The European Union had, for most of the years since the late 1980s, seen itself as the hope of the world. Self-serving as the view was, it had some basis in reality.
The Soviet Union and the Soviet bloc of Central European communist states were breaking up, the latter producing popular leaders such as Poland’s Lech Walesa and the Czech Vaclav Havel – who heralded both countries’ “return to Europe”.
The EU had also launched the euro in the currency markets in 1999, replacing local money in 12 member states on New Year’s Day 2002: a move designed as much as a political act to further European integration as a financial one. It was efficiently carried through, with not too much grumbling from the populace.
Over the 2000s, former communist states joined the EU, one after another, accepting the vast volumes of the “acquis communautaire”, the laws, regulations and court decisions by which all members agreed to abide. As they did so their elections returned, for the most part, parties professing fidelity to the ideals and practices of democracy, encouragement of civil society and freedoms of speech and the press.
It isn’t like that now. Though Central European states differ widely, as they do in Western Europe, the trend in the former is toward stronger nationalism, refusal of more than a trickle of migrants, growing corruption in politics and business, increased state control of the news media, hostility to LGBT rights and in some, a greater closeness to Russia.
With that goes a general contempt for the EU itself – even though these states have received huge financial aid from its budget. Poland alone should receive 82.5 billion euros ($87.3 billion) between 2014 and 2020, this before further agricultural and other subsidies, money which has built new infrastructure and plumped out social and health programmes.
Yet in an affectionate appearance together last September, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and head of the Law and Justice party Jaroslaw Kaczynski condemned immigrants who “eliminate historical identities”: they pledged a joint “cultural counter-revolution”.
At the same time, Hungary has announced it will detain migrants seeking to stay in the country while it processes their applications – in camps composed of metal containers. The initiative has been condemned by the UN and domestic and foreign NGOs: Prime Minister Orban considers migration “a Trojan horse for terrorism”, a stance which has proved popular.
The Hungarian government has mounted a campaign, modelled on Russian legislation, against foreign NGOs who aid migrants and criticise the state’s human rights record. It has taken particular aim at the Hungarian-born U.S. billionaire George Soros, who funds many of these NGOs. The administration believes that U.S. President Donald Trump will make no protest against a clampdown on the organisations: Soros was a leading supporter of Trump’s opponent in the U.S. presidential race, Hillary Clinton.
In Slovakia’s elections last year a nationalist party, the Slovak National Party, and the neo-fascist Our Slovakia won 15 and 14 seats, respectively. It was Our Slovakia’s first representation, depriving the Social Democracy party of its governing majority. Robert Fico, the social democrat prime minister who remained in power, has sought to outflank them on the right, proclaiming that “every” Muslim in Slovakia had been placed under surveillance after the Paris attacks. The new government has since sponsored legislation preventing Islam from being registered as a state religion for a number of years – a law vetoed in December by the liberal president, Andrej Kiska.
The Czech Republic’s coalition government, led by the social democrat Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka, is broadly pro-EU – though its president, Milos Zeman, has called for the deportation of all economic migrants from the EU, arguing that Muslim migrant culture was “fundamentally incompatible” with European society.
Sobotka, with fellow Central European leaders, has resisted a quota system of resettling refugees proposed by the EU: though open to some immigration, he is under pressure to block Muslim migrants. He told the Los Angeles Times that “the integration of Muslims is an objective problem and we are in need of positive examples.”
Czechs vote for a new parliament in October: the ANO party of Finance Minister Andrej Babis – second-richest man in the country, owner of several influential newspapers and close to President Zeman – is ahead in the polls and expected to win. This would give him the premiership – a fusion of political, oligarchic and media power so far unknown in Central Europe.
These countries had quite different experiences during World War Two, but their more similar experiences under communism brought, from the 1960s onward, a kind of grey stability and a slowly rising standard of living – at the cost of an increasingly sullen acquiescence in despotism. Then came the “return to Europe”, an apparent settling of the injustice of forced ideological conformity, an opening to the world.
And now, a reaction. Democratic, free market modernity has not been enough: the practices of the West remain only partially adopted, and a new elite has taken political and economic power – skilled, often corrupt, sometimes ruthless, and contemptuous of their backward fellow countrymen.
In her recent book “Mastering the Past”, Ellen Hinsey writes of the “specters of populism, nationalism, extreme-right militantism and authoritarianism – released from their historical deep freeze”, stalking through the area. For the moment, they are gathering strength: pulling away from a Europe which had sought to define itself as harbinger of a new order, where nations, ethnicities, borders and old quarrels ceased to matter, and citizens could mix and mingle their cultures in the most civil societies in the world. That vision, now, seems all but lost.