Debrecen, Hungary, University
In 2018 Jaguar Land Rover ((JLR) opened a new plant with 640 robots on a former farmland in Nitra in western Slovakia. The robots together with 2,800 workers can assemble a Land Rover Discovery every two minutes. JLR was just another carmaker to come to Slovakia. VW arrived in 1991, followed by Kia and PSA. These firms together turn out over one million cars annually; more per head of population than any other country. Nitra is close to the motorway and Slovakia has an impressive supply chain with more than 300 factories making car parts. This spoke for Slovakia. The JLR factory gives a fair picture of Slovakia’s, and more broadly Central Europe’s model of economic development. First, it was built with foreign capital and largely by foreign contractors. Membership in the EU has facilitated the flow of capital from the western members to the eastern ones. Second, the economy of Central Europe depends on customers in economies to the west purchasing goods made relatively cheaply in the hinterland. Third, government support was essential for this economic take off. Government subsidies luring foreign companies into the country are common in Central Europe. Investors flock to special economic zones across the region, attracted by tax advantages. Furthermore EU funds have boosted investment in infrastructure that appeals to foreign investors like, road and rail. Even in Poland, the region’s biggest and most diversified economy, these EU funds matter: by 2022 they will make up 22 per cent of public spending each year.
This foreign-led development model has had much success. Countries from the Baltic states in the north to littoral Black Sea states have become considerably richer over the last two decades. GDP per person in the Czech Republic is now close to Spain. Bulgaria and Romania are much poorer in terms of GDP, but managing to win investment and to grow, too. The European Commission tracks the progress of five EU members immediately east of Germany and Austria, namely the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia, compared with a group of four western frontier EU countries, namely Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden. In 1995 the average GDP per person at purchasing power parity was around 55 per cent lower in the five Central European countries than in the western frontier countries. By 2016 the difference had shrunk to 39 per cent. Average incomes in the five countries are now equal to those in Portugal and far above those in Greece, of course also due to the financial crisis and sovereign debt crisis since 2008. Of all the Central European countries Slovakia saw the most dramatic gains.
But the challenge for these countries, as for any hinterland reliant on supplying labour to produce goods for richer neighbours, is to keep closing the income gap. The next step of economic development is going to be harder, requiring more productive firms, more private capital and more skilled labour. The region was not that hit by the financial crisis and is growing strongly once again. The IMF expects these countries to expand nearly twice as fast as Western Europe and this expansion looks more sustainable than the one that ended with the financial crisis in 2008. Back then cheap foreign loans, including Swiss franc mortgages taken out by individual households had boosted consumption but became hard to pay back. Nowadays banks are in better shape and consumption is less supported by debt and more by rising incomes. Despite nationalistic policies by populist governments in some countries foreign companies are not retreating. Corruption and some political instability seem not to deter investors as long as other economic conditions are beneficial. Building firms are doing particularly well. Construction activity in the region has typically grown twice as fast as GDP in recent years. Central Europe accounts for a fifth of Strabag’s – Austria’s biggest construction company – business. Business in Poland has gone so well that Strabag is branching out from EU-funded infrastructure into hotels, shopping centres and office blocks. Wienerberger, an Austrian building-materials supplier, has 64 plants across Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), including the ones in Austria and Turkey. 30 per cent in the region are not connected to a sewer system, compared with 5 per cent in Western Europe, which means big business for the firm. Subsidies for better housing, for instance in Hungary, have meant a boom in brick sales.
Services are playing a bigger part in this expansion in Central Europe than in the pre-crisis boom. This means that also white-collar work is doing well. Western banks are moving back-office jobs east to pleasant and affordable spots such as Krakow. McKinsey has 1,000 analysts in Poznan in central Poland, serving clients world-wide. Brexit is moving some mid-level finance jobs away from London as well. Erste Bank, an Austrian bank with 16 million customers in Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Croatia, Serbia, Romania and Turkey, expects banking in the region to grow faster than in Western Europe for many years to come. Central Europe has also transformed Vienna Insurance Group, a nearly 200-year old Austrian institution. Its 21 companies across CEE now provide half of all VIG’s premiums and profits because as income rises, spending on insurance increases, too. So it seems that Central European economies are well set for sustainable economic growth. Yet there are still three reasons for worries, namely a lack of innovation in local firms, a coming demographic squeeze and an over-dependence on foreigners, especially Germans, to drive development.
Only few locally owned non-state firms can compete with foreign ones. Sazka Group for instance is a Czech operator of lottery companies at home and in Greece, Italy, Cyprus and Austria. It is small, but has shown foreign ambitions. Competitors to Western companies exist, but they are not many and they have not grown very big. The few large domestic firms in Central Europe are state-owned left-overs of pre-capitalist days, like PKN Orlen, a Polish oil refinery. The region is still to a large degree a back office and workshop for Western Europe and is reliant on companies created and based elsewhere. More needs to be done to encourage innovation at home. Universities and governments might help with promoting management skills and quickly selecting promising start-ups eligible for research and development grants. In fact, Poland for instance tries to move local companies up the value chains. Spending on research and development has already reached 1 per cent of GDP. The goal would be 2.7 per cent by 2021, in line with the USA, Germany and Sweden, the world leaders. An “innovation act” will offer tax benefits to firms commercialising research, among other pro-business measures. Other countries in Central Europe have similar goals.
A more immediate difficulty is finding skilled and competitively priced labour. A building boom has soaked up workers and staff will have to be imported in future. The squeeze is only going to get worse because of the aging population, continued emigration and wide-spread hostility against migrants. Furthermore, labour markets are rigid and people in rural areas are reluctant to move for a job, which keeps labour participation rates low. Older people, who are more likely to live in villages than young people, are the least likely to work. In Poland less than half of the 55-64 year-olds have jobs. Additionally, the difficulty of finding affordable housing contributes to the reluctance of workers to move. Populist policies compound the problem. Poland lowered the retirement age in 2017 and by that immediately limiting the labour force. The labour shortage in the Polish economy is most pressing in construction, IT and transport firms. Also in the Czech Republic the main problem of companies is the lack of workforce, especially skilled workers. If Central Europe moves up the value chain, more productive workers will find it easier to support a growing dependent population, but this skilled workforce has to be created with apprenticeship schemes and vocational trainings.
Workers currently benefit from this tight labour market situation as, especially in cities, wages are rising fast, in Poland by 7 per cent annually and in the Czech Republic wages are close to those in Austria. Higher wages spread economic benefits, especially as many salaries used to be desperately low. But unless workers also become more productive, rising wages will make Central Europe less appealing to foreign investors. What’s more, the region’s close links with Western Europe leave it exposed to any change in policies or financial conditions there, like US tariff threats or a tightening of the monetary policy of the Euro zone. Its reliance on exports means that any softening of demand in the West would be felt quickly in Central Europe. Furthermore the round of EU cohesion policy funds from 2021 to 2027 will pump less EU money into Central Europe than the previous one that ran from 2014 to 2020. This is partly because Central Europe has become richer and also because Brexit will cut the EU budget. Central Europe has benefited greatly from EU integration, but its dependence on exports and on EU funds is also a source of vulnerability.
When in 1989 the Iron Curtain came down and the half-a-century long separation of Europe ended, the British historian Timothy Garton Ash spoke of a “magic year”. The euphoria was especially felt in Austria where in spring 1989 the iron fence at the Austrian-Hungarian border was cut open and the separation ended. In Central Europe new states were founded and new institutions were established along the lines of Western liberal democratic models. Large parts of Eastern Europe were quickly integrated in European and transatlantic structures, but the political, economic and cultural consequences of decades of forced separation are still not overcome and the still existing dramatic wealth gap illustrates this lack of social integration and of fair distribution of wealth. Those that had initiated the revolutions, such as Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel, in the former Soviet bloc countries were soon forgotten and their ideas of “Central Europe” and a strategy for a long-term cultural and economic cooperation in the region were of no priority. Nothing had changed much in Western Europe except the facts that new markets were now accessible and migrants from the eastern part of Europe provided welcome cheap labour for Western economies, but in the east everything had to be reconstructed and the former Soviet bloc countries were busy transforming their states and economies. After 1989 many cross-border projects and initiatives were launched that re-established the idea of “Central Europe”, but only few were of permanent value. The “Visegrad Group” or V4, incorporating Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary is a politically important cooperation in Central Europe today, but unfortunately tinged with a nationalist and populist image due to the current politicians in the region that propagate the V4 group. Currently the idea of “Central Europe” is voiced to promote cultural cross-border activities and to represent the different Central European states and their interests in EU organisations. Furthermore the integration of the western Balkan states and a closer cooperation with the Ukraine is on the agenda of those that propagate the idea of Central Europe.
The historical experiences of Central Europe from the 19th century until 1989, the multi-linguistic, multi-ethnic and multi-religious historical landscape and resistance against the totalitarian Soviet regime can be extremely valuable for the rest of Europe in tackling and overcoming the present crisis of the EU. How can democracy, the rule of law and a fair market economy survive in times of globalisation and how can the old and the new democracies in Europe thrive without resorting to nationalist and populist strategies and achieve a more equal and solidary society? Now nearly the whole Danube basin is part of the EU and the chances of economic success can be greatly enhanced by a close economic, social and cultural cooperation of all these countries in the region instead of a retreat into nationalist economic policies, which already failed in the interwar years between the First and the Second World War and had catastrophic political consequences of totalitarian regimes, Fascism, National Socialism, genocide, ethnic cleansing and finally the devastation of Central Europe. With the EU enlargement of 2004/07/13 the centre of Europe has moved east and “Central Europe” will be the crucial region for the future of Europe. But in Western Europe the traditional concept of Central Europe as an “appendix” to the West at best or a “periphery” or at worst a part of the “undeveloped East” is still wide spread in the minds of Western politicians. The Hungarian writer Peter Esterhazy mentioned that the role of Central Europe is at best one of a “trouble maker”. Identity and position of Central European states have always been the results of the relationships to neighbours that make up a large part of each country’s history. There is a long list of neighbourly conflicts in this region involving the relationships between Hungary, Slovakia and Romania, Romania and Bulgaria, Poland and the Ukraine and so on. In a speech in 1993 at the University of Vienna Vaclav Havel spoke of the history of Central Europe as a history of paradoxes: Austrians and the Czech are historically, culturally and socially closely linked and still they were unable to develop a positive and mutually gratifying relationship in the whole of the 20th century. There is a saying in Vienna that every Viennese has a Czech grandmother, which is largely true, but has not contributed to better understanding until recently. The Slovenian writer Drago Jancar pleaded for more than just pragmatic political ties in Central Europe. Creativity, especially cultural and artistic creativity is needed to ensure a mutually satisfactory and harmonious cooperation in Central Europe that does not forget the many historical injustices and can fight against nationalist and populist claims.
Central Europe is embedded in a tradition that has incorporated many often diverse cultural patterns in very creative ways. In its long history it has always been a laboratory for change characterised by a lot of healthy scepticism. Nostalgia for “Habsburgia”, the times of cultural and economic prosperity around 1900, does not offer solutions for the future, but it illustrates the common cultural space that unites all these countries in Central Europe. The common cultural space, the Central European traditions and perspectives could constitute an important power base of these countries inside the EU, especially with respect to an awareness of the importance of history in this region. Looking at the prerequisites that turned Central Europe into a hub for innovation, cultural creativity and scientific ingeniousness around 1900, we can clearly see that the lack of interconnectedness and cooperation in the region impedes another flourishing of this special Central European culture in the 21st century. It constitutes a real problem for example if a train ride from Krakow to Vienna took five hours and 48 minutes in the 19th century and it takes more than eight hours in the 21st century. Furthermore there is much less knowledge of the languages of the Central European neighbours now than there was around 1900 when the majority of Central Europeans was bi- or even trilingual. Today’s universities in the region host much fewer students of other Central European languages than around 1900, even including the Erasmus programme students. Yet the cultural idea of Central Europe is perpetuated in the southeast of Europe. A yearning for Central Europe is nowadays expressed by Croatian, Serbian, Romanian and Ukrainian intellectuals and a wish to be integrated in this Central European culture. The historical irony and disaster of Central Europe is the fact that radical projects of the 20th century, nationalism, fascism and communism have permanently destroyed existing connections and relationships. Nevertheless, a wide-spread feeling of a parallel cultural existence has not gone lost completely in Central Europe.
Historical myths and narratives form the basis of cultural identities of communities. Rapid and continuous changes of borders, of regimes and ideologies as well as population movements and ethnic cleansing together with assimilation processes have sharpened the sensitivity for historical analysis in Central Europe. In the former Soviet bloc states the European present since 1989 is viewed as the “return of history” in Central Europe. The ideological separation of Europe after 1945 in the form of the Iron Curtain ignored historical realities. In the West an enlightened and democratic integration project replaced the National Socialist racial policies and dictatorship whereas in the East the bourgeois society was to be wiped out by a communist social and economic model. Since 1989 different concepts of history have existed as a tool of enlightenment and an educational vehicle to form a community spirit on an ethnic and on a state level. In this way history can again become a battle ground for political conflicts, for instance with respect to the role of ethnic communities and states during the time of National Socialism, ethnic cleansing during and after World War II and attitudes and responsibilities under communist regimes. The importance of history to investigate past events objectively and to uncover injustices and atrocities is crucial in the formation of communities today. Conflicts about the “correct” historical analysis, about neighbourly stereotypes form part of democratic learning processes in the formation of a Central European community. Historians and social scientist of different states in Central Europe are discussing these issues in joint projects, political initiatives are necessary to create joint history books, too, that look at the events of the 20th century from both sides, the Austrian and the Czech side, the Hungarian and the Slovak side, the Austrian and the Slovene side, etc. It is a challenging task but inevitable and worthwhile because an arbitrary handling of traditions creates an ”illusion of reality”, according to the writers Robert Musil and Thomas Bernhard, which is very dangerous and prevents a peaceful coexistence in Central Europe. The Habsburg Monarchy tried to establish an imperial identity in the last decades of its existence which led after the end of the Habsburg Empire to the historical myth of the empire as a “peoples’ prison” in the newly established states in Central Europe after 1918. In Czechoslovakia for example a strict campaign of “de-Austrification” was launched, which was taken up again by the communists after 1945, who for decades formed the historical awareness and consciously blocked any collective memory of atrocities committed in the first half of the 20th century. Which kind of history has now returned to Central Europe after 1989? At first glance it seems that national narratives return to the regions, but at second glance it can be seen that there is a lot of interest from the young generations to uncover suppressed memories and to objectively research historical events. The “return of history” is not just the end of communism; it is also the return of the history of national groups, of forced population movements and ethnic cleansings. The history of the interwar years is not a history of a democratic awakening, but of authoritarian power structures, political illusions and nationalistic falsifications of historical events. That was the basis on which the communist regimes built their historical concepts. The national myths of the different ethnic groups in Central Europe have their roots in the nationalist conflicts of the Habsburg Empire and were born out of Romanticism and not out of Enlightenment. All these nationalistic myths contain two elements of nationalism: first, the conviction that the respective nation is to be defined in dissociation of/differentiation from neighbouring nations and second, the conviction that this nation is superior culturally and politically to the neighbouring nations.
For a long time the region of Central Europe was characterised by supremacy and not equality. Only the delimitation and the illusion of a cultural and political supremacy could guarantee the ethnic survival of the community – this was the wide-spread conviction in Central Europe. This attitude explains why nationalist politicians in Hungary and Poland are successful in battling open and liberal societies. They promise their electorate that they will fight the nation’s battle again in the 21st century. The ideological separation of Europe during the Cold War preserved traditions of cultural and ethnic hierarchies for a long time. That’s why there is a great need for modern historical research in the region, for the creation of an inclusive Central European identity based on a common historical experience and for a historical memory of past political and social changes in all communities of the region. In Central Europe history is much more than discourses of historians in the ivory tower; history is a medium and a means for the construction of political and national identities. New historical narratives have to replace the old East-West model of the Cold War which suppressed the memory of historical conflicts and prejudices and shared characteristics.
The new Central Europe of the 21st century can use the geographical position in the heart of Europe to form a positive new and inclusive cultural and political identity. For most in the western EU member states the integration of Central European states in the EU was an investment in economic competition on the way to position Europe as a global player in the 21st century. But with the incorporation of Central Europe the EU takes over all the historical experiences that formed this region and a successful common future is only possible if the past is discussed, analysed and understood. A characteristic Central European attitude is scepticism: progress is never as big as it seems and another phenomenon is the attitude that “the other” is always present, but for a century Central Europeans have not been used to treating “the other “ equally. Central Europe was left alone with these dilemmas after the end of the Cold War because the focus was just on boosting economic efficiency and integrating the states in the security concept of the NATO. The big neighbours of Central Europe, Germany and Russia, were much too busy with their own problems after 1989; Germany with its unification and Russia with the breakup of the Soviet Union. If the EU does not develop a social model that distributes the economic benefits of economies of scale, of an integrated market and of globalisation more equally in Europe it will fail and if the EU does not develop a clear idea of what Europe stands for we might end up with a variety of nationalist and populist answers to the crises of globalisation and migration. If the income gap in Europe and worldwide widens further, forms of authoritarian democracy modelled on Putin’s Russia and Orban’s Hungary might become a popular option in the rest of Europe, too.
When the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall came down, the economist and political scientist Francis Fukuyama spoke of the “end of history” and the victory of democracy. The enthusiasm in east and west was boundless. Nowadays even Fukuyama has realised that he was over-optimistic. Before 1989 the people in east and west lived in different worlds. The memory of the common history in the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy was gradually lost, there was no unified Europe and no concept of Central Europe. For the writers, scientists, artists and political activists in the communist states “Central Europe” was a place of intellectual yearning and represented the idea of freedom. This suppressed intellectual elite of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Eastern Germany, Romania and Bulgaria is now more or less forgotten. No serious research deals with their achievements. Many of them spent years in prison and were not allowed to publish or exhibit their works, but they were the real heroes of change in Central Europe. Change came quickly in 1989 and was not strategically planned. The Solidarnosc movement in Poland seemed to have been the only one with a concept of what would happen after the end of the communist regime. The historically strong position of the Catholic Church there offered support to the movement. The Charta 77 movement in the Czech part of Czechoslovakia was carried by a group of formerly communist intellectuals who had been frustrated by the result of this communist experiment, whereas in the Slovak part forms of Slovak nationalism that remembered the independent Slovak state under Tiso, supported by Hitler, resurfaced, which led to the peaceful separation of the country after the fall of communism. In Hungary a special, more “relaxed” form of communism developed, the “goulash communism”, which meant that in 1989 the communist politicians reverted into democrats and established themselves in the new administration, at universities and in the economy. There was never any serious structural and political change and the communist and also the fascist past was never investigated. That is the reason why it is so easy for Orban to revert to authoritarian measures and to rewrite Hungarian history. In Romania the party leaders by having President Ceausescu and his wife executed offered the population a spectacular show of change that prevented any real change. This fact contributes to the instability and prevalence of corruption in the country today. In Bulgaria the transition was gradual and characterised by the traditionally close relationship to Moscow. Several prime ministers of democratic Bulgaria only returned their Russian citizenship, which they had received in Soviet times, before taking office. Only in Eastern Germany a true and drastic change took place, but this was orchestrated by Western politicians, who took office in the eastern provinces, e.g. Biedenkopf and Vogel, and this overbearing dominance of the West over the East boosts the votes for the radical right wing parties in Eastern Germany today. In Yugoslavia Tito had achieved a considerable independence from Moscow, but the construction of Yugoslavia as a republic of more or less independent provinces bore the kernel of conflict already in its foundation. Because of a lack of historical analysis and the officially prescribed ignorance of the past, the memories of national conflicts lingered on under the surface and erupted in the 1990s after the demise of Tito. No real internal cohesion was achieved between 1945 and 1991, so that Yugoslavia disintegrated due to internal nationalistic strife despite a common communist party, army and administration. Albania constitutes a special case because of the extreme form of communist dictatorship of Enver Hoxha; a country in complete isolation until the end of the Cold War. That’s why the path to Western democracy and market economy is especially tiresome for this country. This brief analysis shows once again the special vulnerability of Europe on the Balkans, just as in 1914. The current political instability of the Middle East, the aggressive political and economic expansion of Russia and China via the Balkans into Europe should make the Balkans a focus point and priority for European political and economic strategies now.
After the fall of the communist regimes in the East there were no blueprints, no concepts for change. The western perception that the newly freed countries would automatically develop in the right direction once democracy was established was naive. The long period of dependency from Moscow created a feeling in the new democratic states that it was necessary to be part of a bloc. That’s why the perspective of European Union and NATO membership was a welcome point of orientation for them. Brussels as well as Washington had and still have great difficulties in understanding the complicated historical, ethnic and social conditions in Central Europe. Often in history the break-up of big empires led to innumerable wars. Fortunately the goal of a united Europe prevented such a disaster after 1989. For Yugoslavia this perspective was missing, which might partly explain the four wars that followed the break-up of Yugoslavia. The huge western investments in Central Europe stabilised the political situation there and the question can justly be asked whether a similar perspective for the Western Balkan region could have prevented the conflicts there and would make the situation in Kosovo and Macedonia more stable today. The lack of historical knowledge in many European governments nowadays leads to the fact that the disruptive potential of national conflicts and different religious ties is still underestimated. Once the criteria for membership in the EU are fulfilled and the framework for the protection of minority rights is in place nobody cares about the practicality of the rules and the efficiency of the institutions on site.
Jacques Delors once said that we have to give “Europe a soul” and this demand is still ignored. It is not enough to unite Europe economically, but we have to facilitate an emotional identification with Europe to make the EU a sustainable community because the weakness of the nation state is its exclusivity; the nation state rejects togetherness of different nations on principle. Education is the only means to overcome this deficiency. That’s why the EU has to invest much more in common educational programmes like Erasmus. European history is a history of frontiers and separations and the aim of European integration has to be to overcome these divisions. Cultural, social and political cooperation in European regions does exist, but the impact of organisations like the Central European Initiative, the Southeast European Cooperative Initiative or the European Union Strategy for the Danube Region is usually weak; they are underfunded, underrepresented in the EU bureaucracy and unnoticed by the local population.
The slow integration of Central Europe in the project of a united Europe can be explained by the predominant discussion about the enlargement of the EU to the east with respect to labour market, economic efficiency and welfare questions. In the 1990s the former communist states soon became a region of western business travellers and eastern labour migrants. Every consumer in the new accession countries must feel disadvantaged when the branded products offered there are of a lower quality than in the west because the consumers in the east supposedly “make do with second-rate quality”; they feel like second-class EU citizens. Central Europeans today are offered branded detergents, food and sweets of minor quality than in the west. Fish fingers for example contain 65 per cent fish in Austria and 58 per cent in Slovakia. That’s what is called market adaptation. This arrogant attitude of the West with respect to Central and South-eastern Europe is not limited to brand names and product markets, it is most prominent in European Union institutions as well.
The transition to parliamentary democracy and the rule of law took place in just a few years in Central European countries. The longer the democratic traditions, the higher the educational level and the more developed the economy, the sooner these countries met the Copenhagen criteria for accession of 1993. But the functioning of a parliamentary democracy is not limited to its institutions; it depends on the attitude of the elites and the majority of the population. In most of these countries a true change of the elites from communism to democracy did not take place and that has created a problem in countries like Romania and Bulgaria, but also in Poland and Hungary. As is often the case: “the revolution eats its children”. The broad democratic citizens’ platforms in Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary of the 1980s that triggered the revolutions and won the first elections soon disintegrated. The economic transformation to a market economy, whether in the form of a “shock therapy” as in Poland or in the form of a slow adaptation process as in Romania led to severe burdens for the majority of the population. When asked in 2000 a majority in Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria stated that their living standard had declined since 1980. Despite the economic stabilisation process in Central Europe since then, the new accession countries still spend much less of their GDP on welfare than the old member states. The quick adaptation to Western democratic and economic standards was based on the belief of a superiority of the Western system. The accession process became a benchmark for successful transformation for the accession countries and a proof of its attractiveness for the EU itself. Structures and organisations of integration remained western, whereby local traditions were ignored.
The main problem of the EU is not necessarily an accession policy that was too fast or too far-reaching, but the inability of Western elites to adapt the project Europe to the new conditions and to turn it into a project of the whole of Europe and not just of Western Europe. Any criticism from outside was dismissed, arguing that if you want to become a member of a club you have to accept the rules of the game. This acceptance of the rules of the game has undoubtedly contributed to a fast economic growth in Central Europe. Yet the weaker economies in Central Europe will still take many years to catch up and reach the living standards of even the poorest of the old members of the EU. The economic integration of Central Europe was a huge success for Western companies, especially Austrian and German ones due to open borders and new markets. But today’s perception in these profiteer countries is dominated by the problems of open borders from labour market distortions to migration and insecurity. The current political discussion discredits further accession plans and focuses on dissociation, border control and fear of social decline rather than opening up of borders, freedom and democracy. The EU no longer represents a common ideal of freedom, democracy and unity and therefore cannot combat the rise of illiberal, anti-democratic and anti-European parties. It was a cardinal error of the EU to demand that nothing need to change in the West and everything had to change in the East. A stable and globally competitive EU does not only require economic and technocratic goals, but common cultural convictions, otherwise it creates a two-class society and new internal separations in Europe. The societies in Central Europe are open for more common cultural values in the EU, but where are the European intellectuals that propagate the richness of cultural diversity of Central Europe and make it known in the rest of the continent? The Central European experience with cultural diversity and creativity has been ignored by the West because it is felt that cultural discussions have no place in the EU. This “politically correct” attitude has nourished the nationalist and populist movements all over Europe. European threats and sanctions towards Central European countries that lack “solidarity” in dealing with the current migration problem will not solve the problem. The EU needs fewer rules and regulations, fewer subsidies and much more common investment in education and culture. Latest surveys show that the attitude of EU citizens has changed: in 2007 a majority believed that Europe is held together by the common economy, whereas in 2017 it was culture.
The EU is still dominated by the three big players Germany, France and Great Britain (until 2019 when they will exit the EU). Why is it not possible to create a closer regional cooperation in the Danube basin and by that increase the political weight of these Central European countries? The common experiences during the Habsburg Empire can contribute to solving many current problems such as large migratory movements which were common in the last decades of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. We see European Union development too much in the context of infrastructure, common regulatory framework and technical standardisation and neglect the cultural and intellectual capacities of Europe that have an enormous potential in a globalised world. There is a lack of constructive neighbourhood policy in the EU and the EU ignores the potential of Central Europe as a bridge to the east and the southeast. Why is the EU agenda dominated by German economic necessities? Why are so few personalities from the new accession countries in key positions of the EU except Donald Tusk from Poland? Brussels ignores the possibilities Poland has to liaise in the Ukraine crisis and it has never really appreciated the positive role the Czech Republic has played on the Balkans. Central Europe can be an important intermediary on the Balkans at a time when the situation there is unstable and very precarious. It would be important to invest there and offer the people a perspective of membership in the EU. Otherwise out-migration, political instability and corruption will increase and the desperation among the people, the disillusionment and hopelessness will lead to a dangerous power vacuum that authoritarian regimes are already waiting to fill, namely Russia, Turkey, Saudi-Arabia and China are already investing heavily in the region and trying to get a foothold there by supporting individual ethnic groups in their power struggle with their neighbours. This interference endangers the democratisation process of European integration on the Balkans even further.
The EU has to listen more carefully to the suggestions and criticism from Central Europe. Only then can a “Europe of different speeds” be avoided and a destruction of this important peace and integration project be prevented. Even in the largely EU-friendly Czech Republic the dissatisfaction with a German-dominated EU economic policy and the enormous wealth gap between the member states has led to the impression that the new accession members are second-class EU citizens. The workers in the Czech VW plant earn only one third of those in Germany despite equal productivity. The demand for a structurally reformed EU is growing in the whole of Europe, for a EU that only deals with the essential questions and leaves the rest to communities, regions and the states. Neoliberalism has brought Europe more democracy and more wealth overall, but has enormously increased economic and social inequality in Europe and has led to more cultural insecurity. All this has given rise to a widespread demand to return to more decision making power of the nation states. Central Europe with its long tradition of a cultural, ethnic and religious mix can help reform the EU and make it stable and accepted again.
Never had it so good. Central Europe’s Goldilocks economies, The Economist, July 7th, 2018
Emil Brix & Erhard Busek, Mitteleuropa revisited, 2018
Stephen Green, The European Identity. Historical and Cultural Realities We Cannot Deny, 2015