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Central European Perspectives on the Future of Europe

Three questions to Magda Stumvoll

INTERVIEW - 3 February 2021

The crises that have affected the European Union over the last ten years have put European ambition to the test. After the refugee crisis and Brexit, the European Union is now facing an unprecedented pandemic and the return of geopolitical tensions in its immediate neighbourhood. More than ever before, there is a need for concerted action guided by a common vision. To respond to these challenges, Institut Montaigne and the Austrian-French Center for Rapprochement in Europe (ÖFZ/CFA) are organizing a series of webinars focusing on the Visegrad Group. Alexandre Robinet Borgomano asks Magda Stumvoll, Research Fellow at the ÖFZ/CFA how Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia see the role of the Visegrad Group in tomorrow's Europe.

Since taking office, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has made Europe a priority. What place does Central and Eastern Europe occupy in the Chancellor's European project? 

Due to its geographic position, Central and Eastern Europe has always played a crucial role for Austria. Austria has always seen itself as a bridge between East and West and is associated with the Visegrad countries in several regional groups. With the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Austria forms "the Austerlitz group". "The Central Five" is another, relatively new, unofficial group which includes Austria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Slovenia. From Austria’s point of view, the EU must overcome the East-West divide and close the gap between different viewpoints of member states in various policy areas. Even if there is no strict cleavage between Central and Eastern Europe and the rest of Europe, Central and Eastern Europe is a diverse region, with some parts sharing history and geography with Western Europe. The EU must listen and reconcile the various levels of aspiration and viewpoints if it wants to be more united in the future. 

It was in this context that the Austro-French Centre for Rapprochement was founded: until 1978, France’s economic activity was mostly centred in Western Europe. At that point, it chose to work more closely with Austria, which was right next to the Iron Curtain to develop the economic relations between Western and Eastern Europe.

The EU must listen and reconcile the various levels of aspiration and viewpoints if it wants to be more united in the future.

The Visegrad Group has gradually imposed itself as an alternative to the liberal European model, going so far as to provoke tensions in the field of the rule of law. How can we better understand the expectations and concerns of these countries with regard to Europe? 

First of all, it is important to underline that the Visegrad group is not a homogenous one. It was founded after the collapse of the communist bloc with the common goal of joining the EU. Once members of the EU, they still considered this group useful, as they realized that together they had bigger leverage in the EU than if they acted alone.

The Standard Eurobarometer 93 (Summer 2020) showed that when it came to the EU, a majority of EU citizens were worried about the weak economic situation linked to the current COVID-19 pandemic. Interestingly, citizens of the four Visegrad states still cited immigration as the most important EU challenge despite the significant drop in the number of migrants arriving to the EU since the crisis in 2015/16. There were other interesting data nuggets too: 56% of the Polish 53% of the Hungarians surveyed - despite (or because of ?) the autocratic tendencies of their leaders - put more trust in the EU than the Slovaks (45%) and the Czechs (35%) respectively. Austria (44%) and France (33%) remain rather sceptic as well.

The current challenges regarding the rule of law are mainly linked to Poland and Hungary, whereas the Czech Republic and Slovakia still have sufficient regulating mechanisms. At the Globsec Bratislava Forum in October 2020, the Slovak Foreign Minister Ivan Korčok, expressed his regret that the rule of law has become a divisive issue in the EU in the last years. Furthermore, he underlined the Slovak respect for rule of law that he, in general, considers it a cornerstone of the EU. 

The rule of law challenges in Poland and Hungary can partly be explained by the opposition to liberal values and migration. But the core challenges lie in the independence of the court system and ensuring a free media. 

In Hungary for example, all major media outlets are now more or less controlled by the government of Prime Minister Victor Orbán, while the space for independent media is shrinking dramatically. National media regularly portray the EU as a scapegoat and, as a result, the public is more misinformed. Orbán’s, as well as Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki’s, interests in the EU are mostly financially motivated which is no surprise given they are two of the biggest recipients of EU funds. For this reason, the fellow 25 member states pushed for implementing a new rule of law mechanism, linking the disbursement of EU funds to the respect of European core values, especially the rule of law. 

Citizens of the four Visegrad states still cited immigration as the most important EU challenge despite the significant drop in the number of migrants arriving to the EU since the crisis in 2015/16.

What are the expectations of Austria and the "Visegrad 4" regarding the Conference on Future of Europe ? 

The Austrian government programme of work explicitly mentions the goal of a "new treaty for Europe". This endeavour, if at all, is most likely to be pursued in the framework of the Conference of the Future of Europe.

However, Austria is aware of the difficulties involved as any treaty change requires difficult compromises among all 27 member states. A main objective for Austria is to bring the EU and its institutions closer to its citizens through this conference by considering European identity and the EU as a "common project" core elements of the conference. Already 15 years ago, Austria established Citizens’ Councils to involve its citizens in the agenda setting and decision making process. In 2010, it launched the initiative Europe starts at the local level: the government reached out to mayors and local councillors so they could act as brokers of EU-related information in their municipalities. In preparation of the upcoming conference, EU Minister Karoline Edtstadler has already started a public discourse in all Austrian provinces to engage citizens and raise awareness for the possibilities the process will open up.

In comparison to "older democracies" in Europe, the Central European countries lack a long history of public deliberation. That is why this process represents something new to them. At this stage, it seems that the main focus of the upcoming consultations for the V4 countries is less on big institutional questions and more on specific policies and more tangible questions like health insurance, job stability and immigration policies. The EU has yet to decide how to involve citizens in its conference. It would be wise that it does not adopt a unitary approach for all member states, but instead considers the respective national particularities. It remains to be seen if Austria can successfully build on its prior initiatives and if the Visegrad countries can benefit from the lessons already learnt in other member states to see how citizen recommendations can be taken into account.

 

Copyright: Michal CIZEK / AFP

 

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