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How Does Europe Construct Itself in the East (Too)?

BLOG - 8 November 2019

The fall of the Berlin Wall symbolizes the end of the Cold War and paves the way for the reintegration of Central and Eastern Europe into the European area. Thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, old and new divisions continue to oppose the Western bloc to this "Other Europe", comprising the countries of the Višegrad Group: Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland.

The relationship between these States and the European Union is a complex one, one of attachment and questioning, which cannot be reduced to a few stereotypical dividing lines on the question of migration or respect for the rule of law. How is the European debate structured in the different states of the Višegrad Group? How can we understand the concerns of these States to give the European project a new impetus? Thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, we are giving various think tanks the opportunity to highlight the ways in which Europe is being built in the East as a subject for debate.

The Centre for Euro-Atlantic Integration and Democracy (CEID) in Budapest, EUROPEUM Institute for European Policy in Prague, GLOBSEC in Bratislava and Stiftung Genshagen in Brandenburg provide their analyses of the state of the European debate in Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland.

Hungary – CEID (Daniel Bartha)

Similarly to a number of member states, debates on the future of the European Union (EU) exist only in an extremely simplified form in Hungary. While narratives differ according to political affiliation, politicians have to respect general attitudes of Hungarians towards the EU.

While trends have shown a decrease in the support for the EU between 2015 and 2018, the latest Eurobarometer survey suggests that the situation has gradually changed and that Hungarians support the membership of their country in the EU more than the EU average. Currently 84% of Hungarians feel that they are citizens of the EU, which is 11% higher than the average. If Hungarians were to vote again on their country’s accession to the EU, 63% would vote for remain, while only 19% would vote to leave the EU. On the other hand, the last electoral campaigns have shown that the Hungarian society is deeply divided along political lines: the support for the EU among voters of the government party Fidesz decreased significantly and, by now, 29% of them would vote to leave the EU.

These cracks in the society can be linked to the government’s communication campaigns, mainly against the European Commission and Parliament. While the first campaigns were focusing purely on an anti-migration agenda, more recent campaigns claimed that Brussels wants to change the Hungarian government’s social policy, or that the European Commission is influenced by George Soros. As Fidesz communication experts understand that the majority of their voters still support the EU and appreciate the impact of cohesion funds on local developments, there is a huge emphasis to undermine "Brussels" instead of targeting the EU as a whole.

Part of the government’s discourse also refers to the double standards that would be applied at the expense of Central and Eastern European member states. The efforts of EU institutions to prove the Hungarian government wrong have been limited. The latest example could be the selection of officials to the top positions or later the debate on the EU Commissioners (which led to the Hungarian Commissioner’s rejection for conflict of interest). Minister of Justice, Judit Varga, who is responsible for EU affairs, recently pointed out the unfairness of the current MFF plans. Hungarian experts and government officials claim that the planned 24% cut in EU cohesion funds for Hungary are way beyond the level that the current level of development would suggest. Furthermore, they suggest that the new funding for innovation and research or the European Defence Fund will give priority to large member states. They also believe that by binding respect for democratic principles to EU funds, Brussels wishes to transform the budgetary instrument into a tool for sanctions against the countries of Central and Eastern Europe.

These latest criticisms on the long-term European budget are increasingly present in the Hungarian discourse, but a careful examination of the measures envisaged could this time prove the national government right.

Czech Republic – EUROPEUM (Martin Michelot)

There are few discussions about the European Union in the Czech Republic that have truly permeated the public agenda. Most important topics often relate to bilateral relations, and especially the crucial connection to Germany, which is of utmost economic importance to the country, or increasingly the relationship with France, which is seen as the new agenda-setter in the EU realm. Prague is still attempting to find its role between these two countries, oscillating between being at the core of European integration and the more cautious position that Czech Republic shares with its partners in the Višegrad group (Poland and Hungary especially, Slovakia to a lesser extent). Due to the low level of emigration to the United Kingdom, Brexit is less of a topic than elsewhere in the region, but which has nonetheless triggered a reflection on the alliances that Prague should establish within the European Council.

One issue that has drawn a certain attention in recent months, and is sadly revelatory of the state of discussions about the EU in the country, is the budget that the Czech Republic will dedicate to its presidency of the Council in the second semester of 2022. Prime Minister Andrej Babiš expressed strong reluctance in dedicating the sum that was expected by government officials (approximately €70 million) and wanted to completely decentralize the Presidency by holding all the events in Brussels. This question agitated Prague for the better part of the year, symbolizing the very narrow scope through which the PM views the EU. A compromise was eventually found at the level of €48,5million, but this debate symbolizes the fact that the PM has not decided to use any European issue in his public agenda, except in a negative way, when immigration and the future of the Common European Asylum System arise. This is also true for the misuse of EU funds that the Prime Minister has been accused of and the ongoing investigations about conflicts of interest over Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) funds, making any discussion about the EU in Prague fairly negative and defensive. A recent investigation by the New York Times has placed this conversation back at the heart of public debates in the country, putting the Prime Minister on the defensive regarding the subsidies his companies have benefitted from in the framework of CAP funding, at the same time as the next multiannual financial framework (MFF) is being developed by the new European Commission.

The next MFF of the EU is currently under preparation. Prime Minister Babiš has made it clear that the Czech Republic expects the same percentage of the budget to be dedicated to structural funds, and is readying himself for a showdown regarding any large-scale reform of the CAP. This issue could gain traction if the Commission’s next budget proposal(s) does not go in this direction. Overall, the state of the EU debate in the Czech republic reflects the uncertain position of the country in EU integration: cautious optimism for a country still seeking its place. In the meantime, the country will continue to seize opportunities for its economic development, while exploring new initiatives to slow the pace of climate change, with a careful eye for its industrial interests - and the associated social impacts.

Slovakia – GLOBSEC (Kinga Brudzińska)

The debate on the European Union (EU) in Slovakia has different shades of grey. While there is a political consensus in favour of the country‘s place in the EU, the situation is not so rosy at the level of society. In general, Slovaks are either uninterested in EU affairs or less pleased with the EU than other countries in the region.

For a long time, the EU debate was barely existing in Slovakia. This is because, until recently, there was a consensus on Slovakia’s pro-European orientation among the main political parties, including within the ruling coalition. Slovakia, as a member of the eurozone, likes to consider itself as part of the EU’s core. What is more, Bratislava’s priority is to be seen as a constructive player in Brussels. It was only with the rise of euroscepticism, which resulted in the entry into Parliament, for the first time, of the far-right party "People’s Party - Our Slovakia" (L’SNS) in 2016, and the winning of two mandates (out of fourteen) in the last European Parliament (EP), that the question of Slovakia’s place in the European project began to be raised. But being openly pro-European remains politically promising in Slovakia. This was visible during the last presidential election, in which both candidates competing in the second round expressed their pro-European positions. Despite the comparatively low turnout in the 2019 European elections, the voters mobilization has led to a 10% increase in the turnout rate compared to 2014, resulting in 85% of the Slovak members of the EP being pro-European.

On the other hand, ordinary citizens are less satisfied with the EU than the Slovak political elite. They tend to be either indifferent or skeptical towards the EU. Despite the fact that 80% of Slovaks consider themselves as “European citizens”, many people believe that the EU membership is “very distant to people’s everyday lives”. This trend is reflected in the ballot boxes. For the second consecutive time, Slovak participation in the European elections is the lowest in the EU (13% in 2014 and 24% in 2019). Only 36% of Slovaks have a positive image of the EU, which is 9% below the EU average and much lower than in neighboring Poland (54%), or Hungary (52%) according to the Eurobarometer. This does not mean that the Slovaks want to leave the EU. Slovakia, like other countries in the region, is unequivocal in its support for EU membership (71%), according to GLOBSEC Trends 2019.

Poland – Stiftung Genshagen (Michał Kuź)

Polish vision of the EU: moderately integrated, externally strong.

Poles express massive support for EU membership, but develop a critical view of some of the progressive European propositions and the common currency. To quote some figures from recent polls, 91% of Poles support EU membership, while 65% express their fear of joining the euro zone since, in their eyes, it may lead to economic difficulties. In another questionnaire 69% of respondents spoke against the EU pressuring Poland to accept refugees and 53% against EU interference in rule of law issues. 53% of Poles also expressed their fear of a so-called multi-speed Europe, although 75% felt that EU reform was needed.

It would seem that Poles want a moderately integrated Union (i.e. less institutionally cohesive than a nation state), but which plays an active role abroad. According to a 2019 Eurobarometer survey, 80% support the Eu’s common security policy, 71% support a common foreign policy, 73% support a common energy policy and 75% support a common commercial policy. The approval rates for a common market have also been extraordinarily high for years.

The PiS (Law and Justice Party), currently in power, is more or less in agreement with the majority opinion. It underlines its pro-europeanism and emphasises the need to increase the economic competitiveness of the EU as a whole, while being skeptical about France’s deep reform proposals for the EU and wishing to postpone its accession to the euro zone for a longer period. It also advocates a common EU security policy, but, like the previously ruling Civic Platform, it does not consider initiatives such a PESCO as an alternative to cooperation with the United States within NATO. The two main opposition blocks – Koalicja Obywatelska (Civic Coalition) and Lewica (Left) – favour a deeper internal integration of the EU. However, they must exercise caution to avoid losing support, especially when it comes to common currency and migration policy.

After the recent parliamentary elections one might even say that the ruling party (PiS) was too “progressive” on European issues for some conservative voters, since it now has a far-right opposition in Parliament – Konfederacja (Confederation) – embracing an openly Eurosceptic agenda. And since a debate on ambitious EU reforms is neither easy nor politically beneficial, all political parties tend to focus more on domestic policies in their programmes.


Coordinated by Emilie Siguier for Institut Montaigne.

Copyright : Michal Cizek / AFP

 

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