Common standards of health security, tech and information sharing in research and development, and better integration within healthcare supply chains could help Europe take a big step forward.

“Do you know what ‘covid’ means in Bulgarian?”, a friend asked me recently. “It is a combination of Kostov and Videnov”, she laughed, citing two emblematic prime ministers from the 1990s – the latter notorious for having brought hyperinflation to Bulgaria, and the former for having undertaken the painful reforms needed thereafter.

With the recent wave of special legislation limiting citizens’ rights, many pundits have drawn comparisons with the communist era. For the vast majority of Bulgarians, however, the deepest crisis in memory is related to the 1990s. The era saw scarcity, sudden social disparities, political polarisation, and hyperinflation run through society like electric shocks. It is that fearful experience that probably motivates the fairly high level of public discipline in Bulgarians’ response to covid-19.

The return of the strong state is now a fact of life across Europe. Prime ministers and executive presidents enjoy wide support. Extraordinary times require strong governments and extraordinary measures – a principle that Hungary has taken to the extreme. The suspension of the Hungarian parliament and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s rule by decree without a sunset clause triggered fierce reactions in most European capitals. Curiously enough, while the European Union hasn’t suspended Hungary’s voting rights through the Article 7 procedure yet and the European People’s Party still hasn’t expelled Orbán’s Fidesz, the markets may do the trick. Less than 24 hours after Orbán’s power grab, Hungary’s central bank had to act to arrest a sharp fall in the value of the forint. Following that, the government withdrew a plan to strip power from mayors.

A week earlier, the government in Bulgaria ended its attempt to limit freedom of expression, probably out of fear of dropping into the same group as Hungary. Ironically, Orbán is well on his way to creating the kind of public fear of economic crisis that brought him to power a decade ago. But what will be really important is the course of events in Poland, and the lessons that Jaroslaw Kaczyński's ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) will draw from Budapest. So far, PiS is poised to go ahead with a presidential election next month, despite the fact that the coronavirus crisis prevents parties from conducting a proper election campaign. With the opposition unable to hold public rallies, the power grab in Poland would be advanced by an unfair vote. Should the EU and the markets react categorically against Orbán’s course of action, this may ring some alarm bells in Warsaw too.

Evoking the spectre of the 1990s as the domain of the dangerous “open society” ideology, Kaszynski has moved to an “underlying vision of state [that] is anachronistic – and instead of overcoming some long-term dysfunctions of the Polish society it will only perpetuate and strengthen them”, as ECFR’s Pawel Zerka and Piotr Buras noted last year. A key feature of the governance model PiS has adopted is its reliance on direct transfers of money to the people, not on public services. In dire times for the healthcare sector, this tactic – which has so far been successful for PiS – could backfire.

What aspiring autocrats in Central Europe learned during the migration crisis of 2015 seems to be coming in handy now: countries can close their borders quickly, regardless of the Schengen Area. These leaders had a great enthusiasm for enhancing societies’ conservative instincts and feeding national egoism at the beginning of the pandemic. But the reality of interconnectedness overcame dreams of sovereignty. Bulgaria’s health minister tried to ban trucks from entering the country en route to Turkey, only to revoke the order three hours later. Europe’s trade corridors continue to function, as leaders have realised that such flows are more valuable than nationalistic slogans.

Germany’s success in handling the pandemic with an army of capable doctors and nurses should not come at the expense of societies in Central and Eastern Europe

The coronavirus crisis has amplified the insufficient convergence between new and old EU member states, as French President Emmanuel Macron has characterised it. In his Initiative for Europe, Macron proposed an effort “to encourage convergence across the whole EU, setting criteria that gradually bring our social and tax models closer together. Respect for these criteria needs to be a precondition for access to European solidarity funds.”

Healthcare is not part of the EU aquis and, as such, easily falls victim to weak public institutions and governments’ reluctance to reform – to the habit in the public sector of employing the loyal rather than the qualified. But, in recent weeks, Central and Eastern European governments have begun to panic that their health systems will be unable to cope with the pandemic (hence their introduction of extremely strict lockdown measures). While exposing the flaws in health sectors still stuck in the 1990s, the crisis has demonstrated the effects of the brain drain of doctors and nurses to the west. It is not by chance that citizens of Central and Eastern European countries are more afraid of emigration than immigration, and are pessimistic about their children’s future.

If it is to enhance European cohesion, the EU cannot continue to ignore this problem. Germany’s success in handling the pandemic with an army of capable doctors and nurses should not come at the expense of societies in Central and Eastern Europe. Europe will need to come up with targeted measures in line with the EU’s budget and investment policies. Common standards of health security, tech and information sharing in research and development, and better integration within healthcare supply chains could be the post-crisis measures that help Europe take a big step forward.

Paradoxically, the free movement of labour has also led millions of Eastern Europeans to return home in recent weeks. For instance, around 200,000 Bulgarians who have been working and (mostly) paying their taxes abroad have returned home since the beginning of March. This is a significant portion of Bulgaria’s 3 million working-age citizens. Just imagine if 5 million Germans suddenly returned to their country’s labour market and applied for unemployment benefits. Suspicions that they were importing covid-19 aside, the returnees could pose long-term challenges to the government. As such, the EU may want to use this crisis to start thinking about common unemployment insurance to address the issue.

Judging by Central and Eastern Europe’s ability to bounce back from several big societal shocks in the past few decades, there is reason to hope that it will do so this time around. The populist wave may have reached its limits if autocrats’ power grabs prove to be short-lived. Genuine social (and health) convergence on the continent, however, will take much longer to achieve.

Read more on: Coronavirus, Wider Europe, Western Balkans, European Power, EU instruments

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.