders of the European project wished to transcend the conflict of the past to create institutions that were not mired in the conflicts and values that wreaked havoc during the decades leading up to the end of World War Two.

A Strange and Dangerous Territory

The impulse towards detaching the new Europe from its traditional values is particularly striking in its ambiguous relationship to Christianity. Robert Schuman, who is proclaimed as one of the so-called Founding Fathers of European integration, was in no doubt about the foundational role of Christianity for this project. He proclaimed in 1958 that: “we are called to bethink ourselves of the Christian basics of Europe by forming a democratic model of governance which through reconciliation develops into a ‘community of peoples’ in freedom, equality, solidarity and peace and which is deeply rooted in Christian basic values.”6 Even Jacques Delors, the former President of the European Commission, spoke in July 2011 of the “Europe of values”, in whose constitution, Catholicism, or rather Christianity more generally, played a major role.7

By the time Delors made his statement, however, the political interests associated with EU integration had become reluctant to explicitly associate their values with Christianity or for that matter with many of the historical traditions associated with the legacy of Europe. In response to this anti-traditional European federalist political culture, Delors observed that “today we have hidden our shared values”.

Delors’ concern about the EU leadership’s tendency to hide Europe’s ‘shared values’ has important implications for understanding the cultural conflict and arguments that dominate Brussels’ relationship with the V4 group. Pro-EU technocrats and intellectuals often regard European values and traditions, that have evolved over the centuries, as not only irrelevant to the needs of the twenty-first century, but also as deeply problematic and flawed.

Many current advocates of European federalism frequently cast the cultural legacy and traditions of Europe’s past, including its values, in a negative light. From this standpoint, the past is perceived as a strange and dangerous territory, whose values and practices must not be allowed to influence contemporary public life.

Diversity as a Core European Value

During the 1990s, cosmopolitanism emerged as a central element of the European federalist self-consciousness. Cosmopolitan ideals emphasized the inferiority of the national to the transnational consciousness. It also celebrated cultural diversity as a fundamental value that represented an enlightened alternative to an outdated and allegedly monolithic national identity. In effect, diversity became celebrated constantly as a core European value. The concept of diversity was initially used by the EU elites to refer to the “diversity of national cultures”.

Hostility directed against national sensibilities has co-existed with the EU’s proclivity to promote diversity and minority rights as a counterpoint to the authority of the nation.

By the turn of the twenty-first century, however, it was used not to defend national cultures but to devalue them. Increasingly, national cultures were represented as artificial entities designed to negate the heterogeneity of real life. From this perspective, national consciousness represented a threat to the diverse minorities that inhabited a common geographical space. Squeezed between a transnational cosmopolitanism and diverse minority identities, there was simply no legitimate place for national cultures.

Hostility directed against national sensibilities has co-existed with the EU’s proclivity to promote diversity and minority rights as a counterpoint to the authority of the nation. From their standpoint, minority rights were de facto logically prior and morally superior to the principle of nationality. Their affirmation of identity politics, paralleled by their devaluation of national sentiment, constituted the pivotal point in an undeclared Culture War. In effect, minority rights served as a medium through which nationalist claims could be restrained and put in its place. As the Transylvanian sociologist, Agnes Gagyi remarked, as against the upholding of “the symbolic value of the nation” by conservatives, their opponents offered a version of solidarity that was directed at the defence of groups “typically referred to as minorities (Roma, Jews, women, LGBTQ)”.

In this way, from the standpoint of western sociology, “this practice split social grievances into illegitimate nationalist claims, and legitimate minority claims.”8 Although Gagyi is not a friend of nationalism, she recognised that the (intended or unintended?) purpose of the importation of EU style identity politics into East Europe was to de-legitimate nationalist politics.

Different Experiences and Demands on the Past

The attitudes of Western European officialdom towards Central Europe are influenced by its incomprehension and lack of sympathy towards the historical experience of the formerly Soviet dominated regions of Europe. In particular, sections of the Western European political establishment find it difficult to understand why the formerly Soviet dominated nations of Europe seem so obsessed with their sovereignty and national independence and are still steeped in values that are organic to their experience.

The European identity that emerged in Western Europe, particularly since the 1970s, is self-consciously distanced from norms and values that are directly or indirectly linked to national consciousness. This sentiment has been particularly marked amongst European federalists who have actively supported the project of the denationalization of identity. They have tended to equate national consciousness and patriotism as an outlook that not only competed with their ideal of Europe but actually undermined it.

In particular, sections of the Western European political establishment find it difficult to understand why the formerly Soviet dominated nations of Europe seem so obsessed with their sovereignty and national independence.

This sentiment resonates far less with the experience of Central Europe. In these societies the dramatic discontinuity imposed by first, the occupation of their nation by Nazi Germany and then by the Soviet Union has created a demand for a narrative that restores their link with the past. Having lost their independence on so many different occasions it is not surprising that the adoption of a post-nationalist attitude towards history has far less appeal in the East than in Western Europe.

In effect, the cultural division between Western and Central Europe is underpinned by divergent demands on the past. These differences are most strikingly expressed in the contrasting trends that prevail on the continent. Whereas in Britain there are calls to decolonize the past to get rid of statues of old national heroes – even Churchill has become a focus of a crusade against the past – many Central European seek to re-remember the historical memory that was pathologized during the era of Soviet domination. It is paradoxical that Western governments which have for decades demanded that Central Europe come to term with its past – which was another way of saying accept our interpretation or else! – are now facing calls from promoters of identity politics to come to terms with their past.

In effect, the cultural division between Western and Central Europe is underpinned by divergent demands on the past. These differences are most strikingly expressed in the contrasting trends that prevail on the continent.

Different historical experiences have led to a divergent orientation towards the past and the traditions associated with it. These sentiments underpin the cultural tension between the V4 group and the mainstream West European political establishment. Divergent attitudes towards national sovereignty, migration and the politics of identity are only the most dramatic symptoms of this tension. Unfortunately, Brussels is not prepared to regard these differences as the inevitable consequence of contrasting historical experience. Nor is it prepared to embrace a genuine commitment to the diversity of national values. Its impulse is to lecture, hector and, if necessary, punish what it sees as ungrateful troublemakers in Central Europe. Unfortunately, this feeling of being treated as ungrateful second class cultures simply leads to a further – and unnecessary polarization – between the two sides.


  1. See https://euobserver.com/political/150969 and https://euobserver.com/opinion/150977
  2. https://eudemocracy.eu/geographical-representation-eu-leadership-observatory
  3. https://eudemocracy.eu/geographical-representation-eu-leadership-observatory
  4. Klinke, I. (2014) “European Integration Studies and the European Union’s Eastern Gaze”, Millennium Journal of International Studies, vol. 43, no.2, p. 572.
  5. Calligaro, O. (2013) Negotiating Europe: The EU Promotion of Europeanness since the 1950s, Basingstoke: Palgrave, p. 74.
  6. Fountain, Jeff ‘A Christian Europe(an): the forgotten vision of Robert Shuman’ The Schuman Centre for European Studies, Netherlands, Encounters Mission Journal Issue 36 March 2011. https://encountersmissionjournal.files.wordpress.com/2011/08/fountain_2011-03_schumann_and_europe.pdf
  7. See his statement on http://www.eurozine.com/articles/2011-07-01-delors-en.html
  8. Gagyi, A (2016) “‘Coloniality of Power’ in East Central Europe: External Penetration as Internal Force in Post-socialist Hungarian Politics.” Journal of World-Systems Research vol. 22, no.2, p.359.

Frank Furedi

is an Author of Authority: A Sociological Introduction, Cambridge University Press, 2013.

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