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New Europe, Old Habits
Meeting of the European Political Community President Michel walks with Czech President and Prime Minister, 2022

New Europe, Old Habits

Russia's war on Ukraine has given Central Europe a new sense of urgency–and has placed new pressure on an already complicated political coalition against the Russian autocracy.

Dalibor Roháč

Is the “New Europe” back after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? The war should be reminding everyone just how much is at stake. Compared to the shadow of Russian violence cast over Europe, the region’s perennial culture wars and fears over diktat from Brussels must be looking pettier than ever to voters. But are they?

Well, there is some good news. Despite misgivings about mass migration, Poles have stepped up admirably to help build new lives for millions of Ukrainian refugees who have flocked to their country. Poles, Czechs, and Slovaks, alongside the Balts, have all gone out of their way to help Ukraine by providing it with weapons and other assistance.

In May, observers of the region such as Benjamin Tallis, a research fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations, were sanguine about its new energy, driven by an instinctive reaction to Russia’s aggression. “Unlike the longer-standing German term, Mitteleuropa,” Tallis wrote, “Central European-ness had a distinctly normative as well as strictly geographical basis. Driven by leaders such as Václav Havel, it combined commitments to liberal norms—focused on human rights, fundamental freedoms and national self-determination—with a recognition that these needed to be protected by a liberal geostrategy.___STEADY_PAYWALL___

It is certainly true that both the region’s pro-Western elites, alongside European institutions and the United States, have been presented with an opportunity to revitalize Central Europe’s role in Western alliances. Given the Czech Republic’s presidency of the European Council and the simultaneous presence of thoughtful leaders in key positions—think Petr Fiala, the prime minister of the Czech Republic, or Zuzana Čaputová, Slovakia’s president—the time seems ripe for some decisive moves.

Key among such moves is a decoupling of the populist-nationalist governments of Poland and Hungary. Given its size and given its commitment to the security of the region, Poland remains an indispensable player. Moreover, the likes of Andrzej Duda have demonstrated that the governing Law and Justice Party (PiS) is not a monolith driven by reckless and authoritarian impulses but a broad, complicated political coalition that the West can—and indeed has—to work with.

In contrast, there does not seem to be any going back, at least in the short term, for Viktor Orbán’s Hungary. Not only has his party, FIDESZ, accelerated its takeover of all independent institutions in the state, it has also been singularly accommodating toward Russia throughout the war. “[The] West is on the side of war,” Orbán claimed in his recent speech to parliament, in which he blamed “Brussels sanctions,” imposed by a “dwarf” on “a giant,” for inflation in Hungary. He promised to work on scrapping the sanctions regime.

Budapest’s unhinged character aside, there are several wrinkles to the notion of the “New Europe” (minus Hungary) as a reconstituted bulwark against Russian revisionism and a reliable building block of Western alliances. For one, the decoupling between PiS and FIDESZ has yet to materialize. For that, European institutions, the United States, and other actors would have to be more consistent about rewarding Warsaw’s good behavior, while demonstrating to Budapest that there are real costs to obstructing sanctions, undercutting Ukraine, and dealing with Putin behind the backs of allies.

In the context of current budgetary proceedings in the EU, for example, that would involve cutting Poland some amount of slack—while continuing to play hardball with Hungary. For a moment, it seemed that the European Commission (EC) was able to pull this off. In May, it struck a deal, facilitated by Polish President Andrzej Duda, to unfreeze the EU funds Poland was supposed to receive under the bloc’s 7-year budget, in exchange for modifications to recent reforms of its Supreme Court.

Yet, to palpable frustration in Warsaw, the money still hasn’t been released. The impatience is compounded by the fact that Poland, much like other European countries, is facing difficult economic times. Energy bills are soaring, and there is real pressure bearing down on public services, exercised by the wave of Ukrainian refugees.

The Commission remains hesitant because it was asking for more comprehensive changes to address the politicization of “disciplinary” action taken against judges than what Duda’s compromise has delivered thus far. The pedantry is easily understandable. The EC, after all, finds itself under fire from legal groups and European parliamentarians for even tentatively agreeing to disburse the funds to one of Europe’s pariahs.

Instead of diffusing tension, the stand-off has escalated. “Poland is being robbed, and a leading role in this plundering is played by German politicians led by [EC President Ursula] von der Leyen,” Polish Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro declared in August, referencing the delays in EU funding. Ziobro might represent PiS’ hardline Catholic “integralist” wing, but by early September, even the usually level-headed prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, had started talking about the need for German reparations–probably in response to growing pressure from his party’s extremes.

Taking the conversation to an absurd new level, the Polish government-run TV channel TVP claimed that Germany was threatening Poland with border changes. The segment, which cherry-picked quotes from Chancellor Scholz’ recent speech and assigned them a grotesque new meaning, prompted a predictable wave of outrage among more radical PiS parliamentarians. This effectively hardened the ground against another compromise between Poland and Brussels.

Meanwhile, the Commission has also proposed freezing EUR 7.5 billion to Hungary, bringing Poland’s government to its defense. “Poland will strongly oppose any actions of European institutions that intend to illegally deprive any member states of funds, in this case Hungary in particular,” Morawiecki weighed in—suggesting that the troublesome alliance of the two nationalist governments is not yet completely dead.

What about the two remaining Visegrád countries, Slovakia and the Czech Republic? It is true that governments of both countries have behaved exemplarily since February. Yet, again, that should not be taken for granted. In Slovakia, the pro-market liberals from the Freedom and Solidarity Party (SaS) left the governing coalition in September. The minority cabinet hangs by a thread. An early election, which may well materialize within months, would likely bring back to power explicitly pro-Russian elements, led by the country’s disgraced ex-prime minister, Robert Fico, who is currently cultivating an informal alliance with the country’s neo-Nazis.

Slovak opinion polls are particularly distressing, placing the country in the company of Bulgaria or Serbia rather than its immediate neighbors. One recent poll, for example, seemed to suggest that a majority of Slovaks would like to see Russia prevail in the war with Ukraine. Though oddly asking responders to rate their answers on a scale of 0 to 10 instead of giving a binary answer, the poll’s results were not inconsistent with the fact that pro-Putin political groups will almost inevitably dominate the country’s future parliament.

The Czech government’s position, led by Mr. Fiala, is much firmer. Yet, the senate and local elections held from September 23-24 suggest that both Andrej Babiš and other populist voices—most prominently the unhinged Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD)—still enjoy significant support. Babiš, who criticized the EU’s sanctions against Russia in the past, is steering clear of taking the Kremlin’s side. Rhetorically, however, he has started to frame the war as a distraction from the Czech Republic’s domestic problems: “I understand that Ukraine is important—but, here, we’re in the Czech Republic.” He has lambasted what he’s labelled the government’s monomania with the conflict. Early in September, Prague’s Wenceslas Square saw a surprisingly large public protest against energy price hikes, bringing together supporters of the far right alongside those of the country’s unreformed communist party.

There is also something to be said about the hitherto missed opportunity that is the Czech Republic’s Council presidency. Mr. Fiala, a respected academic and political theorist in his previous life, is a highly cerebral leader with much to say to the European public at large. Alas, due to his subdued political style and the relentless pressure of daily events, the Czech presidency has been a rather muted affair instead of a display of thought leadership, advancing a substantive, distinctly Central European, policy agenda.

Last week’s summit of European Political Community (EPC) hosted by the Czech premier might be an encouraging exception. Though conceived by France’s Emmanuel Macron to promote “strategic intimacy” between European leaders, EPC opens doors not only to a greater British role in European affairs (already manifested by the UK's looming participation in PESCO, the EU’s defense initiative) but also to an acceleration of EU accession efforts by Moldova, Georgia, and others–both of them critically important to the future of Central Europe.

Yet, it is a safe a bet that things are likely to get a lot worse in the region before they get any better. Energy prices and rampant inflation are squeezing households’ budgets and the continent is plunging into a recession. What may seem pricey for most families in “Old Europe” will inevitably drag thousands below the poverty line in Central Europe. Price caps extended by governments are incredibly expensive—and, unlike direct cash transfers, they have unintended consequences. In Slovakia, the main electricity supplier announced it was teetering on the verge of bankruptcy and holding off on any investment that could expand energy supply in the country.

Across the EU’s periphery, public budgets are being threatened. That means not only less aid available for Ukraine but also a likely return of the same toxic politics that surrounded the EU’s rescue packages and austerity of the 2010s. Malevolent actors are ready to seize the opportunity. At a recent FIDESZ conference in the town of Kötcse, Orbán predicted that the EU would disintegrate within a decade and that a Visegrád Four—presumably led by him—would take its place as the key platform for cooperation between Central European countries.

That scenario, thankfully, still looks far off. However, no one should dismiss Orbán’s hubris out of hand, or take the current, highly constructive attitudes in Warsaw, Bratislava, and Prague as a baseline fact that requires no active Western support. Political entropy in “New Europe” is real and we—Americans and Europeans—would ignore its consequences at our own peril.

Dalibor Roháč is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington DC and a contributing editor with American Purpose. Twitter: @DaliborRohac.

Image: Council of the EU and the European Council