The End of the 1989 Legacy

How did Germany lose the Visegrad countries?

Unusually harsh scenes and unfamiliar words flooded TV screens in recent months when it came to the Visegrad countries’ opposition to European migration policy. The four Eastern European countries and their restrictive asylum policy basically initiated the closure of the so-called Balkan route to migrants traveling to Western Europe. For weeks, Europe was (and still is) in a mess. Following a domino effect, with Austria also dropping out of the European consensus, they finally sort of imposed their policy to Europe: a de facto stop of refugees, which are now being held back in Idomeni at the Greek-Macedonian border, a human tragedy. The Visegrad countries held special summits, did not even invite Greeks to their meetings, withdrew from EU-cooperation, were accused from not showing solidarity—and oral aggressions peaked, especially between Germany and the Visegrad countries representatives.

“As long as a coherent European strategy is lacking, it is legitimate for the countries along the Balkan route to protect their borders,” e.g. Slovakian Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajčák uttered. The Visegrad Group strongly opposed German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s refugee policy. The four countries have led the criticism of efforts to absorb asylum-seekers who have traveled north out of Greece through the Balkan countries. Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico said openly that Angela Merkel’s refugee policy was a mistake, deploring that she was forcing others to pay for it. Slovakia, Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic are against any quota system for distributing asylum seekers among EU member states. In Miroslav Lajčák’s opinion, a European quota system was the equivalent of an invitation, which would encourage even more asylum seekers to embark on a journey to Europe. It all ended in an abominable EU-Council on March 7th, where the EU, in essence, had to back its approach on migration, relying on Turkey to prevent refugees to move over to Europe, with Greece as the first place: ugly scenes in Europe!

How could this happen that Germany was (and is) left alone so bluntly with the migrants in Eastern Europe. How could the Visegrad countries, altogether since 1989 sort of best buddies of Germany, turn into Angela Merkel’s enemies at any European Council since October 2015, which wanted to push through a distribution key for migrants? How then could especially Germany and Eastern European relations deteriorate so much and so quickly in recent months, after Germany having been the most ardent political defender of EU enlargement over the past twenty years, according always special treatment to Poland, inventing the Weimarer Dreieck between France, Germany, and Poland as trilateral leadership engine for Europe?

Visegrad is not Poland. Obviously, the four countries—and there are more in Eastern Europe—do not compare. Each one probably has its own reasons for dropping out of European consensuses and/or for disagreeing with Germany, especially on the migrant question, but also many times on Russia. Yet, let us start with a look on Poland, as it is the biggest Eastern country and most important for Germany. The quality of Polish-German relations has been fluctuating for years now, an up-and-down linked to the raise of Jarosław Kaczyński and his PiS party on the one hand; and the evolution of German-Russian relations on the other, with both being somehow communicating vessels. Whenever Germany was too pro-Russian (the “German Ostpolitik” reproach in Eastern Europe was particularly hefty in the years of the first grand coalition in Germany 2005 to 2009, the years of the “Gazprom-Connection” and the military action In Georgia in 2008), PiS could win percentage points, which would make Poland less European and Germany less pro-Polish.

A viscous circle in a way, peaking in the years 2005 to 2007 for a first time, where Jarosław Kaczyński took over the government and where his anti-Europe course climaxed later in a Polish defeat at the EU Council 2007 about voting weights. It is important to note perhaps, that much of the current Polish anti-European stance, the populist spin and antidemocratic attitudes, were edified in these years already, in a way similar to France, where the Front National is not a new phenomena at all or comes at a surprise, but remained overlooked or ignored in its societal dynamics for a long time. In 2007, when Tusk took over and, re-elected in 2011, remained for two legislations until 2015, the strain seemed over and Germany and Poland had a high time: Radek Sikorski engaged the country into an ever more European policy, also on European security affairs, and Poland became an even more reliable partner to Germany than to some extent France. “Why Poland is the new France for Germany” is what I wrote, together with Konstanty Gebert, in October 2012 for the ECFR, at a moment when a newly elected French president wanted to challenge Angela Merkel, whereas a Polish foreign minister would call for German leadership: a novelty in German-Polish relations. So where has it all gone? It was not that long ago!

Similarly to France, probably a lot happened beneath the surface in the countries’ domestic orientation, and much of it in a subtle way, related to the how the country experienced the euro crisis years—and the German role in it. It is to Radek Sikorski’s merit to call for German leadership (“I fear German power less than German inactivity.”) at the peak of the euro crisis in November 2011, where the “too-little-too late” argument with respect to the German management of the euro crisis was creeping through Europe like fire. Yet, Germany did not answer. Or it did not answer in a convincingly European way. The solution to the euro crisis was left to Mario Draghi uttering words to appease financial markets in 2012. And thus I argue here that year 2012 is the year which historians will probably once pick as the year in which Europe broke, unnoticed at first. Where a European Germany was not in the cards, the choice then became a German Europe or no Europe. And many countries, each one in its own way, opted for the latter. What we are experiencing now in Eastern Europe, but also in other corners of Europe—that is my argument here—be it the acute re-nationalisation of politics, be it the rise of populism, or, in more concrete terms, the resistance against taking migrants, is at least to a large degree a delayed consequence of a European bond that broke in 2012 and for which Germany is co-responsible.

Obviously, this is not a standalone argument. Xenophobia always has a certain layer in society and populist features have multiple facets and can be somehow reactivated easily, if a country has an emotional issue. It is, however, not easy to see where the emotional offence in Poland comes from, so that the country would let it happen that in fall 2015 a new government, elected only by some 20% of the people, could highjack a government, a court, and large parts of its media, despite the fact that Poland was economically rather well performing.

My fair guess is that it has something to do with the tectonic plates of Europe shifting, with Poland being squeezed between Russia and Putinversteher in Germany (despite Germany holding surprisingly firm on sanctions for Ukraine), which spoiled the hopes of joining the euro any time soon and thus to become a declassified EU and euro member. Now there is a new cohort of young, rather conservative Polish elites, who are eager to secure a specific position of Poland in Europe rather than just being one aisle of an anyway powerless Weimarer Triangle driven mostly by Germany and who are too young to have ever believed in an “ever closer union.” An anaemic Eastern Partnership might have added to the story; but the nail in the coffin was most likely the fact that precisely on Ukraine, Poland’s biggest neighbour, Merkel chose a “Minsk agreement” with France, when for once, the Weimarer Triangel could have been perfect as high policy format. Had I been Polish, I would also have been furious: Ignorance is worst of all. Anger fuels populism. Polish alienation from Germany thus does not fall from heaven, as regrettable as it is. The tempo of the Polish U-turn on Europe (and the capacity of PiS to impose this U-turn on Polish society despite its resistance) is still amazing—and no solutions are really in view.

This brings me to the other Visegrad countries. At the peak of a crisis, it is a valid question to ask: When did it all start? Budapest certainly did not turn anti-European yesterday; and Germany—or the CDU and Angela Merkel—did not do much against it, when it started to move away from Europe. In a way, Hungary has a similar love story with Germany like Poland: Hungary opened the iron curtain with the “summer breakfast” in August 1989, where the Hungarian- Austrian border was opened before the Berlin Wall came down. Hungary was the star pupil, engaging in economic reform. Largely forgotten today is that Hungary, after entering the EU, was heading for euro membership as early as 2008. It was the (West-) European banking crisis, which quickly turned into a Hungarian housing-, from there into a middle class-, and from there into a populist crisis: Many Hungarian families had bought houses after 2004, with the promise of an economic upturn through EU membership, and had engaged in mortgages in euro or Swiss francs—which then had to be paid back in forints. Orbán’s first victory and then his continued government since 2010 is also an expression of this disappointment: For Hungary, the European dream has not come true.

The EU, and with it Germany, never drew a line with respect to the creeping populism. Germany as the most powerful EU country could probably have pushed for political intervention in earlier stages, but dispensed, not willing to destroy the 1989 legacy. Because it is legally tricky, the EU never thought of applying Art. 7 (as is now considered for Poland), and what is legally correct can hardly be criticised politically: The European People’s Party (PPE) was especially smart in backing Victor Orbán, even at times when the liberal press was (and is) under heavy pressure through new media laws (e.g. the Hungarian Telecom, a daughter of Deutsche Telecom, licensed after 2010 several journalists from an online news portal, which Angela Merkel could have easily demurred and initiated sanctions against). Moreover the dismantling of the constitutional court is equally obvious in Hungary as in Poland, but remains without formal actions from the EU side to guarantee the “rule of law.”

The question now therefore is, if and how further erosion of democracy can be stopped in Hungary. Here as in Poland, the current refugee crisis is probably only the last drop occurring after years of Hungarian alienation from Europe and disappointment that, even as German protégée and a rising star in Eastern Europe shortly after 2004, Hungary did not turn into flourishing landscape. The political capacity, not speaking about willingness to perform in a European way, has absented Hungary for long. In difference to Poland or other European populist phenomena, which often are “old-white-men” voting patterns, Hungary’s populism, beyond Fidesz, seems to largely affect its educated youth: Jobbik scores high at Hungarian universities. It is hard to judge from Germany, but what I got most in recent trips to Eastern Europe was an undefined feeling that Western Europe and the EU did not keep their (economic) promise, that the East has always felt “second class European” and that the current populism in Eastern Europe is thus also a consequence of that collective offence.

For the Czech Republic, Slovenia, or Slovakia, an analogue narrative and development can probably be found. The three countries have been the workbench of German industry; they tried to please Germany in the Council and the principle of “cultural intimidation” worked for them for long: What you cannot beat, you need to embrace. Is it really conceivable to go against Germany in the EU Council if your country economically depends on it? In a Czech journal in summer 2015, the question was posed whether the Czech Republic wants to become the 17th “Bundesland” of Germany…

The refugee crisis was probably a drop too much. This is not the place to discuss in differentiated shades the societal fabrics of Eastern European societies and their apparent lack of decent developed politics of migration and integration, especially with respect to the Muslim world—also the role of the Church could probably be questioned. Sure, they have been less accustomed to it in recent years. And in this respect, there surely is domestic responsibility for lacking behind immanent features of globalisation, while benefiting from the EU’s overall prosperity and solidarity. Hence, the refugee crisis has tilted that balance now to open uprising against Germany and its policy of #refugees welcome—which has been U-turned in the meantime since the EU Council of 7th March, when Germany itself started back-pedaling on refugees.

In this context, it is interesting to note that in Germany (but also in France) a discussion has started about whether Eastern enlargement has been a good idea, or came too early; and whether the only rescue for the EU today is to politically integrate the eurozone. “Two-speed-Europe” ideas are not new, they date back to the 90s and even came from official EU sides. Hence, against the backdrop of the Ukraine crisis, the overall geostrategic situation, and the eurozone itself still in trouble, with Grexit being still an option and Brexit luring at the horizon, they start to get a more ardent tone: A Europe whole and free, which was so proud in 1989 for having united, looks more past than present. Eastern Europe loses defenders in Germany, while it is far from sure that a core-Europe would work. The political erosion has deeply crept into the eurozone itself and is no longer an East-West divide—with Eastern Europe particularly lacking ambition in a political union. Never has the future of Europe been as unclear as in these days!

Ulrike Guérot

Founder and Director of the European Democracy Lab at the European School of Governance in Berlin. This text has been written for Eutopia Magazine—creative commons, a project of the publishing houses Galaxia Gutenberg, S. Fischer, Laterza und Seuil, in cooperation with TIM: www.eutopiamagazine.eu.

Share this on social media

Support Aspen Institute

The support of our corporate partners, individual members and donors is critical to sustaining our work. We encourage you to join us at our roundtable discussions, forums, symposia, and special event dinners.