Visegrad countries (CrazyPhunk, Public domain)
A discussion on the consequences of Brexit for Central European countries should start by stating that there is no such thing as Central Europe. It is only a concept, which has a rich history and extensive bibliography; we can find in it the works of both political scientists and poets, who for a hundred years have tried to mark the contours of this chimeric territory, which on maps and in the European consciousness (at least in the consciousness of certain Europeans) came into existence as a separate and indeterminate entity, neither West nor East, only during the First World War, and strictly speaking, as a result of the collapse of the three dynastic empires: the Prussian Hohenzollerns, the Austrian Habsburgs, and the Russian Romanovs, which from the end of the 18th century until 1918 controlled the geographic centre of the continent.
A bit of history
The concept of Mitteleuropa (1915), justifying German hegemony in the region and its expected expansion to the east, clashed at that time with at least four counter-proposals – to mention only those of Slavic provenance: the Serbian and Croatian idea of Yugoslavia, the Czechoslovakian idea of Central Europe, the Polish concept of Intermarium and the boldest of them, the Russian idea of the world proletarian revolution. All of these gradually lost their raison d’être, and finally, at the end of the 20th century, they were replaced by the pragmatic formula of the Visegrad Group.
Its only bond was the pro-Western (in other words pro-American and pro-European) orientation of the states participating in it: the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and Hungary. Their ambition was not to create a regional bloc: they shied away from accepting new members (although they would have found eager candidates), often they disavowed partners as being less advanced and developed, and in practice they dissociated themselves from unions with other post-communist states (particularly the Balkans and the former USSR). To put it simply, it was an entirely utilitarian union of four post-communist societies, self-appointed leaders of the region, interested not so much in each other (and even interested in each other less than at any time previously, particularly in the case of the Czechs and Slovaks), as they were in their common interest in the fastest possible accession to the security structures and economy of the western world (NATO and the EU).
However, the West, of which one can never be reminded too much, is also only a concept, or rather – in the words of Professor Jan Kieniewicz – a conceptual aggregate, conceived in 18th-century Europe and serving the domination of this civilisation over the rest of the world. In the second half of the 20th century, as a result of two wars for world hegemony, caused by the former European powers but resolved by the emerging powers of the East (USSR) and West (the United States), the West was equated with “Atlantic space”, in other words the area of American domination. In accordance with the tradition of the positive image of the West, as a hotbed of virtues, such as freedom, property, law, democracy, and progress, the East was counterpoised as exclusively the opposite of the West and a reservoir of human misery, such as slavery, poverty, injustice, despotism, ignorance and backwardness.
Communist Poland, of course, was perceived in the West as the “East”, a country which for much of its history was even more eastern, oriental (Sarmatism) and backward than Russia, which after all was Occidentalised by the will of the Tsars. Hungary and Czechoslovakia had a slightly better image in the United States and Western Europe. Central European countries were united by a desire to “return to the West”; all the modernisation practices in this part of Europe over the last 150 years appear, moreover, as precisely attempts to “catch up with the West”.
Today’s Visegrad Group
Today, a common characteristic of the Visegrad Group countries is above all their exceptionally close integration with the German economy. Not only will this state of affairs most likely not be reversed, but it will even deepen, regardless of the fate of the European Union and the Eurozone, and also contrary to the popular myths in this region about the bright prospects of cooperation with China.
Therefore it is worth taking a closer look at the myth. It is in this context that in the Czech Republic there is a talk of Škoda’s successes on the Chinese market, not mentioning the fact that this car producer is part of the Volkswagen Group and de facto a German company – as well as the fact that Czech exports to Germany are 30 times bigger than to China. In turn, in Poland supporters of cooperation with China are already setting out the future direction of the Silk Road, thus helping out the Chinese planners, who so far have not been kind enough to present any concrete proposals.
Some experts argue that the domination of the West is a historical anomaly, drawing on Immanuel Wallerstein and Janet Abu-Lughod’s concepts of world-systems, which have functioned for half a century in academic discourse – and are regarded by them as revealed truth. According to Wallerstein, the capitalist world-system is a historically formed socio-economic universe (from the beginning of the 16th century), which is characterised by the constant accumulation of capital, an axial division of labour (centre–peripheries), the absorption of successive areas (imperialism, globalisation) and the occurrence of cyclical rhythms (Kondratieff waves, each approx. 50–60 years), as well as secular trends (counted in hundreds of years, of long duration – longue durée).
Wallerstein owed his concept of a multiplicity of forms of social time to Fernand Braudel, who, however, dated the emergence of the contemporary world-system at the 15th century at the latest; in turn, Abu-Lughod believed that the world-system existed even earlier, even before the European hegemony, and its centre was the thirteenth century Mongol empire (but it also covered other parts of Eurasia and Africa that were participating in trade, including Northern and Southern Europe). In other words, all these eminent academics argued that the world was globalised long before the emergence of the British Empire (and before the rebellion of the British colonies in North America, in other words the future United States). However, their Polish successors are going much further and heralding a great comeback of the Eurasian powers. Moreover, it assumes a break with the Enlightenment philosophy of history, based on a linear concept of time and belief in progress, which perhaps explains why a Polish-Chinese alliance has its most fervent acolytes among the native “conservatives” rather than the liberals.
In reality, the myth of China in Poland, the myth of creating a great new economic alliance – the same as the comparable myth of Russia in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia – is only a myth. It is like the vision of the ethnically pure centre of Europe, a sixty-five million reservoir of white “Christians”, who in substitution for the rotten, liberal West will resist the migrants from the Middle East and Africa (at the same time competing with them in the British and German labour markets). During the September visit of Chancellor Angela Merkel in Prague, Czech politicians were competing against each other to see who would most forcefully tell her that the Czech Republic will not agree to a limitation of its sovereignty, in other words the compulsory quota of refugees – and specifically, the acceptance of 80 refugees from Syria this year. At the same time, Czech economists admitted, however, that in economic terms, their country is already a German land.
The fear of refugees that has been deliberately whipped up – to put it bluntly, islamophobia – has helped the political elites of the Visegrad Group states win the recent elections, but it has practically made them hostages of anti-European forces and the far right. It also is not a problem for the Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban, who is gambling on the disintegration of the EU in the same team as the leaders of the west European far right – and his ambition is to become their leader. However, it may be a problem for those politicians of PiS who treat seriously, for example, the official priorities of the Polish presidency in the V4 group (July 1st, 2016 – July 1st, 2017). Besides opposing refugees there are also such objectives as strengthening NATO’s eastern flank and opposing the plans to build Nord Stream 2 which have been forced by the Kremlin. How does the government intend to achieve them, if it is looking for allies precisely among those states which do not share Polish fears of Russia (Hungary) or have an exceptionally pragmatic attitude to cooperation with this country (Czech Republic, Slovakia)? This is not a problem for politicians such as Andrej Babiš, who combines the role of leader of the party ANO (belonging to the European fraction of liberals ALDE) and the minister of finance in the Czech government with a huge fortune and ownership of the largest newspapers in the country. When there is a need, the newspapers belonging to him will start to praise the benefits of possessing a single European currency, and the refugee issue will be dropped to the last page. Most importantly, this also concerns their attitude to Germany.
Germany is of key importance
At the same time, Brexit means for the Visegrad Group states mainly that in the nearest future they will be under even greater pressure of German capital and German politics than previously. Those who do not believe in miracles know that there is only one good reply to the growth in importance of Germany on the European continent: deeper political integration of the region with Germany under a more integrated European Union than so far. Only close political integration will give European governments (and also the government in Berlin) a chance to harness the appetites of German capital – and all other capitals. Only then can Central European countries (including the Baltic states and certain Balkan states) count on still being that part of Europe that is most rapidly developing in the next quarter of a century.
Of course, deepened integration assumes active participation in German political projects (such as a common migration policy). It therefore requires from the societies of Central Europe that they “reinvent themselves” as the Germans did; above all that they break with the myth of an ethnically pure centre of Europe.
In the countries which in the 20th century experienced the greatest ethnic cleansing in modern history – and today are the largest reservoirs of labor migration in the whole of the European Union – this may prove to be impossible. However, the price of the Central European illusion of splendid isolation will be permanent marginalisation on Europe’s periphery, sentenced to international exploitation, mainly by German capital, and finally the loss of access to EU funds. Nor can we imagine that the European Union, most likely integrated around the Eurozone after the UK leaves the EU, will have two budgets: a budget for the Eurozone and an EU budget. The French, Italians and Dutch will not agree to this. And the Germans, faced with the choice of saving the Eurozone or maintaining the “European illusion”, will certainly choose the former, since to put it bluntly, Central Europe – unlike the United Kingdom, France and Italy – will not escape anywhere.
If the consequence of Brexit is a permanent division of Europe between the Eurozone and the rest, then in several years the rest of the states may be forced to accept such conditions of membership in the European Union which will not actually differ very much from those that the United Kingdom negotiated (but without amortisation in the form of its economic, financial, intellectual, demographic and military potential). This is why those who believe that Brexit is a turning point in the history of the Visegrad Group are right. It consists in the fact that after the UK leaves the European Union, the Visegrad Group will probably cease to exist.
To join Eurozone or not to join?
Aversion to Muslims is one thing, but real interests are another. Slovakia, with a population of five million, currently holds the presidency of the European Union, is already a member of the Eurozone, and will certainly not leave it. The Czech Republic, with a population of ten million will probably follow in its footsteps, which means that in several years it will adopt the euro. It will not be easy, but economic interests in this country have always taken precedence over prejudice. All the more so that the single European currency has already been adopted by the Baltic states and Slovenia, while Romania and Bulgaria would do the same tomorrow if only they were allowed to. None of these countries will place the mirage of Intermarium before the real benefits resulting from functioning in one economic space with Germany.
The Hungarian Finance Minister has already announced (in a July 2016 interview with the daily “Magyar Hírlap”) that his country will be ready to enter the Eurozone by the end of the decade, and expressed his “great hope” that it will happen. However, developments in the Czech Republic will be of key importance for the future of the region. The majority of the Czech political class is pro-European and capable of reaching a compromise, while society is pragmatic and aware of the benefits arising from centuries-long unions with Germany (as well as the manifold losses connected with the expulsion of Germans after World War II). If the Czechs are the first to overcome their fear of otherness, open up and “choose the West”, then for Poland too, everything will not be lost.
This article first was published in the 11th issue of the quarterly “Instytut Idei” by Civic Institute (Instytut Obywatelski). Aleksander Kaczorowski is a translator of Czech literature and expert on Central Europe. He is also editor-in-chief of “Aspen Review Central Europe”.