Let us assume that an alien, from Betelgeuse say, comes down to Earth to see how things are done there. He (she, it, ze, zo, zhe, zho whatever?) would find it difficult to avoid coming to the conclusion that the European Union is in serious trouble and, equally, that those who are running it seem quite unable to recognise the crisis. To be precise, these are multiple, interlocking crises and they have been accumulating for a while. Some of these are global, like the Middle East, Russia and Ukraine; some are the EU’s very own, like the intractable problem of the euro, Brexit and the future of Italy. To these may be added the slow, but unmistakeable transformation of the party system. Social Democracy is in meltdown, Christian Democracy has been infected by liberalism, liberalism itself has been captured from within by illiberal elements that have begun to resemble intransigent cultists and the voters are turning towards new right-wing and leftwing political movements. The adherents of the established parties dismiss these as “populism”. But above them all looms the legitimation crisis, the EU’s failure to provide an answer to the questions: why integrate and how to create accountability for the powers that have accumulated in Brussels?
To the former, the answers of the past – democracy, prosperity, open borders, peace – are largely exhausted. Even worse, while the EU does indeed offer a means of conflict resolution, this is increasingly being displaced by “human rights”. The issue here is that conflict resolution requires a readiness to compromise and is focused on Europe; the latter makes a universal moral claim and has a propensity to be absolute. Clearly, beyond a certain point the two are irreconcilable.
In these circumstances, the aforementioned alien would presumably have concluded that the EU had more than enough on its plate and, applying the rule of prudence, would not open another front, one where the likelihood of success was rather low. Yet – should we be surprised? – this is precisely what the EU Commission has done.
Just before Christmas 2017, the EU Commission decided that it would launch an Article 7 procedure against Poland. To add to this, the European Parliament has also decided to get in on the act by launching an Article 7 report against Hungary. Again, the Commission is the interlocutor and it is unlikely to ignore the Parliament’s call, after all, both having been gunning for Hungary for a while. If successful, Poland (or Hungary) would be deprived of its voting rights in the EU and would generally find itself in a kind of quarantine until it mended its ways. Article 7 of the EU Treaty is widely referred to as the “nuclear option” in the armoury of the EU in the context of recalcitrant member states, i.e. those where there is a serious threat to the basic values of the EU, as detailed in Article 2.
This is where the story gets complicated. First, Article 7 is almost impossible to implement, given the legal and political hurdles that its initiators have to jump. Besides, the entire point of a nuclear option is that it should never be used, but to establish a constraint. And the launching of the Article 7 procedure against Poland is bound to have unintended consequences. We can quite safely assume that unlike in the Cold War, “mutually assured destruction” is not on the cards. But other kinds of damage certainly cannot be excluded.
The EU Commission, which started the procedure, takes the view that it has legality on its side, that the restructuring of the administration of the law in Poland is so far-reaching as to destroy the autonomy of the rule of law. The Polish government says no. What is happening is the removal of judges who were a part of the Communist power apparatus and, therefore, seen as incapable of rendering objective judgements. These two positions are irreconcilable, whether by legal or by political criteria. The net result is that political assessments have acquired primacy. This is bad for legality, of course, because seemingly legal decisions are perceived as driven by political interest.
Whether the EU has the legal right to take this step is itself hazy. It is an open question whether there has been a corresponding “conferral of power” by member states to the EU, as laid down in Article 4. This is quite unclear. However, what is clear is that if the member state believes that the Commission’s move is not justified legally, it can appeal against it to the EU Court. Once again, the legal and the political are confused. Still, the central question at issue is whether the EU is a single legal space. If so, then the Commission should be treating all member states even-handedly. This is manifestly not the case. There are serious dysfunctions in the administration of the law in more than one member state.
A few examples will suffice. In Slovakia, the Constitutional Court is barely functional: there are only 10 justices in office out of 13. There is a several-year-long dispute over the appointment of new members of the Court. The government nominates, the President approves, except that the President refuses to accept the government’s nominees, on the grounds that these are politically grounded, in other words that the said nominees are political placemen (and women). In the Czech Republic (also known as Czechia), there is a long-running turf war between the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Court, with the latter ignoring decisions of the former. Something similar happens in Slovenia and Spain. But the EU Commission takes no interest in these parallel cases and that immediately raises the question of a double standard. And there is nothing like inconsistency to undermine credibility.
Hence we are back to politics, to the political background of why Poland has been singled out. In brief, the elections of 2015 brought to power the national-conservative PiS government that has repeatedly outraged left-liberal opinion, basically by seeking to eliminate the remnants of the Communist regime. Note that these remnants have retooled themselves as liberals and democratic socialists, something that the West accepted without further question. Note another double standard here. The remnants of the Nazi German system were not so accepted and when East Germany reunited with the West, there was a very extensive purge of the selfsame Communist remnants.
Poland, on the other hand, may not do likewise and the question is, why? In short, it is the defence of liberalism as currently understood and practised in the EU. This liberalism has never really taken root in Central Europe, not least because in a way it was kidnapped by the former Communist power elite through a sophisticated salvaging operation during the shift from Communism to democracy. Thus a nominal liberalism was converted into a project to preserve the power and status of the late period Communist elites. Hence in Central Europe the liberal worldview of the West has been restricted to, at best, maybe ten per cent of the population, mostly in the capital cities. The 2018 presidential elections in the Czech Republic demonstrated this very clearly. The candidate favoured by the left, Jiří Drahoš, won about two thirds of the vote in Prague; Zeman, written off as a right-wing populist, won with the support of the countryside. Capital cities can no longer dominate the country, as they once used to be able to.
At this point, our intrepid interstellar traveller should become aware of a significantly bigger gap between the EU-14 and the EU-11, always assuming that he has the cultural and political acuity to see this. The relationship between the Western and Central areas of Europe is set apart not only by the 45 year long Communist period, but by much else.
So there is something else here. Central Europe, indeed all the former Communist states, differ from those in the West, sometimes markedly, given their very different histories. This is the other Europe. It is, indeed, European, but not in the way in which being European is currently defined in Paris or Berlin or Brussels. The broad historical panorama, and its consequences, can be summarised as the problem of repeated transformations imposed on the region and resistance thereof.
What gives the region this own shared affinity is a set of experiences, not shared identically, but close enough. In brief, for centuries the region has been exposed to external cultural, political, economic, social and other influences, over which they never had full control, but which impacted on them nevertheless. Some of these influences were cultural imports intended to strengthen local power. Others were imposed by external powers. The outcome of these processes was incompleteness: the cultural, political, other imports never quite worked as they had done in their countries of origin. Take feudalism, for example. This worked reasonably well as a system of administering land and establishing a hierarchy of control by royal power in the case of France, say. Compare that to Poland where feudal – indeed, late feudal – potentates established themselves as de facto autonomous rulers.
Or, think of the Baroque, the style of the Counter-Reformation. In its original iteration, it sought to promote the greater glory of God by incorporating the world into a single complex – have a look at any Baroque altar to see what I mean. I have particular affection for the high altar at the Abbey of Melk. But equally, the Counter-Reformation imposed its version of Catholicism on a region that was imbued by Protestantism, so the imposition took place by fire and sword. Think here of the execution of the Czech intelligentsia after the Battle of the White Mountain or the vicious torture used to put Protestants to death at the Bloody Assizes in Eperjes (Prešov). The result was, again, incompleteness, a project that had encountered resistance. This resistance does not fade away; typically the title given not that long ago to a collection of writings by the great Hungarian writer Mihály Babits was “Be Resistance”.
So, the central experience of the nations of the region was the loss of collective agency or the regaining of this agency only to have it diluted again. Empires were superimposed on local political communities or equally on pre-political peasantry. The legacy of these empires and the resistance to them lives on. What is indisputable, however, is that empire and democracy (defined as the consent of the governed) are irreconcilable and imperial elites are answerable to no one. A democratic empire is akin to hot ice.
What we have in common in the region, therefore, is a particular thought-style, a particular way of understanding and structuring ideas and problems. The legacy of the Baroque can be glimpsed in the emphasis we place on aesthetics. The legacy of the 19th-century reception of nationhood and nationalism was and is an intense emotionality that has then to be offset by irony and scepticism. But above all, we have our sensitivity, a great sensitivity, to having our preferences disregarded. And in this context, both the West (Germany, Austria, France, Italy) and the East (Russia, the Ottomans) have been in the forefront.
Think of all the schemes of social engineering that outside powers have imposed on the region. The simultaneous creation of mono-ethnic and multi-ethnic states after 1918, the latter run by one hegemonic national collectivity. These did not work well, to put it mildly. So, after 1945, the West and the Soviet Union oversaw a set of massive population transfers and promoted ethnic homogenisation. Today, the winds of fashion blow from another direction and Central Europe is upbraided for wanting to be mono-ethnic. Not that this mono-ethnicity results in social homogeneity: there are deep cleavages in several post-Communist states, and some of them can be regarded as a form of segmentation.
Ideally, the region should be allowed to decide for itself, but that is the ghost in the machine, that superior power will invariably seek to subordinate weaker power. That has been the fate of Central Europe for centuries and that is why we can justifiably be seen as former intra-European colonies. It hardly needs adding that former colonies, whether in Europe or elsewhere, will deplore external attempts to exercise power over what these countries see as their own affair. Central Europeans are more than aware of this sensitivity. By and large, the West fails to understand this; former imperial powers to the east and south do not seem to care.
Before the 2004 enlargement of the EU, a set of criteria were formulated, in Copenhagen it so happens, hence called Copenhagen criteria. Basically, these are the propositions laid out in Article 2 of the Treaty, the basic values of EU membership. The fact that these criteria were formulated before the accession of the former Communist states is not without relevance. There is more than an implication that the older member states, the EU-14,1 did not fully trust the newer members, eventually to be the EU-11. The central difficulty is that while legally their fully equal status was safeguarded by law, politically and culturally that equality, that parity of esteem has never been established. Hence the interpretation of the core values of the EU was not open to the EU-11; in a word there was a built-in inequality.
It is, of course, impossible to be certain of this, but it is no wild guess that when the Copenhagen criteria were formulated, no one thought that some in the accession states, some politicians would seek to interpret European values by their own lights or needs. There was an implicit assumption of the identity of the rules and their interpretation. In the real world, matters are never so simple. Each and every system of rules is subject to constant reinterpretation, in order to bring them into conformity with the circumstances that change in time and space. Guessing further, it would never have occurred to the norms entrepreneurs of the EU-14 that the EU-11 would also demand equal rights in the interpretation of the Copenhagen criteria as an integral aspect of the parity of esteem and that these interpretations would not necessarily be the same as those of the EU-14.
Yet this is what has happened. The EU-11, given its multiple differences from the EU-14, has begun to insist on the validity of its own valorisation of what Europe is, what democracy is, what human rights are. For the EU-14 this is a malign attack on their monopoly of knowledge and value production. It only adds to the problem that the EU-14 (obviously not in equal measure) start from an unacknowledged, but real all the same, cultural disdain for Central Europe. This is deeply encoded, going back to the 18th century, if not earlier. What it signifies in the present context is that values articulated by Central Europe simply need not be taken seriously because they are regarded as inherently dubious or divergent, if not actually inferior.
One example from my own experience should suffice. At a meeting (in 2017) with a mixed group of young EU journalists, from EU-14 mostly, I was asked if I was not “ashamed” of the Hungarian government’s policy towards immigrants (they had the fence in mind). I said no, on the contrary. Hungary did not wish to be a multicultural country; this was a question of democratic choice. Some countries had, indeed, opted to be multicultural, others, like Hungary and the rest of Central Europe, had decided otherwise. There was a palpable sense of shock among the assembled journos. The proposition that multiculturalism was a matter of choice had not been a part of their cultural capital.
The dominant liberal elites of the West have never accepted or understood this; hence they are all too ready to see Central Europe as deviant. The narrative of “democratic backsliding” is accepted as “a truth universally acknowledged”. Hence the proposition requires no proof. (I was present when Hillary Clinton pronounced these very words during a formal visit to Budapest in 2011, voicing a none-too-subtle disapproval of the Hungarian government. She offered no proof either.)
And the Western liberals have their counterparts in the region – they can reasonably be called comprador intellectuals who seek to transpose and not infrequently impose Western values to their home countries. One of the more extreme illustrations of this activity comes from Poland. The well-known liberal think tank, the Batory Foundation, the citadel of Polish liberalism, published a pamphlet in 2017 with the title, “A Normative Empire in Crisis”.
The title of this document is in itself revealing, possibly more than the author intended, because it actually uses the word “empire” for European values, does so approvingly and de facto locates them in the EU-14; the compradors of the EU-14 are on the side of the angels, of course. As I have already suggested, I regard democracy and empire as incommensurable, but such are the habits of mind of the liberal elite, that imposing a normative empire on Poland (elsewhere by extension) is regarded as unassailably democratic. To my mind, this adds up to a decidedly odd kind of liberalism, one that is more than tainted by an elitist authoritarianism, in as much as it is comfortable with imposing values on society and, logically, policies derived from those values. If society holds values at odds with these imperial norms, then too bad for society.
The point is, of course, that the norms in question do have an excellent fit with the needs of the liberal elite, in as much as they allow its members far-reaching freedom to define the terms and limits of what may be debated and what may not, and a near monopoly over the production of knowledge. Hence any questioning of these norms is not just superfluous but a challenge to the naturalised order and immoral. In sum, the report essentialises European values, tacitly insists that these are defined exclusively by the elite and that everyone else must subordinate themselves to its demands. The argument of the report has the air of being the ultimate, irrevocable moral legislative account of the European identity. Thereby it excludes large swathes of society.
This liberalism has come a long way from its forefathers – Mill and Tocqueville – and sees itself currently as the sole and exclusive arbiter of what is right and wrong in the world. It has its origins in Blair’s Third Way, in the exit strategy of the left in Europe after the collapse of Communism and in its triumph in the great culture wars.
The intellectual, and more strikingly the moral superiority that is claimed by this liberal elite can be better understood in the context of the series of historic victories that it has achieved – over religion (no longer “exemplary and binding”), over fascism, Communism, conservatism (including Christian Democracy) and over nationhood, especially anything that resembles ethnic solidarity, even while Jacobin liberalism has its own tribal characteristics. Seen in this light, its hubris becomes understandable, but nemesis has begun to emerge. In effect, liberalism claims a hegemony over democracy and does its best to suppress anything that might challenge this.
Here an argument that liberalism is in the grip of a historicism, believes itself to have been sent by history to change the world, is very cogent. Indeed, one can take the reasoning further, to the effect that liberalism (in its current iteration) is increasingly moved by a narrative of election, not that of a people chosen by God but by “History” itself. The much repeated trope of being “on the wrong side of history” is evidence. But does history really have sides? Does it have an inside and an outside? A top and a bottom? Beware of metaphors, do not be seduced by them! The real danger of relying on “History” to legitimate one’s narratives is that it is a temptation to see the world as driven by “historical inevitability” and expose oneself to the moral monism that Isaiah Berlin warned against so eloquently. And, of course, History (with a capital H) ceases to have anything serious to do with the historical assessment of the past. It becomes the handmaiden of an ideology, is used to legitimate propositions and moral claims in the present and is in no sense different in structure from the way in which a very selective reading of the past was used to legitimate Communism (all about class).
This liberal hegemony, to use Gramsci’s word, has a solid sociological basis. With local variations in Europe, Western Europe primarily, it has the support of around a quarter of the population. They are the mobile beneficiaries of globalisation, the products of higher education and increasingly they are establishing themselves as a hereditary class, given assortative mating, the tendency to marry within the class, and to transmit their status to the next generation. The slowing down of upward social mobility and the rise of status inequality are the concomitants. Large swathes of the population have not only been living with real wage stagnation, but even more painfully, with loss of status (to quote her again, these are Hillary’s “deplorables”). Not surprisingly the latter are beginning to demonstrate their dislike of these losses. This is the nemesis moment noted in the foregoing.
The rise of new political movements, disdained by the liberals as “populists”, “xenophobes”, “nativists”, “racists” and the like, is likely to be a permanent phenomenon; liberalism seems to have peaked and to have generated an opposition that does not buy the liberal package and with which the liberals cannot cope. This helps to explain why liberalism relies on technocratic solutions, outsourcing politics to the judiciary, bureaucracy, NGOs, lobbies, advocacy groups – anything that keeps the voters away from political decision-making. Hence the excoriation of the Brexit vote, of the election of Trump and, in a somewhat lower key, the denunciation of the Hungarian government’s referenda and national consultations (disclosure: I am a Fidesz MEP, so you may think I am not in accord with the liberal hegemony, yes, admitted freely).
How the EU comes into this is a separate, but interlinked story. The Commission is formally “the guardian of the Treaties”, a guardianship that implies – or should – a degree of ideological neutrality. In reality, this neutrality is rather weak now, because the Commission has overwhelmingly accepted the liberal package and understands Europe as a liberal Europe, despite the slogan of unity in diversity; the latter increasingly exists in rhetorical terms only. Historically this shift is interesting, because the origins of European integration are unequivocally Christian Democrat, but that, as the Americans say, is history.
There are several inferences to be drawn from this proposition. First, the integration process is near exclusively seen as a liberal project, which necessarily means that non-liberals are painted into the Eurosceptic corner. Any questioning of what the EU does is, therefore, automatically deemed both Eurosceptic and populist. Second, the supporters of a federal Europe have come to regard the Commission as their key redoubt, as their stronghold against the populist tide, which then moves them yet further towards technocracy and the exclusion, to the extent that it is feasible, of the voters. For them, the idea of a demos-free democracy is more than a pipedream. And, third, liberalism seems committed to yet another social engineering project, that of converting all or most of the population of Europe into European federalists (or else). Dream on.
This brings us back to Poland and the liberals’ determination to bring the PiS government into line. There is no sign of this actually happening, indeed precisely because the confrontation has gone so far that neither it nor the Commission can retreat. It goes without saying that in any dispute this is a dangerous situation. The Commission has de facto become an actor in Polish domestic politics and whether it has either the legal right or the political legitimacy to do so is very much open to doubt.
If the great clash between Central Europe and the liberals of the West – or maybe they should be called Jacobin liberals – were restricted to questions of normativity, then this could be seen as a teething problem of European integration that would eventually fade away, as the EU-11 acquired parity of esteem. The problem is that structural factors that manifestly disadvantage the EU-11 underlie the normativity problem. Future EU membership in the 1990s was legitimated by a number of arguments – from security advantages, from being inside a network, and above all by that of reaching the Western standard of living, the great dream of “catching up”. Whether the West was ever fully subscribed to this idea is unclear, but the EU’s method of attaining this objective was the single market, presumably underpinned by the principle of market equilibrium. To this end, the EU has been very firmly committed to the four freedoms, the freedom of movement of capital, goods, services and people (labour). These four freedoms have had some unintended consequences and these have added to the structurally derived tensions between the EU and Central Europe.
Looking at the years since 2004, the “catching up” has not happened. Basically, not one of the former Communist states has reached the level of the GDP per capita of the EU-14. Two exceptions do not affect this picture. Slovenia and the Czech Republic had a higher GDP per capita than Portugal and Greece on accession and still do. That is it. The dream of “catching up” remains that. It is impossible to escape the conclusion that the EU’s single market – the free movement of capital – has played role in this. Indeed, the figures produced by Thomas Piketty, whose leftwing and EU-14 credentials are impeccable, more than bear this out. In sum, capital outflows from Central Europe more than exceed capital arrivals, thereby making local capital accumulation that much more difficult.
Piketty adds the explanatory comment,
Between 2010 and 2016, the annual outflow of profits and incomes from property (net of the corresponding inflows) thus represented on average 4.7% of the gross domestic product in Poland, 7.2% in Hungary, 7.6% in the Czech Republic and 4.2% in Slovakia, reducing commensurately the national income of these countries.
The inference is clear enough. EU membership has not brought the desired economic advantage to Central Europe and that has political and cultural implications, not just economic ones. It raises a sensitive question over the role of the Commission. If the Commission is supposed to be the neutral guardian of the treaties, is it in any way entrusted with a role of establishing a degree of fairness in the way in which the capital markets work, evidently to the disadvantage of Central Europe? The Commission is silent on this, but that earns it the distrust of growing numbers of people in the region.
Even goods have not escaped the EU-14/EU-11 divide. At the anecdotal level, there have been many stories that the quality of the goods in supermarkets in Austria is higher than that of the products sold in Hungary (my virtual constituency is Vas County, and I spend a fair amount of time talking to people there). We are not talking here about the universally reviled Dutch tomatoes, which are cheap, look good and are tasteless. The evidence is not all in, but there was certainly a very clear case with Nutella, which the Slovak food safety authorities established, was made with inferior ingredients. When this was raised with the Commission, the collective shrugging of shoulders was immediately visible from Brussels to Central Europe. There is an anthropological aspect to this. Food is intimately and emotionally associated with nurture and human dignity (eating together), so the thought that Central Europeans are worth only lower grade food is lived as deeply insulting. But then, insights from anthropology seldom trouble the EU and their amplifying chorus in the media. There was a singularly unpleasant dismissal of the double standard complaint in The Economist’s Charlemagne column, putting forward exactly the kind of sentiments that are guaranteed to make Central Europeans bristle. The anonymous author quite conceivably represents a fairly widespread view of Central Europe, and certainly he intensified it. It is not hard to read the article as saying, “don’t complain”. Second class food is your lot and if you raise the issue, that is not just whining, but actually, manipulative. The idea of equal status simply did not enter this journalist’s mind. And he (she, ze, zhe, zo, whatever) is certainly not alone.
The parallel set of developments from the free movement of labour adds up to another source of tension. Since the collapse of Communism, some 20 million people have left the EU-11. In some countries this has resulted in drastic shifts – Latvia and Bulgaria are probably the two countries that have lost most proportionately, both starting from a relatively low base-line.
An IMF staff discussion paper from 2016, “Emigration and its Economic Impact on Eastern Europe” makes it quite clear that the levels of out-migration have had a deleterious impact on the economies of the EU-11 and, by implication, on society as a whole, given that it is generally the most active, best educated and innovative who leave. By the same token, the receiving countries, the EU-14 (in this case, the EU-15, given the very large numbers in the UK), have benefited; true, many in the UK do not see this benefit and, at the anecdotal level, Central European incomers are far from popular in quite a few other countries of the EU-14. The disbenefit for the EU-11 is that outmigration has slowed growth, diminished human capital and hindered per capita income convergence. Add this to the evidence on capital outflows, and one can see that the EU-11 really have lost on both the swings and the roundabouts.
Ivan Krastev points to other factors. The out-migration has intensified the fears of demographic collapse and, more subtly, of the disappearance of national cultures. That, in turn, intensifies commitment to nationhood and helps to explain the growing opposition to taking in sizeable numbers of non-European immigrants. To this, Krastev adds technological change that gives rise to fears about the jobs that people have.
The final structural divide is over immigration from outside Europe and the prospect of Central Europe becoming multicultural on the Western model. The raw figure is startling.
A survey led by the Nézőpont Institute asked the following question:
“In general, is immigration from outside the continent rather positive or rather negative for Europe?”
rather positive rather negative don’t know
CZ 14 85 1
HU 06 88 6
PL 24 62 14
SK 13 83 4
These figures speak for themselves. The EU is committed to the redistribution of non-European immigrants and refugees according to a quota system, even while the Central Europeans are equally committed to having nothing to do with this. It is not an unreasonable proposition that they have looked at the impact of these immigrants on Western societies and have concluded that this is not what they want for themselves. It is hard to disagree with the thought that this opposition to quotas is most acute in Hungary, which bore the brunt of the historically extraordinary tide of migrants simply walking through the country as if it did not exist. Hence the government’s decision to build the fence on Hungary’s southern border (with Serbia) in order to ensure that immigrants go to the official entry point for registration was highly popular. The EU’s insistence – in effect – that “multiculturalism is good for you” met with a dusty answer.
The multiculturalism question is further complicated by the history and legacies of colonialism. Western Europe had colonial empires, Central Europe did not, but indeed were themselves subjected to imperial domination. The consequence is that the post-colonial guilt of the EU-14 (very much EU-15 in this context) has no traction, no resonance in Central Europe. The then Czech foreign minister, Lubomir Zaorálek, argued strongly in a speech in 2017 that Western Europe had to deal with a profoundly negative legacy regarding its colonial past, millions killed and humiliated by alien rule. By implication, Central Europe had no role in this and, hence, should not be judged by the same yardstick, whether in the West or outside Europe, meaning that it had no moral obligation to open its doors to migrants from the erstwhile colonies.
If the EU insists on the resettlement, then it may well be faced by a major revolt in Central Europe, which, as we have seen, has various other grounds for feeling that it has ended up with a poor bargain as far as EU membership is concerned. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the relationship between the EU and Central Europe is that of a stand-off.
This stand-off is beginning to resemble a frozen conflict. We are familiar enough with these outside Europe, but if we look without blinkers, there is a seepage into the EU itself. Divided Cyprus has been around for so long that it is below the radar. Independent Kosovo is not recognised by five EU member states. Brexit has thrown up the problem of the intractable border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, as well as the status of Gibraltar. The crisis in Catalonia is far from resolved. The frontier dispute between Slovenia and Croatia has just reached the agenda of the EU and the future of the Eurozone is still open. In these circumstances, adding the conflict with Central Europe in general and Poland in particular seems like a luxury.
That may well be an understatement. The European integration process was initiated after 1945 to act as a conflict resolution mechanism, above all to ensure that there would never be another war between France and Germany. This has been brilliantly successful. Others can be added, like the Good Friday Agreement that settled the Troubles in Northern Ireland. From this perspective, putting the conflict with Poland on the agenda seems counter-productive if not bizarre. Could a political solution have been found between the Commission and the Polish government? Given the EU’s track record, it is hard to say no.
In this connection, think of the 2019 European Parliamentary elections. The slogans of “who rules?” and “take back control” are ready to be deployed and, who knows, the European Parliament could find itself with a blocking minority of Eurosceptics, which will make EU legislation difficult, to say the least.
Finally, a hypothetical – suppose that somehow the Commission is successful and Poland is actually deprived of its voting rights. But a member state of the EU also has a nuclear option. The Polish government could call early elections and win on a “who rules?” basis, possibly with a constitutional majority. What then? What is the EU’s exit strategy? Can the integration process cope? How will the other 27 member states respond? If the Austrian boycott of 2000 is a precedent, they will be decidedly uneasy. Still, my hypothetical is unlikely to reach that state of affairs.
All the same, beware of the unintended consequences of your actions, not to mention of what you wish for. Scenarios, however well plotted, never quite turn out as you would like them. Kant’s crooked timber comes to mind all too readily.
Ferencz, Győző: Babits Mihály – Légy ellenállás (Budapest: Nap Kiadó, 2008).
Charlemagne, “Eastern Europeans think Western food brands are selling them dross”, The Economist, 29 June 2017, https://www.economist.com/news/europe/21724408-dual-foods-furore-hints-eastern-mistrust-west-eastern-europeans-think-western-food (accessed 27 February 2018).
IMF Staff Discussion Note, 2016, Emigration and its Economic Impact on Eastern Europe, http://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/sdn/2016/sdn1607.pdf (accessed 29 September 2017).
Krastev, Ivan: After Europe (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017).
Piketty, Thomas: “L’année de l’Europe”, Le Monde blog 16 January 2018, http://piketty.blog.lemonde.fr/2018/01/16/2018-the-year-of-europe/ (accessed 17 January 2018).
Pełczyńska-Nałęcz, Katarzyna: “A Normative Empire in Crisis – Time for a Politics of Values” (Warsaw: Batory Foundation, 2017), http://www.batory.org.pl/upload/files/pdf/rap_otw_eu/Batory_Normative%20empire_K%20Pelczynska-Nalecz-07_12_2017.pdf (accessed 4 March 2018).
Wintour, Patrick: “Growing awareness of colonial past fuels radicalisation, says Czech minister”, The Guardian, 15 June 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/jun/15/growing-awareness-of-colonial-past-fuels-radicalisation-says-czech-minister (accessed 24 June 2017).
1 I will refer to the pre-2004 member states as the EU-14, aware that this is a multiple anachronism, but at the time of writing the UK was only legally a member of the EU, no longer so politically. The term EU-11 refers to the enlargements of 2004, 2007 and 2011, but omitting Cyprus and Malta which are closer to the EU-14.