Fears about political and economic marginalisation have damped the spread of new EU-optimism to Central Europe.
At the end of 2016, devastated by Brexit and unsettled by Donald Trump’s victory in the American presidential election, many Europeans fell into deep despair. They had become resigned to the notion that the European Union’s moment in history was over. Six months later, nothing is different, yet everything has changed.
Polls show that a growing number of Europeans are betting on the European Union. Improved economies across the Continent, the miserable performance of populists in the Netherlands, and the humiliation suffered by the “hard Brexiteer” Theresa May in this month’s general election in Britain have made many Europeans hopeful that the European Union has received a second chance, and that it is going to make the most of it.
Emmanuel Macron’s decisive victories in France — first in the presidential election in May and then again in parliamentary elections last week — on a proudly pro-European platform have led many Europeans to believe that rather than disintegration, further integration may now be possible. The hope among the ever-closer-unionists is that Mr. Macron’s labor reforms in France will persuade Germany to invest more in eurozone economies. Meanwhile, plans for further investment in European defense are afoot.
But while infectious optimism is visible everywhere in Western Europe, the East has remained conspicuously unenthusiastic. The prospect of Eastern Europeans exiting the union — as the former Czech president Vaclav Klaus recently implored them to do — is still about as likely as President Vladimir Putin of Russia losing next year’s elections, but many in Eastern Europe are squeamish about German-French efforts to reorder Europe. Why?
Most of Central Europe is not in the eurozone — Bulgaria and Romania are not even in the Schengen free-travel area — and many countries in the region have built their economic competitiveness on low wages and low taxes. So the fear shared by Central European politicians but also some Western European investors is that the policies Mr. Macron promoted during his campaign, like harmonizing tax regimes across the union and penalizing countries for exporting cheap labor, could destroy Central Europe’s business model.
But while a majority of the Eastern European elite is suspicious of Mr. Macron’s policies, some argue that the politics of low wages is the major reason for the huge outflow of people from their region. In some countries, more than 10 percent of the population has left to work abroad. The International Monetary Fund calculates that if the outflow continues at current rates, Central, Eastern and southeastern Europe will lose around 9 percent of their expected gross domestic product from 2015 to 2030.
But while the Merkel-Macron strategy presents a challenge to Central Europe’s economy, the reality of a two-class Europe presents a strategic risk.
Few things have encapsulated the Eastern European anxiety about becoming second-class citizens as explicitly as the recent scandal around “double standards” for food. Eastern European consumers have discovered that some products, like Nutella, for example, taste different in Austria than in Hungary. Why? Tests have shown that multinational brands sometimes use cheaper ingredients in foods sold on the east side of Europe’s erstwhile Iron Curtain. The companies claim that they change ingredients to match local tastes, but the Czech agriculture minister spoke for many when he said that the East is tired of being “Europe’s garbage can.”
Central European resistance to the new Berlin-Paris axis may usher in a different taste of Europe altogether. These countries now face a choice between deeper integration on terms set by Germany and France or political marginalization — and the fears of a two-tiered European Union could become self-fulfilling prophecies.
Unfortunately, the illiberal turn in Hungary and Poland — marked by attempts to control the courts, tame independent news media, and interfere in civil society (not to mention politicians’ base nationalistic rhetoric) — has forced many Western Europeans to close their ears to what may be in some instances legitimate Central European grievances.
The refugee crisis is a case in point. For Western Europeans, the Polish, Czech and Hungarian refusal to accept resettlement quotas adopted by Brussels in 2015 demonstrates that the Eastern European countries lack the solidarity necessary for the European Union. Eastern Europeans, on the other hand, rightly insist that the solidarity imperative must not trump a democratic mandate, and who belongs to a community is an existential question to be decided solely by democratically elected governments. The problem is that Hungary’s hysterical anti-refugee language has made it easy for other Europeans to dismiss Central Europe’s legitimate fears as objectionable nationalism.
But if the countries of Central Europe face the same challenges, they don’t face them together. The dream of a united Central Europe, embodied by the 1991 formation of the Visegrad Group, no longer exists. Two of the group’s members, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, are trying to distance themselves from the other two, Hungary and Poland, which are bashing the European Union. Meanwhile, even as Poland and Hungary share a hostility to Brussels, they are divided when it comes to the relations with Russia.
The governments in the region faced with Merkel-Macron initiative to reorder the union will soon be forced to choose between a future of deeper integration with Western Europe, or a future where Central Europe is increasingly marginalized. It’s a choice between Emmanuel Macron and Viktor Orban, Hungary’s hard-line nationalist prime minister. The jury is out on which choice governments will make. But Central Europe’s 20th-century experience may be summarized by the adage, “If you are not at the table, you are on the menu.”
This article was originally published in The New York Times.