visegrad-group

How Central Europe can reclaim its good image

08.12.2016 | By Lukáš Onderčanin

Our region benefited the most from the European Union. Therefore we shouldn’t abandon its values.

At the time when the former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright referred to Slovakia as a “black hole in the heart of Europe”, she didn’t mean it as an insult. It was 1997 and Slovakia was one step behind other countries in Central Europe. Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary were on the way to be part of the real Europe, while Slovakia was floundering in corruption, games of secret services, nepotism and autocratic rule of Vladimir Meciar. Nearly 20 years have passed since then and CEE region consists of states that are equal and respected partners with Western Europe, they have their say in European affairs and they are also able to bring solutions. Slovakia holds the EU presidency, it is a member of the Eurozone, and its  GDP is three times higher than during Meciar’s era. We fought hard to achieve it. But what does this region need to do to maintain its status in the times when the European Union and whole Europe is in crisis? How can we help to overcome it and not to deepen it?

Financial crisis, the war in Ukraine, uncontrolled migration and Brexit put the EU in a critical position. Leaders of Central Europe were not always helpful in tackling these problems. For these reasons, Visegrad countries were often portrayed as the black sheep of Europe. However, the times when Slovakia, Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary were seen as European tigers are gone. If we want to maintain the good image, our politicians should be able to address European topics to the public – and do not behave differently in Brussels and at home. And – even more importantly – they should clearly state where do they want to belong, ideologically. Central Europe can be used as a cultural bridge between the West and the East, mostly when the EU has difficulties in communicating with Russia. But even if we would cooperate with all partners, Visegrad should choose where it does wants to belong on a geopolitical map of Europe and where it should stand for these values.

Between West and propaganda

Globsec Policy Institute just recently published a public opinion analysis on trends in Slovakia, Hungary and Czech Republic, regarding the rise of propaganda. This polls show us how easily part of society can be influenced by pro-Russian propaganda and alternative media spreading lies. It is important to underline this, since the future direction of Central Europe is in hands of society, and also those who are audiences of such media. We, as journalists, can see the decline of the trust in traditional media and the rise of alternative sources that do not work with any journalistic standards, ethics and do not use credible sources for their information. Only in Slovakia conspiracy news website like Zem a Vek or Slobodny vysielac have together more Facebook followers than the leading daily news SME, and Zem a Vek magazine is printing more than 20k issues every month, which is not an insignificant number. Similar trend can be seen in Czech Republic where a quarter of society seems to trust alternative media over traditional news companies. Just short summary for a broader view: Hungary is (maybe surprisingly, because of recent statements by Viktor Orban and referendum on refugee quotas) the most euro-optimistic country according to the polls. While the support for the EU is nearly the same in Slovakia as in Hungary, Slovaks tend to be the most pro-Russian and anti-American in the region. Czech Republic is the most Eurosceptic country of the three, but at the same time Czechs are the most pro-Western nation.

Stronger together

Propaganda, uncontrolled migration, economical problems and the discontent with solutions from Brussels caused wider political shift in the whole Europe. But we should also be worried by the change of political power in V4 countries. In Slovakia, two parties that build their agenda solely on hatred against refugees or other minorities won nearly 15 percent of votes together in March’s election and they got into the Parliament. Marian Kotleba from People’s Party – Our Slovakia started his political career in a movement called Slovak Togetherness, which was banned because of pro-Nazi opinions. His current party is just the same thing but in a less aggressive cover. Kotleba already started collecting signatures for a referendum on breaking away from the European Union, just a few days after referendum in Great Britain. Such movements as Kotleba’s People’s Party, Hungarian Jobbik or Czech Block against Islam pose a threat to liberal democracy and cooperation not only in the EU, but also within our region. Central Europe is an amazing region because of its rich history and big achievements. We have a story which can inspire both Western Europe and the countries which believe that they will once be part of the EU. Former communist bloc was transformed into independent nations. Before the financial crisis, Visegrad countries were among the fastest growing in the world with a grew at an average rate of more than 5 percent a year. More than 29 billion euros came to the CEE region in foreign investments; Visegrad countries are supplying the whole Europe with cars.

While we shouldn’t underestimate our endeavors and success, we achieved it also thanks to our cooperation with other European countries and support (both financial and mental) from Brussels. Values of the western liberal democracy shouldn’t be forgotten by V4 leaders and societies. Voters should show to politicians like Kotleba, that despite various crises inside the EU, this region thrives also thanks to pro-European influence.

Shaping the future of EU

Cooperation within our region is crucial. Visegrad has a lot of common values, traditions and despite some differences in political views, it can often find mutual understanding. That can be used as a powerful tool in a political battlefield in Brussels. According to Stratfor, a geopolitical intelligence firm, Visegrad can play a major role in a debate about how the future relationship with Britain will look like. Central and Eastern Europe has full right to be part of the talks – there are approximately 60,000 to 90,000 Slovaks, 850,000 Poles and around 223,000 Romanians working or living in UK. The problem arises in the moment when we are using threats instead of constructive dialog. “The V4 countries will be uncompromising,” said Slovak PM Fico right after the EU summit in Bratislava and added that he will veto any Brexit deal threatening free movement. Brexit, no matter how difficult it would be for Central and Eastern Europeans living in UK, is a chance to show our potential and abilities to shape future of the EU. Visegrad leaders apparently prefer less integrated Union and with right means we can promote this idea to other members of the bloc.

Central Europe has missed several opportunities to show its strength and unity. During the war in Ukraine, Poland was playing an important role in talks between Russia, Ukraine and the EU and was calling for more efforts in order to  end the crisis. At the same time, Slovak PM Robert Fico said that the war in Ukraine is the battle of influence between Russia and USA, Czech president Milos Zeman called Arseniy Yatsenyuk “a prime minister of war, who doesn’t want a peaceful resolution of the conflict” and Viktor Orban was meeting with Putin in Budapest to make business deals. In times when Central Europe (mainly because of its history and similar culture) could be a leading power in the reforms of the new Ukraine, we showed disunity. Migration crisis was another chance to show constructive solutions from Visegrad. Instead, we brought up criticism, negativism and hatred. Statements that we are monitoring all Muslims (Fico) or that migration crisis is a German problem (Orban) worsened Visegrad’s image in the eyes of our partners in the West.

Western Europe might not understand why societies here are afraid to accept migrants from different culture and that most of Central European countries are very homogenous societies. They need patience with us and understanding that this change may take time. But on the other hand, which region in Europe (maybe except Balkans) should have more understanding with people escaping war or those looking for better opportunities if not Central Europe? We have the full right to disagree with European solutions, but we should bring our own. Refugee crisis got surely out of hands in EU, but Central Europe didn’t do enough to cope with that except building walls and fences on the borders. As a report from Central European Policy Institute (now Globsec Policy Institute) noted in 2014, Central Europe has never in its history been more free, secure and prosperous and has largely benefited from the political transformation of past years. We don’t need to overlook the crisis and we shouldn’t stop criticizing Brussels for its mistakes. But likewise we have to take part in resolving problems, no matter if it means accepting refugees, discussion with Britain after Brexit or the future integration or disintegration of EU. The worst the Central Europe can do for its future is to stand in the background and to cherry-pick only things that we prefer.

Sources:

GLOBSEC analysis – http://www.cepolicy.org/sites/cepolicy.org/files/attachments/glb_trends_en.pdf

CEPI analysis – http://www.cepolicy.org/publications/central-europe-fit-future-10-years-after-eu-accession

Stratfor analysis – https://www.stratfor.com/analysis/central-europe-taking-where-uk-left

Lukáš Onderčanin (born 1990) is a Slovak journalist, currently working as a Foreign Desk Reporter at a Slovak daily news SME. He is covering different topics including migration, human rights or Polish politics. He is also editor of non-governmental media platform MONO.sk.

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