22nd Mar 2018


Why has central Europe turned so eurosceptic?

  • Warsaw. Central and eastern Europe are catching up - but it will stake 30-40 years to reach western levels of prosperity (Photo: Kamil Porembinski)

Many people are puzzled by central Europe's eurosceptic turn.

After all, the region has witnessed comparatively solid economic growth over the past two decades. Money from Brussels has flowed in abundance helping to transform infrastructure.

Never has central Europe been more prosperous or influential, in stark contrast to its tragic and tumultuous past. So, why the resentment? Why are some calling Brussels the 'new Moscow'?

There are three reasons.

First, central Europe is particularly vulnerable to populism. Eurobashing has become the staple of every populist on the continent.

John F. Kennedy once said that 'a rising tide lifts all the boats', referring to the benefits which economic growth brings to rich and poor alike.

However, his comments could easily be paraphrased to describe current trends among Western societies: "a falling tide pushes down all the boats".

The fallout from the last economic crisis led to a surge of populism, nationalism and isolationist tendencies in Western states which have accumulated wealth and institutional memory for centuries. It's hard to make their political and social systems unbalanced.

That populism has made its way to central Europe does not come as a surprise at all. If France or Germany are not immune to it, why should Slovakia or Czech Republic be any different?

Young democracies

Let's not forget democracy and free markets were only introduced to central Europe 25 or so years ago.

Constitutions are less enshrined in political cultures. There is less of a backstop against cynical political leaders who poison the minds of people with empty or irresponsible promises and who are ready to attack freedom of speech or independence of the judiciary.

The middle class, with its default preference for moderation, is less present.

Finally, the welfare state tends to have a smaller capacity to generously redistribute incomes and provide opportunities for the poor.

Second, the shock of transition from communism to democracy is greater than anybody predicted. Central European societies have taken a serious knock on several levels: economic, political, social and even cultural.

While big cities westernised quickly, provinces were often forgotten in the push to deregulate economies and adopt EU standards.

Schengen has allowed people to travel and see the prosperity in other EU countries, and consequently turn sour towards their own political establishments.

30 years to catch up with Germany

The objective economic reality is starker than many politicians in central Europe would like to admit. To reach German levels of prosperity, Poles or Hungarians will need to work 30-40 more years.

People get impatient and look for leaders who offer shortcuts – a quick way to 'restore dignity'.

People understand dignity as the freedom to choose other role models and standards which came with the process of Europeanisation.

That Western European societies are ecologically-minded, egalitarian or pacifist is a result of decades of harmonious growth. Life under communism could not be more different and the mindsets often reflect the realities of the past.

Moreover, for easterners to be an eternal pupil to westerners is psychologically demanding – especially if your attitude towards, say, the death penalty did not evolve through decades of prosperous existence in a democratic environment but through an 'acquis communautaire', a precondition for EU membership.

Third, there are genuine concerns about double standards.

Companies really do sell lower quality food in eastern parts of the EU.

Digital services are less accessible from, say, Slovakia than Austria. Unfair stereotypes about poorer easterners persist in the former EU-15. Some decisions at the EU level reflect the needs of postindustrial, postmodern, developed societies in the West rather than those of the continent's East.

Central Europe's voice often goes unheard, the region is underrepresented in institutions like the European External Action Service. EU headquarters are mostly located in Western Europe.

What does it all mean for European unity? Is a new-old East-West rift opening up?

In the short run, the turbulence is here to stay, making further clashes and souring of moods probable, especially over upcoming budgetary negotiations or Poland's rule of law problems.

In the long term, all the factors described above will work in favour of reconciliation and harmonious cooperation. Populists often lose the trust of citizens.

The aftershock of systemic change from communism will die down as new generations resemble those of Western Europe. And there are quite a few politicians (and citizens) who realise that fairness and solidarity work both ways.

Imagine a house you move into where everything is already furnished and considered final. You occupy the smallest rooms and your hosts offer you some leftovers in the kitchen (they call it structural funds) and expect you to be immensely grateful.

A new tenant might be forgiven for thinking that it's better to ''set up a tent outside, even if it is raining". I am not defending populists but trying to visualise what central European societies might think and feel – not to mention how patient all European-minded citizens must be to save the European project.

Jakub Wisniewski is director of the GLOBSEC policy institute

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