In principle identity can be established, reinforced, developed based on: force or grand political deeds like state building; common values, or shared history; tangible results achieved at federal (pan-European) level, grand stories, or a common enemy.
This paper intends to investigate whether the European Union as an economic-political-technocratic construct that was established out of necessity, i.e.: to avoid war in Europe, can be at all a basis of any identity building in Europe.
The EU has several features that merit serious criticism, nevertheless at present the EU is pretty much all we have. Admittedly the Union is a rather spiritless project – it was probably meant to be different at the outset, but political reality has overridden major attempts to render it more spiritual and less politico-economic. Still I think this is the only robust and tangible locus where any development of European identity can take place at this point. I argue therefore that the immediate discarding of the EU as a faulty construct is probably not the right attitude.
The question is how to use the EU with its robust political, economic reality to unleash the societal and cultural forces that help reinforce the feeling of Europeanness in European societies. One has to be made clear from the outset: there is no European identity in European souls and minds (or hardly any). So it is to be constructed. Why? Again: out of necessity, i.e.: to avoid that the worst traits of Europeans prevail again, moreover – and this is important for the purpose of this paper – to save the EU as a project of historical reconciliation between the often belligerent peoples of Europe. In my view these two things are the two sides of the same coin in 2015.
If we consider the EU as an agent of European identity building having in mind the list of potential sources of identity construction as identified earlier, the channel of “force” fortunately, and that of a “grand story” is unfortunately out of the question. The EU is a democratic, pacifist construct and has neither the intension nor the potential to coerce people or democratically elected governments under an empire. International geopolitical reality also excludes this entirely. The democratic establishment a United States of Europe á la USA is also very unrealistic at this point – due to a great extent to lack of sense of Europeanness in Europe’s societies.
The EU has no major mythology or a grand story to tell. There never was a heroic war to be fought against a common enemy to establish the Union, rather the opposite: European nations fought suicidal civil wars against each other in the 20th century annulling Europe’s global supremacy. The EU never had the grand “constitutional moment” like the USA did, some quarter of a millenium ago. When I tell my students that historically speaking the war and not peace is the rule in Europe (the bloodiest continent of all) and a seventy year interval of peace like the one we are experiencing on the old continent seems like an anomaly, they do not seem to understand. Flawless markets and robust consumer protections rules do not qualify as a grand story either.
As far as common values as agents of European identity building are concerned, hopes are also subdued. The EU is claimed to be built and in fact it is on values that significantly overlap with the major western or European values, but these are common sense matters for contemporary Europeans – as citizens of their respective member states -, the EU has nothing to add to it to forge a pan-European identity.
Two channels seem to be in store for identity building in Europe: a common enemy and results of modern integration. The first can be forceful but it is dangerous and almost certainly counter-productive for the pan-European idea as it will definitely fall prey of nationalistic political agendas. The second (already tried by the Brussels elite several times under the label of ‘Europe of results’) is questionable when effectiveness is concerned. But it seems the only realistic and workable option at hand.
The policy of reducing mobile phone roaming fees and facilitating passport-free travel (which is under threat these days anyway) and selling it to people as ‘Europe of results’ has not been working and will never work. The policy of Europe of results needs to be seriously revamped, the EU thoroughly explained to citizens to make them understand that they have a choice other than defensive and suicidal nationalism.
Having said this getting European societies on board is a sine qua non condition for any major reform in the EU. It is also evident that major reforms are necessary to guarantee Europe’s stability and – in the long run probably – its very existence. The popular sentiment and political agendas that question the usefulness of European integration and sometimes even the basic European values are on the rise. European institutions and member states suffer to counter these rising anti-European and in some cases anti-democratic tendencies that will pose significant risks to European integration in the medium-term. One major factor of popular disenchantment is that people know very little about the Union and the role it plays in their life.
Contrary to the trendy perception of our time on the Union, modern Europe has achieved an awful lot over the course of the last two decades: the single market, the single currency, the reunification of Europe, the accession of twelve new poor member states and above all peace, stability and wealth. One source of the problem is that the European project has always been characterized by a top-down approach and has never managed to entice much interest from the media. Even though the Brussels press corps number several thousands, most correspondents report European affairs through a national prism. Election campaigns for the European Parliament focus almost exclusively on domestic issues. The political elites of member states concentrated on domestic issues even when communicating European policies, and just because the same questions interest the public in most countries does not mean that there is a European approach or even as much as a European public opinion. Euroscepticism flourishes all over Europe; chauvinism, efforts to protect prosperity, the democratic deficit, the incomprehensible nature of the European project and the lack of a true European identity have all contributed. Nevertheless, the majority — though only just — of Europeans approve of integration; mainstream political forces are to some degree or other pro-European in all member states. The EU therefore should overhaul its communication and open up to a much wider public debate and participation. In this respect Europe’s new “Erasmus generation” can be a decisive factor.
European identity is a concept broader than European Union identity. This was vividly demonstrated by the statement of eurosceptic Czech President Vaclav Klaus in May 2009, when he claimed that the EU defeated Europe when the Czech Senate ratified the Lisbon Treaty. Undoubtedly, European identity is the privilege of national elites that have been pressing ahead with European integration for half a century. European identity has not become part of the thoughts, feelings and lives of average Europeans. Values that we hold to be European — such as liberty, equality before the law or the rule of law — are in fact the result of centuries of social development and do not undermine national identities. There are no truly pan-European values or pan-European reflexes perceptible in daily life. The feeling of belonging to a nation remains much more important than that of being European. The European Union is a community of nations and not a nation comprised of federal territorial units (states, with some exaggeration) like the United States of America. In a situation like this, European identity can benefit immensely from negative self-definition: defining what we Europeans are not. But it has its limits and also its dangers.
Europe has been in search of a self-identity for a long time. The first natural self-definition was on the common basis of Christianity. European values, which set this continent and culture apart from others, began to take shape with the Enlightenment. In “The Spirit of the Laws”, Montesquieu analyses Europe as a unified community in detail, comparing it with Asia. He comes to the conclusion that the preconditions for liberty exist only in Europe but not in Asia. Bronislaw Geremek, an outstanding European humanist of the 20th century, believed that Europe was built on a dual identity. European identity is partly rooted in medieval Christianity as a unifying force. In the 13th century, a united European community formed around religion as the central organizing principle. It was created by Rome as the center of power. Universities mushroomed continent-wide, teaching the common culture in a common language (Latin) and thereby creating the first European elite. The Europe-wide network of churches and cathedrals shared a common architectural style, a uniform liturgy and a uniform calendar. Christianity was the first supranational, pan-European cross-border culture. Geremek suggests that the second European community — lasting from Erasmus of Rotterdam to the Enlightenment — was the Republic of Letters (Respublica literaria) bonded together by knowledge rather than by faith. This was clearly an elitist and loose identity bond, just like today (replace scholars with EU-enthusiasts in Brussels). As modern languages gained ground and Latin lost its importance, the religious nature of culture was weakened. Observation, analysis and a belief in reason and science pushed religious faith to the background. European academics maintained extensive and lively relations with each other. Montesquieu famously said that Europe is a nation composed of many nations. The evolution of the European identity, or should we call it a supranational culture, has its roots partly in Christianity and partly in science.
As said earlier, modern, post-war European integration is a political undertaking which in its origins was motivated chiefly by a desire to secure a stable and pacific Germany and developed as an elite project. As a result, the “mental unification” of European citizens has never materialized; a spontaneous common identity has never formed. Europe as a concept has never found its place in people’s daily lives, or their choices of values. Modern Europe was created to put an end to the eternal enmity between France and Germany. It was clear that the only way to prevent war between these two powers was to make it economically unprofitable. But guaranteeing peace on the continent will not make people feel European. European identity will not evolve by itself; every tradition must start somewhere but traditions only survive if the common experiences, principles and myths originate from the people. And for traditions to turn into an identity, a bottom-up approach is needed. Naturally, political leaders still have a huge role to play in paving the way for the evolution of a European identity. But Europe is an immensely heterogeneous continent and is growing ever more diverse with successive enlargements. Europe’s history is one of bloody wars and hostilities. Europe does not have a common language; the modern lingua franca is English. (But this is perceived now globally the language of the global culture and of its steamroller empire, the USA rather than of the United Kingdom.)
In 2015 the European Union has a remarkably charged political agenda in a turbulent world. Russia is more and more assertive, there is a probably prolonged military crisis in Ukraine, political and military situation is escalating in Europe’s southern and south-eastern neighbourhood with imminent impact on Europe’s societies. Europe is under the shock of a refugee crises which is unprecedented in scope and very difficult to manage. The spectre of Grexit reflects the fact that there are fundamental flaws in the Euro project as far as its long-term sustainability is concerned which necessitates further political and economic policy reforms at EU level. Brexit on the other-hand (although the UK’s case is admittedly extreme) is a clear indication of popular disenchantment from the idea European integration. The above factors indeed hinder coordinated action to counter the ever-stronger popular sentiment and well-articulated political agendas that question the usefulness of European integration and sometimes even the basic European values. European institutions and member states suffer to focus and face these challenges including the rising anti-European and in some cases anti-democratic tendencies that will pose significant risks to European integration in the medium-term.
Endless complaining about the remoteness of the EU has led us nowhere and clearly no ineffective and underfinanced communication campaigns are the solution either. Instead the following actions need to be considered to create more user-friendly profile for the European Union:
•Create post of European (Eurozone) speaker position in national parliaments (who preferably does not bear the host country’s nationality) with the right of intervention if European issues debated (T) (C);
•Introduce the instrument of European referendum – one single pan-EU referendum on the same day counted as a whole on key EU issues;
•Replace low-profile bureaucrats at the top of EU Representations, create high profile EU presence in capitals;
•If a project is financed by 51% EU it should be inaugurated by EU representative;
•Increase Erasmus spending by at least five times;
•Introduce preferably mandatory European values curriculum at elementary and secondary schools;
•Finish with national party lists at EP elections, vote on pan-European platform same day all across EU;
•Create a special channel of national parliaments at EP – as MEPs are less and less national, MPs should have a vehicle which is visible and effective to intervene at EP debate. This must be much stronger an instrument than ad-hoc invitations; an institutionalised and permanent solution is preferable;
•Elect President of the European Commission or the European Council directly by citizens;
•Promote EU values abroad (joint EU cultural and political institutes – having in mind Alliance Francaise, Goethe Institut, etc);
•Facilitate national public and political debates on new European reform initiatives such as the recent one (June 2015) by the German and French economy ministers.
•Run EU joint teams (or individual Olympians) in up to 10 percent of Olympic sports by the 2024 Olympic Games;
•Support language teaching and learning;
•Set up national offices of the Court of Justice to deal local legal matters with EU relevance more promptly and transparently;
•Support Europe-related news broadcasting by national broadcasters. Euronews (in a significantly enhanced quality) minutes in local channels.
The agenda proposed above is a “Europe of results turbocharged” i.e.: a much more comprehensive in scope and bolder in approach than previous attempts proposed and managed by European technocrats and which were marred by timidity, inefficient communication and member state disinterest. As a result the earlier attempts could never reach the hearts and souls (not even the minds) of Europeans. One thing has to be made clear: it is not only the EU that needs its citizens but also the other way around in a more and more unpredictable and instable world. Unfortunately this has never been properly explained to European people. European leaders will have to understand and accept to things: the first is that bold steps will have to be taken to present Europe as a locus and community of results, rather than of crisis in order to reinforce the sense of Europeanness – which is inevitable for the alliance of European peoples to survive in the long run. The second is that to base pan-European identity building on fear of others, by choosing a common enemy will not work. These things normally get out of control easily and will certainly reinforce nationalistic and anti-European member state agendas – which is the last thing the EU needs.
An occasion for the EU to reaffirm its standing on Security policies and Human Rights
Vice-President of the EU Commission Margaritis Shinas was a keynote speaker at this summer’s Diplomatic Conference in Vienna organised by the International Institute IFIMES, Media Platform Modern Diplomacy and their partners. High dignitary of the Commission seized the occasion to express the EU’s take on the 75th anniversary of victory over fascism, unfolding health crisis and to it related pressure on human and labour rights, as well as on the Union’s continued efforts towards remaining a ‘rock’ amid the volatile climate.
It is known by now – and acknowledged by the EU Commission VP – that the COVID-19 crisis has had some severe implications for Human Rights and, to a lesser extent, for cooperation outlooks. In the face of the first wave, countries in Europe and elsewhere have adopted different courses of actions in order to manage the health crisis and attempt at containing its threats. Placed in an unprecedented situation, governments have undoubtedly each reacted in ways they deemed most appropriate at the time.
However, the pandemic itself topped with the varied policies have caused notable restrictions on Human Rights. Most notoriously, the right to life and that to health have been challenged in extreme circumstances where, at the peak of the crisis, health institutions were so overflowed that the provision of maximal care to every single individual was compromised. The effective and equal access to healthcare has therefore quickly become a central preoccupation of many governments, drawing on some dramatic first-hand experiences.
On that, I will say that if the global health crisis has been a synonym for many negative impacts, it has also been a precious opportunity to rethink carefully the existing narrative of programmatic and progressive rights – such as the right to health – needing no immediate attention, nor realisation. This narrative held predominantly by some Western democracies ever since the adoption of the UN International Covenants, has been unduly weakening the universal and indivisible stance of Human Rights. Needless to say, in adhering to that dangerous narrative, planning for and prioritizing health access, resources and system capabilities is undermined. This, in turn, contributes to the difficult and insufficient responses of some governments that have been witnessed. May the victims of inadequate infrastructures due to an obsolete distinction between rights serve as a poignant reminder: social, cultural and economic rights need be readily available to all.
Equally interesting is the toll taken on a whole other range of Human Rights – an international system built up in last 75 years on the legacy of victory of antifascist forces in Europe and elsewhere. Numerous individual freedoms have also suffered limitations, often as a direct result of actions taken to promote and ensure the right to life and the right to health for the most vulnerable. Indeed, people’s freedom of movement, that of religion (external dimension), that of assembly and association, as well as their procedural rights – only to name a few – have all been greatly affected during the crisis.
Of course voices have raised their discontent at those restrictions put in place to mitigate the crisis, considered by many to be too incisive and too manifold when cumulated. But despite an apparent clash between two groups of interests protected by different rights, the resolution which has emerged from the approaches followed by most countries is very telling. In fact, a balancing exercise revealed that protecting the right to health and to life of the minority of people ought simply to be considered predominant in comparison to the other individual freedoms and rights of the majority. This reasoning, grounded in solidarity and the protection of minorities and vulnerable persons, is in fact very encouraging in an era of growing individualism combined with overwhelming challenges which will certainly require peoples to unite against them.
Nevertheless, this does not take away from the fact that the full and optimal enjoyment of Human Rights has generally been seriously affected as many interests have been caught in the crossfire of the fight against Coronavirus’ harmful effects. Moreover, the crisis has also created some divides amongst European countries. This is because the sanitary emergency has caused for precarious contexts of resources shortages and sometimes unfruitful cooperation, even shift in alliances.
This has naturally brought about separate criticisms and questioning of the EU cooperation strategy and security arrangements. In that sense, growing expectations are felt for the EU to uphold and promote its fundamental values including the rule of law, solidarity, non-discrimination and antifascist line.
Vice-PresidentSchinas is well aware of that reality and reiterates the EU’s unalterable commitment to peaceful cooperation, human dignity, liberty, equality and solidarity in these troubled times. He further ensures that the most recent security strategies led by the Union do not – and never will – eat away at the protection of fundamental rights. What is more, whilst the EU’s arrangements can be seen as slightly ‘under attack’ currently, the VP feels that rather than seeing this period as a high-stakes test on EU democracies it should be seen as an opportunity to take a bigger stand than ever for the European common values and call for strengthened multilateralism. This necessities constructive reciprocal and respectful active engagement with the EU Mediterranean and eastern European neighbourhood.
All that is because it is not too difficult to imagine that the aftermath of the C-19 crisis can open several paths of new dynamics in international relations. Yet, as it cannot be stressed enough, an upcoming change in the conception of relations between nations could be decisive for numerous other contemporary challenges – namely: migration crisis, armed conflicts, climate change. While one of the paths could consist in an increase in protectionism and nationalist attitudes, another one would involve, on the contrary, a shift towards reinforced cooperation and enhanced solidarity. The latter outward approach, advocated by the EU Vice-President and believed to be the best hope for the future, is one deeply enshrined in the antifascist legacy and the very raison d’être of the Union.
Above all, at the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the Victory Day, Excellency Schinas reminds us with much humbleness that the journey for safeguarding Human Rights is one that is perpetually underway.
Metternich: The visionary reconstructor of Europe and champion of conservatism
Klemens Von Metternich early life and orthodox ideas
Klemens Von Metternich was born on May 15, 1773, into the House of Metternich, a German noble family that originates from Rhineland. He was the son of a diplomat that had served at the Imperial court of Treves.
At the age of 15, he started studying law at the University of Strasbourg while getting more familiar with the concept of conservatism. In 1792 he was attending the University of Mainz, again at the faculty of law where his conservative ideas flourished, promoting traditional imperial institutions emphasizing the necessity of prosperity and stability in Europe.
Klemens Von Metternich is considered to be a controversial figure in international affairs due to his ideas of obstructionism, while some critics of him go as far as call him an enemy of freedom. He was a harsh critic of the French Revolution and its consequences and he dreaded the ideas of liberalism and nationalism that emerged after it.
On the other hand, he is praised for his vision of peace in Europe by holding on to the traditional monarchical systems that were the only way to establish peace and prosperity in his view. Thanks to Metternich, Europe established itself as a dominant economic and military power of the 19th century while reviving again the European values of stability and development for its European citizens.
The French Revolution
In 1789, amidst the French Revolution, Klemens Von Metternich expressed his dissatisfaction with the situation in France, calling the revolution a “hateful time” for Europe. His statements came when most of the French nobility was executed in France and there was a huge concern growing among the European powers that the situation would spread to the whole of Europe.
Soon enough, Metternich’s concerns turned out to be true, as France sunk into a period of political turmoil. In 1794, the king of France Louis the XVI was executed spreading chaos among the country. The so-called “Reign of Terror” was established where thousands of French citizens were executed.
The French Revolution brought out views and ideas of liberalism and nationalism that contradicted the traditional systems that ruled Europe. Metternich resented these ideas. He was more focused on the idea of the European Enlightenment. He understood clearly that to provide tranquility and stability in Europe, certain fundamental laws needed to be established for Europe to function properly.
He pointed out that aspects of religion and morality should be the primary necessities to co-govern with natural laws. His ideal system for Europe was a monarchical system that would co-share power with other classes of European society. Metternich’s goal was to prevent any further revolutions and uprisings in Europe, however, his plan was briefly jeopardized by the man that threatened to destroy everything he believed in.
Napoleon Bonaparte: Metternich’s political nemesis
Napoleon Bonaparte, France’s most prestigious general at that time, re-emerged as France’s savior promising to save the French revolution and ending France’s political turmoil. In 1804, Napoleon became the emperor of France. However, he was never recognized by any monarch in Europe.
The Great Powers of Europe, fearing that the effects of the French Revolution will backfire to them, decided to invade France and restore the reign of King Louis XVI. However, this act gave justification to Napoleon to declare war on the European powers by proclaiming that this was just a defensive measure to preserve the French Revolution.
At first, Metternich viewed Napoleon with great interest, mentioning that he was the only one capable of providing discipline to a troubled France. An extraordinary man with practical knowledge about the common life of the citizens. However, his praise came with some precautions about Napoleon. He thought that he was a very practical and strong man but only if he was born in a different age. He did not find his abilities suitable for the age they were in.
Metternich was appointed as the Austrian Ambassador in France in 1806. By that time Napoleon had managed to defeat Spain, Prussia, and Austria making his advances to the Russian Empire. It was at that point that Metternich decided to use his diplomatic skills to keep Austria “breathing” long enough until Napoleon would be dethroned. His plans accelerated when he became Austria’s Foreign Minister in 1809.
At the same year he became a Foreign Minister, Metternich decided to show his diplomatic skills by arranging the marriage of Napoleon with Marie Louise the daughter of the Austrian Emperor, Francis I. With this maneuver, he managed to convince Napoleon that Austria would be a close ally of him, while in reality, he was just buying time for Austria and the remaining great powers to come up with a plan to dethrone Napoleon. He didn’t have to wait long.
In 1812, Napoleon marched towards Russia. Certain for his victory, a naive Napoleon did not see how big of an obstacle Russia would be. While advancing to Moscow he captured an empty city that was set on fire, while the Russians retreated to the east. With his lines of supply being cut off and a devastating Russian winter approaching them, Napoleon decided to retreat, looking for gold at the surrender of Russia but receiving only copper.
In the meantime, Metternich put his plan on the motion. With Napoleon’s army retreating and being chased by the Russians, he convinced the remaining Great Powers to give a devastating blow to Napoleon. In 1813, Napoleon was defeated in Leipzig by the armies of Russia, England, Prussia, and Austria. Napoleon was imprisoned at the island of Elbe in the Mediterranean Sea. However, he managed to escape and rallied up soldiers that were loyal to him but again he was defeated for a second time in 1815, in the famous battle of Waterloo in Belgium. Metternich was crowded as a hereditary Prince of the Austrian Empire. The only man that stood against his ideal formation of Europe was defeated.
The Vienna Congress
The year 1815, saw Metternich at the peak of his power. He had become a key figure in the plan to dethrone Napoleon, with his excellent diplomatic skills and his determination to steer Europe into the path of stability where Kings governed and people were governed. At the Congress, he made his points very clear for the beginning. He believed that the only way to ensure peace in the continent was to bring the Great powers together so that they could prevent any large European War to escalate again.
Metternich’s policies were based on two principles. One being the protection of historical traditional institutes such as the Church, the dynastic monarchies, and the essence of aristocratic privilege and the second was the establishment of a new vision of international balance in the continent of Europe. Instead of punishing France for the Napoleonic wars, he suggested including them in the table. With that move Metternich showed his true European face, putting the future of his continent above any nationalist notions.
The success of the Congress was inevitable. While including France at the Council of the Great Powers, Europe started to become more stable. The Council that included England, Russia, France, Austria, and Prussia agreed to prevent any further revolutions and political uprising in Europe. All the disputes between the powers were resolved with diplomacy which gave them all leverage to re-organize Central Europe in a more simple way to avoid any internal intense rivalries.
Contributions to Europe and modern diplomacy
Klemens Von Metternich was viewed by many people as a great man and a true European citizen who managed to sustain a united European front for almost 100 years. Despite some minor uprising after the Vienna Congress, Metternich was a solid diplomat whose vision about Europe became a reality.
However, he is also viewed as an oppressor of freedom. His despise for liberal and nationalist movements made him an “enemy” of the common people. What Metternich was more afraid of about these movements was the potential disruption inside the Austrian Empire that was made up by a multinational coalition of 11 nations. He did not want to see the Empire being torn apart. He went as far as suppressing any suspicious uprisings in Germany where there was a lot of revolutionary activity, by censoring books and newspapers and installing secret police spies that would infiltrate universities to arrest any suspected revolutionaries.
On one hand, he has been a symbol of oppression but that is not a judgment that represents him. He was a great man and a man with a vision for Europe. Numerous times he mentioned that he felt more European than Austrian, putting the needs of Europe above the nation. In his memoirs, he wrote about the unfair judgment that he received but also mentioned how wrong those people were. “Old Europe is at the beginning of the end and new Europe has not yet begun its existence, and between the end and the beginning, there will be chaos. In a hundred years, historians will judge me quite differently than do all those who pass judgment on me today.”
Indeed, 100 years later historians acknowledged the wisdom and the vision of Klemens Von Metternich. After the devastating consequences of WWI and WWII, his diplomatic ideas that kept Europe at peace were missed and Europe realized that the failed liberal system will open the door to a nationalist and fascist system that will doom the whole continent.
History tends to repeat itself and while our world is more connected now and more liberal the shadows of nationalist far-right movements lure Europe. This aspect, combined with failed liberal policies result in dissatisfaction of the masses and without order, chaos would erupt as it did hundreds of years ago. Metternich’s contributions to modern diplomacy and the history of Europe are remarkable. His ideas flourished after WWII with the creation of the European Union, a system that might not share the same conservative ideas as he did, but surely contributed to the prosperity of the continent.
His ideas of European stability and control of power are more relevant now with the new crisis that the EU is facingand soon enough the European Union will have to rethink Metternich’s ideas for the neo-liberal system to survive, otherwise, there will be only room for nationalistic far-right movements that threaten the dream of the EU by returning to failed protectionism measures and policies.
Democratic Backsliding in the Visegrad Four: Examining the Illiberal Turn
The initial years of the post-communist era reflected a promising beginning of the consolidation of democracy in the Visegrad Four countries. Slovakia, the only exception to this regional trend of democratic consolidation under Mečiarism, also showed signs of successful transition with the revival of democracy after the 1998 elections. However, in the last few years, with the rise of eurosceptics, ultra-nationalists and populists, the democratic model has been facing grave challenges in these countries. Besides attacking the opposition, students’ organisations and NGOs, the conservative leadership in these countries, have also passed regressive reforms in media, constitution, as well as the judiciary. These attacks and reforms are aimed at strengthening the power of eurosceptic populist leaders, and thereby reducing any chances of Eurocentric opposition in the future. But why, despite initial years of promising success, democratic consolidation failed in the V4 countries? This essay argues that the challenges to the democratic consolidation in these post-communist countries have been a result of myriad local, national and international factors at economic, political and social levels.
Primarily, the membership in the EU, which was a major foreign policy objective of the new political elite post-1989, had raised numerous expectations among the citizens in these countries. But after the EU membership in May 2004, when those expectations still seemed a distant dream for the citizens in these countries, the disappointment with the EU membership’s promises rose throughout the region. This disappointment soon became a fertile ground on which the conservative section of the political elite mobilised their support, which became evident with the victory of nationalistic and eurosceptic parties throughout the region.
This discontentment with the Western European model was made further worse by the economic crises of 2008-9 and the subsequent Euro debt crisis of 2011. Contrary to expectations that the EU membership will be a guarantor of economic prosperity and improved standards of living, the V4 countries had to suffer immensely as a result of these crises which primarily resulted because of the loopholes in other countries. Furthermore, the subsequent burden of reforms with adoption of EU’s austerity policies aimed at stabilising the European économies post-crises, also proved costly for these countries, and hence furthered their apathy towards the integrationist model of Brussels.
Post 2015, the Refugee Crisis, resulting due to the massive influx of illegal migrants into Europe from politically unstable areas of the Middle East, North Africa and Asia, further fuelled the simmering anti-EU attitudes among the V4 countries. Though only Hungary was directly affected by the wave of these migrants, all V4 countries reflected a response which was reminiscent of classical xenophobia and exclusive nationalism. Despite these countries officially voting against Brussels’ proposal of obligatory refugee quotas, and opposing the financial aid given to Turkey following EU-Turkey deal to stop refugees from entering the EU, the conservative media and politicians in these countries left no stone unturned to show a face of refugees that immediately mobilised the people to vote populist demagogues to power at the cost of ruling out the Eurocentric federalists.
Finally, another important, and often overlooked reason for the failed democratic consolidation in the V4 countries has been their lack of historical experience with democracy. As a result of this lacked democratic experience, people in these countries failed to develop a democratic culture in a few decades post-1989, and instead found it easy to turn back to their familiar models.
However, despite all the gloomy prospects of democratic consolidation in the V4 countries, the region is not the only aberration. The rise of Euroscepticism, nationalism, and populism has been on the rise throughout the continent, which became evident with Brexit and the rise of conservative parties, like National Front and Alternative for Germany, among others. Therefore, it is imperative for the EU that these occasional setbacks in few countries must not hinder its vision of greater European integration. Because, any void created by declining role of Brussels in the Visegrad region will immediately be filled by Russia, which is craving to regain its influence in its ‘near-abroad.’
Moreover, the recent experiences from Afghanistan, Libya, Algeria and elsewhere, also made it clear that the quick imposition of the democratic model is not the universal solution for discrete problems across the world. The fact that the evolution of democracy took centuries of deliberate transformations, and occasional violent conflicts, in England, France, USA and elsewhere, must be kept in mind while assessing the democratic consolidation in any part of the world. Expecting successful transition and consolidation of democracy in the V4 countries, without keeping in mind that it has been only a few decades since these countries embarked on this painful transition, is in itself problematic.
Nonetheless, the post-1989 transition has also successfully contributed to transforming a considerable section of the population in these countries, who now show major disliking towards any non-democratic model. Therefore, even if the current situation of the V4is not a pleasant one, the big picture coming post-1989 is a reflection of a successful break with the ‘Other’ past.
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