In the midst of consecutive crises in the EU over recent years and increasing global geopolitical nervousness, the notion of Central Europe has been tiptoeing into the daily parlance. More and more, Central Europe is used as a convenient shorthand for the Visegrad Group (V4) countries: Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary.
The context of outside commentaries tends to be unflattering. Newspaper articles debate the ‘rise of illiberal democracy’, ‘populist turn’ and ‘xenophobia’ in Central Europe. Analysts ponder the strategic risk of Central Europe’s ‘Putinisation’. Foreign statesmen warn of ‘nationalist leaders’ and a ‘threat to rule of law’. Yet, is this just an external generalisation or is Central Europe as a new regional identity with these characteristics really emerging?
The perceptions of what Central Europe stands for have been shaped by the confluence of several factors. First, the post-2008 crisis shifts on the political scene have brought to power politicians that are perceived as populists and nationalists.
Viktor Orban, famous for his remark on wanting to turn Hungary into an illiberal state, returned to power in 2010. In 2012, Robert Fico, a leftist populist with a nationalist tinge, made a comeback in Slovakia. A year later, machiavellian Milos Zeman became the first directly elected president of the Czech Republic. Last October, the Law and Justice party, led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, won elections in Poland and immediately moved to neutralise potential systemic challenges to its rule.
Moreover, the V4 populists seem to have recently found common cause in rejecting the EU-wide refugee sharing quotas and the bloc’s interference in domestic matters. In the current geopolitical context, it is also unsettling that Orban, Fico and Zeman have Russophile tendencies. Overall, a pattern emerges for an outside observer: the V4 has changed, it is not ‘the West’ anymore. It is Central Europe.
Or is it? Central Europe means various things to various people. In the 1990s, Central Europe was a synonym for countries that had left their Eastern Bloc past behind them and looked up to the ideals of liberal democracy and free market. It was the waiting room to become the West.
Further back in time, in the World War II, Central Europe embodied a plan for regional federation stretching from the Baltic to the Aegean Sea. In the World War I, Central Europe, or Mitteleuropa, originated as a pan-German plan to dominate the bulk of the European continent.
Central Europe is an idea, rather than a place. It tends to be forged as a regional identity with a specific geopolitical goal in mind at times of significant shifts. The pan-Germans of the early twentieth century aimed to overcome the division between the German and Austro-Hungarian Empire. The early 1940s governments-in-exile of Nazi- occupied countries were seeking to overcome the disunity that cost them their freedom. The 1990s leaders invoked Central Europe to bridge their transition from being the East to being the West.
Yet, it is not easy to forge a regional identity, let alone achieve geopolitical aims by its means. Forging common identity requires a shared aim, a consistent narrative and a joint effort to make it happen. It would seem that all Central Europe theorists, except for the 1990s reformers, actually failed in their efforts.
What for V4?
To bring some sort of new Central Europe to life, the insiders – rather than external observers – would need to agree on its meaning and goals. The V4 has been in existence for 25 years, but has so far failed to become a strong common frame of identity for its members. Its relatively low profile is to great extent a result of disunity in aims.
At the moment, the four countries share an opposition to refugee quotas and to Brussels’ interference in domestic matters. While certainly a nuisance for consensual decision-making in the EU, these two points are not the type of overarching geopolitical goal that would form a sufficient long-term basis for the creation of a strong regional identity. Although it cannot be ruled out they will find a common purpose in the future, for now the V4 remains a tactical talking shop rather than a strategic alliance.
The illiberal turn is perhaps the most noisily accentuated facet of the debate over Central Europe. Yet Czech Republic is now run by a broad coalition headed by Social Democrat Bohuslav Sobotka, not the troublesome Zeman. After the March elections, Slovakia’s Fico will also likely need at least one partner to form a cabinet. While Orban and Kaczynski may be illiberal wannabes, the region is far from being overrun by autocrats. In fact, none of the V4 leaders currently has a strong enough parliamentary majority to change their respective countries’ constitutions.
The alleged lean to Russia is also disputable. While Budapest, Bratislava and Prague may occasionally look to Moscow, it is highly unlikely that the largest country in the V4, Poland, would get cosy with Russia, especially, under Kaczynski’s leadership. As for the rest, the EU funding is always going to be more important than any deals with Russia. When pushed to choose, even Slovakia and Hungary opt for Brussels.
Overall, the idea of Central Europe as the eastern flank of the EU going rogue appears to be little more than external observers’ generalisation for now. However, Central Europe as a notion typically only emerges when large systemic shifts are on cards. Contemplation of alternative regional identities suggests that some observers feel such a shift is coming.
The EU appears weak and divided, while resurgent Russia looms large. In contrast to earlier enthusiastic liberalism, the V4 populations do genuinely feel strongly against immigration and do vote for leaders that promise them prosperity and protection in conditions of protracted economic uncertainty.
Euroscepticism and social conservativism are on the rise. However, these are not purely V4 trends. They are shared across the continent. The shift may be coming, but we are yet to see whether and what kind of Central Europe it would bring.