Below the main arguments in Jacques Rupnik’s article are presented. Read the whole article here.
The Visegrad group was launched in 1991, with the purpose of regional cooperation and furthering European integration in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. The four Visegrad countries have taken different political and economic paths since then, and Jacques Rupnik argues that there has been no unified Central European response to the euro crisis, as its impact differs from country to country. Yet some common features can be underlined: mainly the shared ambition to recover quicker and better than Western Europe, either by backing further European integration or by defending economic and political sovereignty.
To be part of the Eurozone, or not to be, that is the question
In 2004, new Member States engaged with their EU accession to progressively join the Eurozone. Yet the political and economic situation has changed in these countries, and only Slovakia finally adopted the single currency in January 2009. It has not been without political consequences for Slovakia though. The Slovakian contribution to the European Financial Stability Fund (equivalent to half of Slovakia’s budget!) has led to the collapse of its governing liberal-conservative coalition. It also gave way to a populist anti-EU rhetoric in the country, since Slovakia with its lower GDP and unpopular spending cuts over the past decade (performed in order to qualify for eurozone membership) sees itself “forced” to bail out richer EU member states.
In the Czech Republic, President Vaclav Klaus has never been in favor of the single currency. Klaus assimilates the euro with the domination of the French-German duo, as well as with a fiscal and redistributive Europe that is similar to a managed economy along communist lines. As for Hungary, prime-minister Viktor Orbán is determined to regain sovereignty in freeing the country from financial dependence to the IMF and the EU, and is therefore strongly opposed to the euro.
Poland on the other hand seized the opportunity of the crisis to portray itself as a role-model EU Member State. The country was not much affected by the crisis and it benefited from political stability and a strong economy (3.8% of economic growth in 2010-2011). Under these circumstances, Poland’s attitude to the euro remains ambivalent.
Pro- vs. Anti-European integration, how do the Visegrad countries handle?
Attitudes towards European integration vary between the four Visegrad states.
In the Czech Republic, as in other Member States, “the European crisis produces a new fault-line reordering Czech politics” argues Rupnik. Czech President Vaclav Klaus is clearly eurosceptic and the Czech conservative party Civic Democratic Party (ODS), led by Prime Minister Petr Necas, joined the British Conservatives and the Polish Law and Justice party (PiS) to form a euro-sceptic group in the European Parliament. However, the European question divides the government coalition, as the coalition party – the TOP (tradition, responsibility, prosperity), which holds both the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Finance – considers that a referendum on the adoption of the euro would be “contrary to the interests of the Czech Republic”, which conducts three-quarters of its trade in the eurozone and is surrounded by Eurozone members.
Although not a member of the Eurozone either, Poland calls for “great leap forward” into federalism. Jacques Rupnik especially highlights a speech given by Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs in the German Parliament in November 2011, when Poland was still holding the rotating EU Presidency. In this speech he estimated the choice ahead of the EU as being “deeper integration or collapse”. He clearly expressed the need to move on and to give a new impetus for the future of Europe and called on Germany to take a leading role in this process: “I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear German inactivity. You [addressing to a German audience] have become Europe’s indispensable nation. You must not fail to lead. Not dominate, but lead in reform”. The symbolic value of Poland pushing Germany for more EU integration cannot be overlooked.
Hungary and Slovakia seem to have adopted political pragmatism in their attitudes towards the EU. The former’s repressive turn does not need to be demonstrated and received strong criticism from the Greens and others when Hungary changed its constitution while still holding the EU rotating Presidency. Alongside an attempt to obtain political control over Hungarian institutions and media, Victor Orbán built his reputation on economic sovereignism. Yet a constant rise of Hungarian spreads and a flight of capital towards Austria led Orbán to propose “a new type of cooperation” with the IMF, thereby ensuring a IMF loan. As for Slovakia, the return to power of a more pro-EU leftwing government after the collapse of the liberal-conservative coalition “should by no means be interpreted as a conversion in Slovak public opinion on the way it is being rescued”, warns Rupnik.
From periphery to centre
Rupnik argues that CEE countries “weathered the crisis better than the rest of the EU” by opting for a German model of fiscal discipline. The evolution of the sovereign debt and banking crises has drawn new lines on the map of Europe, with increasing obvious divides between Europe’s North and South, as opposed to its usual East – West divide. Visegrad countries now have the ambition to “belong to Northern Europe”, as Poland’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Radoslaw Sikorski declared in February 2011 at Harvard University. The euro crisis would have at least led to an expressed need of rethinking the European project and the role of CEE countries in Europe is part of this equation. The choice of the future of the European project is often simplified as a new sovereignist vs. pro-EU political divide, from which Central European countries are not exempted. But it is actually much more complex than that. Slovakia had understood early on the benefits of being a member of the Eurozone, but only more recently learnt of its costs. Hungary and Czech Republic have so far preferred to reassess their sovereignty, but their economic dependence to their neighbours lead to political realism and compromises. Whereas Poland, it benefits from its outsider position to voice the interests of central Europe to relaunch European integration.
Read the whole article published on Eurozine here.
What is a “right-sized” future for Europe?
One can no longer consider Central and Eastern European Countries as a block of former communist countries. They have been each following their own paths for twenty years, and their positions towards EU integration differ strongly. The original concept of a “multi-speed Europe”, with a core and a periphery, should thus be reconsidered in favour of a new institutional concept allowing some Member States to go further, while not jeopardising the unity of Europe. The European Greens have for instance pushed forward enhanced cooperation mechanism to implement new measures for a green and social economy in case an opposition is reached in the Council.
GEF, with support of the Heinrich Böll Foundation offices in Warsaw and Prague, will bring the debate on the topic in Central European countries by organising events in the region before the end of the year. Report of these events will be uploaded in this section of GEF’s website.