Friday

18th Jan 2019

Opinion

Europe's looming dichotomy

  • Czech president Milos Zeman (l), with his prime minister Bohuslav Sobotka (r) gave an unequivocal message to refugees: "No one has invited you to come here" (Photo: Czech government)

There is something rotten in Central Europe. This uncomfortable truth surfaced most recently after the latest meeting of the Visegrad Group last Friday (4 September).

The regional body has always been better at limiting divergence through the socialisation of political elites rather than generating consensus.

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But this time, the four prime ministers spoke in unison, rejecting the notion of refugee allocation through quotas and reminding the rest of the EU that they have long pointed out the need to tackle migration's "root causes".

Faced with an influx of migrants through the Balkan route, Viktor Orban's government in Hungary has already constructed a fence on the border with Serbia, an EU membership candidate country, and is considering building another to separate it from Croatia, a member state (but outside Schengen).

That the Union's fervently nationalist and illiberal 'enfant terrible' would engage in such politics of enclosure might not be that shocking. But even the traditionally socially liberal Czechs now seem to be boarding the same ship.

Former Czech president, Vaclav Klaus, has launched a petition claiming the government is not confronting the growing pressure of European powers on the Czech Republic to "sacrifice its national interests, as we have [done] many times in the past."

Tens of thousands have already signed the petition.

Milos Zeman, current Czech president, issued a short message to the incoming refugees that likely would end any respectable politician's political career further to the West: "No one has invited you to come here."

Protection for borders

In a recent poll, 75% of Czech respondents opted in favour of reinstating national borders, the erstwhile symbol of the society's imprisonment in the dystopia of "real socialism".

Rising populist politicians work relentlessly to increase society's anxiety; the only manifest terrorists in a country which that has not seen a terrorist act in decades.

They are finding support among many more than just the "losers" in the 1990s neoliberal economic transition, who now vent their frustration on the culturally-distinct refugees.

They are also being listened to by the 'petite bourgeoisie' that has gleefully participated in the dismantling of the social state; for there is no compassion to be wasted on the less fortunate.

People do not need protection; borders and the newly-found national values do.

Neoliberalism is no longer merely a prescription to rid society of corruption and wasteful spending. After the last economic crisis, it is being reinvigorated as a means of cultural preservation, fending against the "aliens" who wish to feed upon the welfare state.

By and large, the political elite have their ears to the ground, which makes them hard to look up to.

Nationalistic outlook

They share the nationalistic outlook of the masses, showing scant enthusiasm for the European political project, while becoming unnerved at any suggestions that money could cease flowing from Brussels.

Czech prime minister, Bohuslav Sobotka, a Social Democrat, is on record saying that "European funds are a means of solidarity. They should not be linked to solving the migration crisis."

Such understanding of solidarity is perhaps as far removed from the "responsibility for the world" that was at the core of the first post-revolutionary president Vaclav Havel's political programme.

Sobotka’s statement, coming from a representative of a state that, incidentally, is one of the greatest recipients of EU aid, may betray a lack of maturity of the political classes in new EU member states.

More likely, however, is the modern technocratic mentality of government characterised by management and manipulation that yields to what Havel called the "temptation of nothingness" and saw as a universal hallmark of globalised modernity.

Reflection of the West

What we now see in Central Europe is not the result of the unfinished business of post-communist transition. It is more like a mirror in which societies to the West should start recognising traces of themselves.

The EU, challenged by the flow of migrants seeking protection and a better life, is in the midst of a crisis that threatens not its civilisation but its shared political future, and ultimately the shared expectation that political conflicts will be resolved peacefully.

Instead of coming together to construct a true European polity, the EU is dissolving into politically-diverse pluriverses that will become progressively alienated from one another.

To avoid this fate, EU leaders dealing with the migration crisis will have to forge and breathe life into truly collective and political, not technocratic and managerial, solutions.

Dealing with the push factors of migration, mobilising security apparatuses to dismantle the trafficking networks, incentivising regular migration flows while checking, in an effective, humane and principled way, irregular flows.

Finding solutions in all these areas will demand significant resources and the courage to confront, through democratic process, populist counterforces.

Ondrej Ditrych teaches international politics at Charles University in Prague and coordinates its Karl Deutsch Security Square research centre

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