Visegrad four: Brussels’ eastern critics

Posted on August 29, 2016

©FT Graphic / Getty

In Baile Tusnad, a spa town in the Transylvania mountains, thousands of young Hungarians gathered in the late July sunshine for a speech by Viktor Orban, their firebrand prime minister.

Mr Orban has used the annual “summer university” and cultural jamboree for students in the town — once part of Hungary but now in Romania — for big policy speeches before. In 2014, he said he was building an “illiberal state” in Hungary that would preserve democracy and freedom, but do a better job of meeting today’s challenges by focusing on family values, competitiveness and security rather than liberal rights.

    This year, as well as backing Donald Trump for US president — expressing admiration for the Republican candidate’s stance on many issues, including how to deal with immigration — Mr Orban trained his fire on the EU. Economic crisis, he said, had mutated into a crisis of the political elites dominating the 28-nation bloc, and hence one of European democracy itself. The flood of migrants from the Middle East, meanwhile, had brought terrorist attacks such as the shootings in Munich carried out on the eve of his speech.

    “Europe has lost its global role and has become a regional player. It is unable to protect its own citizens . . . to protect its external borders . . . to keep the community together, as Britain has just left,” he said. “What more is needed for one to openly declare that Europe’s political leadership has failed?”

    For all the criticisms from Brussels and EU leaders in recent years for damaging democratic checks and balances, and for building a fence to keep out migrants last year, he and Hungary had followed the right path, Mr Orban said. The “European mainstream” might soon have to follow suit. “This is how the black sheep will become the flock,” he declared.

    HORGOS, SERBIA - JULY 17: Children play under razor wire placed along the border at a informal camp besides the border fence close to the E75 Horgas border crossing between Serbia and Hungary on July 17, 2016 in Horgos, Serbia. Serbia has announced that it will start joint army and police patrols on its borders with Bulgaria and Macedonia to curb the illegal entry of migrants and people smuggling. The decision comes days after EU member Hungary began sending back to Serbia all illegal migrants caught within five miles of the border fence that was constructed last year. The new rules have led to hundreds of migrants being stranded along the Serbia-Hungary border. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)©Getty

    The razor wire-topped fence at Horgos on the Serbia-Hungary border

    Mr Orban is the most outspoken critic from within the 11 ex-communist member states that have joined the union since 2004. But he is not alone. With economies buoyed by billions of euros in EU funds each year and growth fuelled by access to the single market, these countries might be expected to be cheerleaders for Brussels. Yet some — or their leaders — are not.

    While voters like the freedoms and funding that membership brings, governments in central and eastern Europe have seized on the Brexit vote to drive the dagger into EU institutions and their leadership, portraying it as an existential turning point.

    Led by Hungary and Poland, where the ultra-conservative Law and Justice party (PiS) regained power last year, they warn western leaders and Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission president, against drawing the “wrong” conclusions from Brexit. They say that vote was the inevitable result of Brussels’ failure to listen to citizens, and claim that preserving the status quo will only provoke more calls for withdrawal.

    With EU leaders meeting next month in Bratislava, capital of Slovakia — whose premier, Robert Fico, is another EU critic — to discuss the union’s post-Brexit future, officials in western Europe and Brussels are rattled. They fear Hungary and Poland, which have been accused of eroding media and political freedoms, could use the situation to undermine the EU’s authority and push their own, more conservative vision of European “values”. Some talk of a new east-west divide in Europe.

    “The biggest concern about the east-west divide is that we are essentially speaking different languages. We are not understanding each other,” said a senior minister from an eastern member state. “We do not believe Brussels in its current form is bringing us anything.”

    Awkward quartet

    The east-west split is far from clear cut. The three ex-Soviet Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, with Vladimir Putin’s Russia breathing down their necks, remain euro-enthusiasts. Romania and Bulgaria, which joined the bloc later, are lobbying to join the EU’s Schengen passport-free zone.

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    But the leaders of Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia, which form a bloc called the Visegrad Four, have emerged as a kind of central European awkward squad.

    Though tension had simmered for some time, the catalyst was last year’s abortive plan to make each EU member take a “quota” of refugees. That was anathema to the Visegrad countries with little experience of mass immigration and relatively homogenous populations.

    Even here, however, there are paradoxes. Polling by Pew Research in June this year found Poles and Hungarians still had the most favourable view of the EU of any member nations.

    Otilia Dhand, a Slovakian-born analyst with Teneo Intelligence, a political risk consultancy, says those figures mask nuances. No former communist EU member would vote to leave, she says, unlike some western counterparts. But many citizens have been disappointed by membership.

    ‘Blame our communist heritage’

    Central European governments often oversold the EU’s benefits to win backing for pre-membership reforms and referendums. The boom before and after ex-communist countries joined in 2004 turned to bust for many with the 2008 financial crisis. Hopes of rapidly catching up with the more prosperous west have faded. Meanwhile, the Greek debt crisis and the migrant issue have laid bare the European project’s flaws.

    “The bride turned out not as pretty as advertised,” says Ms Dhand. “The EU is probably the best of the realities that [CEE citizens] can imagine. It’s just that they are not particularly optimistic about the reality they see right now.”

    The emergence of the Visegrad Four as an opposition bloc is a notable development, she adds, since these countries could long be relied on to “sign on the dotted line” of EU policies. Poland, under its previous centre-right government led by Donald Tusk — now president of the European Council — forged a strong alliance with Germany and Angela Merkel, its chancellor.

    Yet the countries’ governments bristle at being labelled “Eurosceptics”. Indeed, their brand of scepticism, which Poland’s Europe minister Konrad Szymanski dubs “eurorealism”, is a long way from the secessionism of Britain’s Leave campaigners.

    German Chancellor Angela Merkel gestures during her summer interview with journalists of German public tv chain ARD on August 28, 2016 in Berlin. / AFP PHOTO / dpa / Rainer Jensen / Germany OUTRAINER JENSEN/AFP/Getty Images©AFP

    German chancellor Angela Merkel on ties with eastern states: “We should focus on what brings us together, what moves us forward”

    They complain that western European countries treat them like second-class members. While they never assert that they would be more prosperous outside, like the UK’s Brexiters, they resent meddling in domestic issues by Brussels and attempts to impose EU-wide solutions against their will, as typified by migrant quotas.

    “Blame our communist heritage,” one Visegrad minister told the Financial Times, “but we don’t like it when the policy is defined elsewhere and then we are told to implement it.”

    “One [EU] attitude is more and more of the union. This attitude is to blame for ever greater crises . . . Federalist concepts lead to unhappiness,” said Jaroslaw Kaczynski, head of Poland’s Law and Justice party, the day after Britain’s referendum in June. “We need a new European treaty.”

    The Visegrad quartet broadly agrees on the solution: an EU based more on co-operation between capitals, with some powers handed back to member states, and Brussels-based institutions curbed. Beyond that, however, divergent interests may make it difficult for them to agree on any detailed blueprint.

    Western EU countries opposed to deeper integration, such as Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands, might find common cause and build a consensus on shifting to more of an “EU of capitals”. If so, that could bridge the east-west divide and take the heat out of central Europeans’ concerns.

    Even in Germany, Sigmar Gabriel, leader of the Social Democrats, the junior coalition partner in Ms Merkel’s coalition, has called for a cap on the number of migrants. He said on Sunday that the government had “underestimated the challenge” of integrating the 1m refugees who arrived in 2015.

    A partnership of sorts

    Some analysts suggest Mr Orban has a more radical agenda that could endanger the EU’s set-up. In that, he might be joined by Mr Kaczynski.

    During its eight years out of power, PiS studied how Mr Orban’s Fidesz consolidated its hold on Hungary after returning to government in 2010. But officials had suggested the two men would find it difficult to work together because of sharply opposing views on Russia.

    Mr Kaczynski remains rabidly critical of Russia, which he partially blames for the air crash in Smolensk in 2010 that killed his twin brother Lech, then Polish president. Mr Orban, despite a past as a Soviet-era student dissident, has worked with Moscow, signing a multibillion-dollar deal to upgrade a Hungarian nuclear power station.

    Yet the two have formed a partnership of sorts. Though Mr Kaczynski is not the Polish prime minister, they have met twice this year. As PiS has faced pressure over changes to Poland’s constitutional court that Brussels says could damage the rule of law, echoing steps taken by Mr Orban, Hungary’s premier made clear he would veto any EU sanctions against Warsaw.

    Far-right activists light flares as they march during an anti-immigrants rally to protest against EU compulsory national quotas on migrants in Brno, Czech Republic June 26, 2015. REUTERS/David W Cerny - RTX1HZ4A©Reuters

    Far-right activists at an anti-immigrant rally in Brno, Czech Republic

    Peter Kreko, director of the Political Capital think-tank in Budapest, says Hungary’s premier has spotted a potential opening in the migrant issue.

    “[Orban] wants to transform the EU, and he hopes that the current leadership of the EU, including Merkel, Juncker, [French President François] Hollande and others, will be swept away by . . . the refugee crisis,” he says. “And the new Europe can be formed on the ruins of the old one — against the federalist vision, and based on the trinity of the family, the nation state and Christianity” that Mr Orban claims to have put back at the heart of Hungarian politics.

    Mr Orban’s combative language, in chorus with Mr Kaczynski, has startled even their Visegrad neighbours and allies. “Poland and Hungary are becoming increasingly radical,” said a senior official in Slovakia, which holds the rotating presidency of the EU. “Visegrad is a very useful forum. But we are increasingly having to distance ourselves from Budapest and Warsaw where the rhetoric is not helpful.”

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    Meanwhile, Czech officials have reacted to the increased criticism of Brussels from Warsaw and Budapest by making frequent trips to Berlin to solidify their relationship, for fear of being seen as guilty by association.

    Some analysts suggest Hungary’s premier would never risk going against popular sentiment by pushing to exit the EU. But Mr Kreko believes Mr Orban is actively trying to turn Hungarian opinion against the EU, to strengthen his bargaining position.

    Mr Orban has called a national referendum for October 2 that will ask whether Brussels should be allowed to force Hungary to resettle immigrants “without the consent of parliament”. Since the quota plan is essentially dead, the question appears moot. But the referendum has provided an opportunity for a virulent anti-migrant — and, by extension, anti-EU — poster campaign. Billboards have claimed that since the refugee inflows “more than 300 people died” in attacks in Europe, “harassment of women has risen sharply” and “Brussels wants to settle a whole city’s worth of illegal immigrants in Hungary”.

    Such slogans echo sentiments used by Slovakia’s Mr Fico during his re-election campaign in March, speeches by the Czech Republic’s populist — and popular — president Milos Zeman, and the thoughts of many in the Polish cabinet.

    “They can put themselves in the Cassandra role,” says Mr Kreko. “They can say, we told you there are problems, the EU didn’t respond, and therefore Great Britain left the European Union. It gives more arguments for their transformative agenda.”

    Diplomacy: Berlin seeks to reassure its neighbours

     

    It was only a passing compliment but the German chancellor had her fellow leaders nodding in agreement.

    “I am glad that Bratislava will host the summit,” Angela Merkel said as she stood alongside the prime ministers of Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary in Warsaw last week. “The tradition of us meeting in Brussels means we lack opportunities to see the real Europe. At times we can be out of touch with what the EU is all about.”

    It was music to the ears of her fellow leaders who often complain that other EU leaders ignore the views of their citizens. And it represented a gesture of respect to help soothe a relationship between Berlin and its central and eastern neighbours that has been strained over the past year.

    For many in the eastern countries that joined the EU in 2004, Ms Merkel represents the face of the EU. The German chancellor, who grew up in East Germany under the communist rule that stretched across the Soviet bloc, was the EU leader who sought to build the strongest relationships with the east. The Berlin-Warsaw axis was the glue that held the EU’s east and west together.

    That has come unstuck. Ms Merkel was cast as the villain in the EU’s migrant crisis by eastern European politicians who first blamed her for encouraging migrants to come to Europe, and then attempting to force through a scheme to share them out between all EU member states.

    As Ms Merkel visited Prague last week, protesters held up placards with “Mother of Multiculturalism” above a photo of her in a hijab with a Hitler moustache.

    Her support for Nord Stream 2, a pipeline that would carry Russian gas under the Baltic Sea direct to Germany, has also vexed many eastern countries that say it will strengthen Moscow’s influence in the EU.

    Rebuilding the relationship between Berlin and the eastern member states is crucial to bridging a divide that has been exacerbated by Britain’s vote to leave the EU. “We should focus on what brings us together, what moves us forward,” Ms Merkel said in Warsaw. “The EU needs to be stronger in the future.” Henry Foy

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