EDITORIAL: Drang nach Westen

“The west is the best / Get here, and we’ll do the rest.” – J. Morrison, “The End”

A quarter of a century after the downfall of communism is a good moment to ask how our region will look like in another twenty-five years. The question if Poland will be a member of the eurozone (and if there will be any eurozone, European Union, NATO, etc.) should be left to fortune-tellers. They cannot complain of lack of demand for their services, just in Poland used by a hundred thousand people a year.

Predictions of demographers are much less sought after, which is a pity. If politicians asked them for advice, they would learn that if the current demographic trends persist, in 2050 one in three Polish citizens will be a pensioner and the population will shrink to 30 million. Already In 2030 there will be just 1.5 potentially working persons (against the current 2.6) per one pensioner. As early as 2020 it will be impossible—because of shortages of labor—to maintain the growth of the GDP on a level necessary to save public finances from bankruptcy. For most countries of the region, the prognoses are even more dramatic. It is estimated, for example, that due to low birth rate and high emigration the last citizen of Bulgaria will die in 2134.

Why do young Poles, Lithuanians or Bulgarians flee to the West in their masses? One of the reasons is that peripheral, backward economies of Eastern Europe base their competitiveness mainly on low labor costs (even the Chinese press reports that Chinese capital starts to invest in Poland, drawn by low labor costs). So, just like a century ago, to many young people emigration to Western large cities seems to be the most promising strategy of personal advancement. Other enticements, beyond the strictly economic ones, are the Western lifestyle, the quality of public services and civil society, efficiency of government institutions, transparent rules of the game, clear paths of career advancement—in short, all these things they cannot count on in their own countries.

This should not surprise us. The essence of the post-1989 transition was, after all, to draw ourselves out of the Soviet sphere of influence and “find a different way of functioning in the international division of labor that an even deeper dependence on the Soviet Union” (J. Staniszkis, “Polskie dylematy,” Aneks 48/1987). Gorbatchev provoked communist elites in Poland or in Hungary to support the changes desired by the most active sections of Eastern European societies when it turned out that a necessary condition of internal reforms initiated by him in the USSR is the deepening of economic dependence of the region. And no one from the generation of Lech Wałęsa (1943), Leszek Miller (1946) or Leszek Balcerowicz (1947) relished such a prospect.

Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary found a better “way of functioning in the international division of labor”: they “had become a hinterland for German industry—to the benefit of both sides.” (P. Rusin, “Warsaw and Berlin from the French perspective,” Visegrad Insight 2/2013). In 2012 the Polish economy—yes, the notorious Polnische Wirtschaft of old—became the eighth largest economy of the EU-27. Germany, just a decade ago “the sick man of Europe,” became a “geo-economic power” (H. Kundnani)— thanks not just to the creation of the eurozone (currently receiving less than half, namely 40%, of German exports) but also to moving a significant part of industrial production to the east: to China, the Czech Republic or Poland. Twenty years after the German unification “the V4 countries altogether (with a total population of approximately 65 million people, equivalent to that of France), became exactly as important as France in German exports (101 billion EUR in 2011) and since 2001, they even exceeded France in German imports—reaching 98 billion EUR in 2011, which is 51 percent more than French products (65 billion EUR)” (P. Rusin, op. cit.).

Does that mean that Poland in particular or the V4 countries in general may become “the New France for Germany”? (see Ulrike Guérot, Konstanty Gebert, “Why Poland is the New France for Germany,” Open Democracy, 17.10.2012). Not necessarily. First, Polish economy is still five times smaller than the French one (and just fractionally bigger than the Belgian one). Second, it is not clear if Germany needs any “new France” (and what it needs the “old” one for now). Third, the V4 does not speak in one voice—it is an economic bulldog but a political dachshund. Fourth, see under “demography.”

A comparison with the former East Germany, rather than France, will be a measure of Eastern European success. The V4 countries more than fulfilled the hopes placed twenty- five years ago in the GDR by the advocates of unification. But it is difficult to say if in another quarter century these countries will be more similar to today’s West Germany or East Germany. Shall we ask a fortune-teller?

Aleksander Kaczorowski

Aleksander Kaczorowski is an editor-in-chief of Aspen Review Central Europe, a Polish bohemist, journalist and author. His recent books include biographies of Václav Havel, Bohumil Hrabal, Ota Pavel and Isaac Babel. He won the Václav Burian Prize for cultural contribution to the Central European dialogue (2016).

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