Monday

25th Oct 2021

Opinion

Central & Eastern Europe: What Merkel did for us

  • With chancellor Angela Merkel retiring from public life, informal influence might be the best means for the region to fend for itself (Photo: Council of the European Union)
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Throughout her 16 years as chancellor, Angela Merkel has been a strong supporter of the Central and Eastern European region (CEE).

She knew their challenges. She grew up in East Germany, studied in then Czechoslovakia, and admired the region's anti-communist movements, like Poland's Solidarity.

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While serious differences were occurring between Berlin and some CEE governments, Merkel, understanding the history and complexity of the region, stuck to her 'open door' policy. Nobody expects her successors to be as accommodating.

This matters, because the CEE countries continue to be dependent on Germany, especially in economic terms. To most, Germany is their primary trade partner, with combined trade with the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia, exceeding trade between Germany and China.

As EU members, through predominantly export-oriented economies tied to German supply chains, the central European states were able to strengthen and enjoy prosperity.

What is more, Merkel's insistence to keep the dialogue open between Berlin, CEE and the EU, for some time, kept the region in check. This was mutually beneficial. Berlin benefited from the support of CEE on European issues helping it move on with its own agenda as opposed to, say, Paris's.

In exchange, CEE countries received economic benefits and a new-found respect.

And when some CEE governments asserted themselves in populist and even confrontational terms on the EU scene, Merkel's Berlin opted for not severing ties but rather using its own channels to mediate between the EU and these mischievous governments.

In hindsight, whether keeping Fidesz in the European People's Party or supporting Bulgaria's Boiko Borrissov for so long produced good outcomes is questionable.

What is not doubtful, however, is that with Merkel at the leadership position the CEE region had a listener and a steady supporter.

At the same time, the region often felt itself perceived as an inferior member of the club. Many CEE countries feel that the inevitable vacuum created after Merkel's departure this autumn gives them the opportunity to take a greater role within the EU.

Nature abhors a vacuum

While they have been, in general, a willing follower of German policy proposals and priorities, they can now be initiators and leaders.

While this notion plays well in the ears of parts of the population that feels their countries are still being regarded as less important and less able to produce constructive ideas by the Western European member states, in reality the region is not a homogenic entity or ready to take on such a role.

For instance, there are often serious differences in priorities. Poland and the Baltic states perceive Russia as a primary threat and are not prepared to make concessions to it.

On the other hand, Hungary and Bulgaria (even with the recent hardening of their positions) often take a softer stance. With the strengthened push from China, Hungary is holding on as a centre of support in Europe, while Lithuania officially left the 17+1 cooperation format.

The region is also seeing different styles and ideology of governing. Poland, Hungary and Slovenia are solidifying their internally populist and externally confrontational styles, which has not won them few fans among more established member states; Bulgaria has plummeted into a deep political crisis after years of keeping a low profile in the EU; Estonia is still a lone wolf with e-governance; and, across the board, there remain serious corruption scandals and shortcomings in CEE states' justice, health, and social systems.

With this baggage, it is hard to see that the region can take a new leading role within the EU. If nothing else, even if there is a will, other member states will not have much trust in such a grouping.

What is more plausible, and has been already happening, is for the CEE countries to ally in different configurations, based on issues of interest. This fluid structure, allows each country to seek most benefits without permanent ties.

The best-known format, the Visegrad Four (V4), has been in the past a useful vehicle for its members to advance their interests, including in the EU. Recently, however, there has been a proliferation of looser formats, including 'Central Five' (Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia, Austria, Czech Republic), 'Slavkov trilateral' (Austria, Czech Republic, Slovakia) or 'Bucharest Nine' (Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia).

Additionally, issue-based groupings between some CEE and southern or western member states are not a novelty, as the contested Posted workers directive has shown.

Issues can and do divide regions.

But what we might begin to see in the near future is increased fluidity in alignment among the CEE member states. And, while this may not yet point towards the CEE as a bloc having a greater role within the EU, fluid alignments on various issues with the presence of CEE countries in them can break some stereotypes on the capacity of the region to initiate and produce constructive ideas. Equally, they will provide for multiple informal channels of communication and therefore influence.

With chancellor Merkel moving on, informal influence might be the best means for the region to fend for itself.

Author bio

Vladislava Gubalova is a senior research fellow at the GLOBSEC think-tank in Bratislava.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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