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Back to the Eighties

Michal Kořan, writing in the Polish review Res Publica Nowa (publica.pl), translated by Eurozine, argues that there can be, in spite of current worries, a genuinely European future for central Europe, but that it won’t come about without an examination of the deficiencies that attended the transformation of these societies in the first two decades of their membership of the European Union.

If recent events ‑ the turn from liberal principles in Poland and Hungary, with the remarks about Islam of Czech president Miloš Zeman also causing some alarm – are to serve as a wake-up call, Kořan writes, well ‑ it is better to wake up late than never. “Yet, such a critical review of central Europe,” he insists, “must acquire a different form than that of an emotional bashing from the West, and central-eastern Europe’s no less emotive rejection of the legitimacy of this moral tongue-lashing, which is what we have experienced so far.”

If we continue to engage in this kind of “dialogue”, Kořan argues, Europe faces the threat that this region will once again become a group of largely antagonistic states – antagonistic “within themselves, against each other, and against anything that they individually and arbitrarily choose to define as ‘the other’. This would be the epilogue to the dream of Europe, whole and free.”

How did we get to this point?

A widely used and meritorious explanation points to the fact that central Europeans failed to think about the future of Europe beyond the immediate goal of their EU membership. In the midst of the revolutions of 1989, a small group of central European activists, philosophers, thinkers and dissidents (e.g. Václav Havel and Lech Walesa) acquired executive powers in their respective countries and began to realize their dreams of ending the political, cultural, economic and social divisions of Europe. EC/EU membership was to them one step along this path, though hardly the end goal. And yet, having secured a wide (yet possibly shallow) base of public support for EU membership, broader ideals gave way to the burdensome process of managing and administrating the EU membership process – but never quite made it back to the realm of central European politics. Intellectually, it was easier to adapt to externally provided conditions than to engage in the demanding and risky business of thinking about the future of Europe beyond the more attainable and immediate goal of EU membership.

The EU, for the majority of central European politicians, Kořan contends, is still perceived as something external, “serving nicely as a source of money, as a straw man to fend off public frustrations, and as a platform for numerous photo opportunities. This, of course, is an exaggeration, but only to a degree.”

But it is not just central Europe which is in crisis. Many of the weaknesses are evident in the rest of the union too – “populism, xenophobia, distrust in political parties and parliamentary politics, disbelief in the EU, and so forth. But, while there are strong political figures promoting these popular anxieties and frustrations all over Europe, what central Europe is missing [in Kořan's view] ‑ as opposed to countries with longer democratic traditions – are those able to offer strong political leadership and alternatives to populism or hiding behind the back of Brussels.”

Kořan attributes the fact that central Europe’s problems have not been addressed at least partially to “a mutual hypocrisy among the so-called old and new members of the Euro-Atlantic community”. The region has for some time now wished to believe that it had successfully managed its difficult transformation and become a fully democratic space with well-functioning market economies and responsible societies, and that functioning economies would eventually have the effect of cleaning up the still murky world of everyday politics. Meanwhile the US and the older members of the EU also needed, for their own reasons, a story of success. And so the central European states graduated very quickly from being students of liberal democracy to being teachers of it – to new states on the eastern and southern peripheries with ambitions to eventually join the European Union. In this process a lot had to kept under the carpet, including “widespread corruption, a disenchanted public, a weakening sense of responsibility to name just a few”.

And yet he is not without optimism:

There were times in the 1970s and 1980s when a handful of central European dissidents were able to act as a biting conscience not only against the communist regimes but also, and perhaps even more importantly, against the "consumer happiness" of western societies that shielded their sights from what was happening in eastern Europe. This means that there is a lot of intellectual potential in central Europe. If nothing else, central Europeans can serve as a reflection of Europe's own problems. There is a genuine European future for central Europe, the problem is that the roads to this future are growing ever more narrow and steep and there are fewer people to suggest a credible solution. To look more frankly into the history of the past two decades, however, might be a good start.

22/2/2016