The Helvetization of Central Europe

At the beginning of October, the Czech parliament passed a resolution condemning the launch of the Article 7 procedure against the government of Viktor Orbán. The authorities of Poland and Bulgaria announced earlier that they would not support any measures against the Hungarian government. The German Christian Democrats are also reluctant to do so. Although the CDU/CSU MEPs supported the launching of the procedure, which may lead to Budapest losing its right to vote in EU institutions, it does not seem likely that this will happen before the spring elections to the European Parliament. After the election, the “nationalist international” of Orbán supporters, according to polls, could gain up to a third of the seats in the European Parliament (his less obvious supporters, however, such as the Czech Communists who also voted for the resolution, are not even taken into account in this projection).

It seems that in spring of 2019, the Hungarian leader will obtain a powerful advantage regardless of whether he stays in the EPP or joins the new nationalist group as its spiritual or actual leader. In both cases, the European Parliament will have even less power than at present to take effective action against those member states whose leaders renounce the Copenhagen criteria, which conditioned the EU accession in the past. This means that countries adhering to the rules will not be able to enforce compliance by EU free riders. Nor does it seem possible for President Emmanuel Macron to find many supporters for his idea to switch to a faster means of transport—there is no EU TGV. The European Union will therefore mean less and less (even less than today) in domestic politics, particularly in the countries of Central Europe, which joined the EU after 1989 in order to escape from East to West, to develop and grow rich, to gain a sense of security and to belong to a wider community.

All these goals have been achieved, but the appetite grows with eating. Recently, I heard the following conversation in the Warsaw underground.

He: Once we raved about the East, then the West, and now I don’t know what we are raving about.

She: Now we are raving about ourselves.

Exactly. You might get the impression that Czechs, Poles or Hungarians are no longer impressed by being Europeans—now they dream about being like the Swiss. Exploit access to the EU market, even pay for it, but decide for yourself, for example, on migration and monetary or defense policy. It is no coincidence that the Swiss People’s Party (65 seats in a 200-member National Council) resembles Fidesz or PiS to such an extent. Euroscepticism, isolationism, national conservatism, agrarianism, economic liberalism (as in Hungary, not in Poland), a kind of militarism expressed in universal access to rearms and a vision of the army as a national militia or territorial defense—we also know it all from Central Europe.

If the ruling Polish or Hungarian politicians wanted to be consistent, they would announce a program for the creation of a Central European Switzerland, say in the next one hundred years. This idea would definitely find its advocates in other Central European countries. For the time being, however, we face the biggest political crisis in the history of the European Union. And also a crisis of liberal democracy in an increasing number of member states. And we are not Switzerland.

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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