Farewell to Periphery

Central Europe has long been struggling with its peripheral position in Europe. What exactly is the nature of this outer edge and can it be cast away? Or is self-stigmatization a part of Central European identity? Is it being used as an excuse to avoid addressing real and pressing issues?

Periphery as a Fate?

Central Europe ponders its excluded position practically non-stop, and such a narrative has remained current for the last thirty years. In 1989, we were a forgotten periphery, which struggled for the opportunity to catch up with Western Europe, and eventually became a part of the European integration project. The slogan ‘Return to Europe’, found in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, bore the symbolism of transition from undemocratic structures to rule of law, from centrally planned deprivation to prosperity and affluence.

Thirty years later, the debates show no sign of waning. We still engage in discussions about our existence on the periphery, or perhaps more precisely, our provinciality. There are two aspects that mingle here, economic and moral. It is relatively easy to ascertain if one plays the second league as far as the economy is concerned, quantify the measures needed to be taken and work on closing the divide between unevenly developed corners of Europe. The debate on the moral periphery, on the other hand, goes hand in hand with the vision of the European Union we entertain, and whether we really want to catch up with Western Europe after all.

While per capita GDP of Central European countries has been catching up with other peripheral countries the traditional European regions from the north of Italy to Benelux countries are as far away as ever.

The fact that Central Europe economically lags behind their Western counterparts is a completely normal and simple fact that has had its reasons in history, and cannot be reversed after a few years of successful economic integration. While per capita GDP of Central European countries has been catching up with other peripheral countries, such as Greece or Portugal, the traditional European regions from the north of Italy to Benelux countries are as far away as ever.

What is more, we have never been well connected to these regions, be it through infrastructure, trading networks, cultural closeness or political decision-making. The European Union has many tools and policies at its disposal to address directly the uneven development between prosperous regions and less fortunate ones, but despite the efforts, the differences are vast. We could find many instances where Central and Eastern Europe fares significantly worse, be it lagging behind in productivity, in lack of world-class scientific research, or not having a single kilometer of high-speed railway.

Joining the EU resulted not only in unprecedented integration with westward regions, but in integration within Central Europe itself and in an outstripping of the legacy of the Austrian-Hungarian empire as well.

Yet thanks to its geographic location the region has a great potential to leave these economic backwaters. The central location, in the past a strategic and security liability, appears advantageous in the integrated whole. We should not forget that joining the EU resulted not only in unprecedented integration with westward regions, but in integration within Central Europe itself and in an outstripping of the legacy of the Austrian-Hungarian empire as well.

Thus it is possible to ascertain that despite its current peripheral economic status the states of Central Europe have great potential to move into top tier economies.

Where is the Moral Periphery?

The moral and political issue dealing with the fringe of Europe is a complex one, as it is difficult to pinpoint what and where the center towards which we are to relate actually is. Some critics of the current political development in the Visegrad Group countries claim we are drifting more and more towards the edges and are falling into the dark pits of provinciality. Others claim that Central Europe is currently at the vanguard of true ‘European values’ and assert a higher moral ground.

Criticism of political development in Central Europe often goes hand in hand with denouncing cooperation among V4 countries as an epitome of lack of solidarity and concern only for one’s own issues.

In such debates, the relationship between the center and its periphery serves as a mere tool to criticize others or extol our actions. Yet it is essential that we study how the identities of ‘the lagging periphery’, ‘the new avant-garde’, or ‘the cultural counter-revolution’ are created and which attributes they come to embody. It could be useful when attempting to explain the rift concerning the distribution of migrants and refugees in 2015, whose roots are nevertheless deeper.

Critics of political development in V4 countries point out weakened rule of law, stigmatization of minorities or the rule of conservative government a the attributes of the peripheral lagging behind. Quite often we hear that today we would not qualify to join the EU as we would not meet the Copenhagen criteria for new members. Criticism of political development in Central Europe often goes hand in hand with denouncing cooperation among V4 countries as an epitome of lack of solidarity and concern only for one’s own issues. Instead of asking why it is that the electorate supports such policies, as recent elections show, there are voices, namely in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, calling for an exit from the V4 group.

Yet such a step would not solve anything. First, it is necessary to convince our societies that a democratic and law-abiding state is more beneficial than any other alternative. Second, it is impossible to leave Central Europe, and if we want a different Visegrad, then we have to come up with a plausible alternative. The ‘Orbanization’ of the Visegrad group is occurring because other countries have allowed it. Third, as I have mentioned earlier, the integration of our region is a unique opportunity to overcome economic disparity. Closing the door on openness and integration would only bring more problems and difficulties.

The issue of whether Visegrad is an impediment to our civilizational development is tied to the politicization of this group. In 2015, when the refugee crisis suddenly hit Visegrad, cooperation became all the rage for all concerned politicians. Until that time it had been hovering at the fringes of their interests, yet with the rejection of the relocation quotas for asylum seekers, it became the trademark of regional cooperation and the push back against Brussels. It became a symbol of ‘common sense’ for many politicians and part of the public. V4 politicians often talk about mistakes committed by Western Europeans which they are not willing to make.

Unfortunately, today’s Visegrad leaders are fanning the conflict between the West and East within the EU. The aim of the Central Europe should be the exact opposite—bridging differences, deepening the cooperation.

In their view, today’s Western Europe is not worth following. The story of returning to the West ceased to be part of the political mainstream. On the contrary, politicians present ideological and cultural differences between the West and the Center East. This dichotomy is largely artificial, as Western and Central European societies are not monolithic blocks. As the recent polling shows, only Hungary’s policy-makers are optimistic about the importance of V4, with the Czech and Slovak ones being decidedly less so.

For a Europe without peripheries

The emancipation of Central Europe is not a misstep. On the contrary, it is a necessity. That is why it is important to consider the objectives our region aims to reach. If V4 wants to inspire, be a vector of positive change and push for openness that brings along prosperity and growth of our societies, then it can benefit itself and Europe as a whole. If, on the other hand, we decide to opt for the position of the oppressed periphery, which finds itself in permanent opposition toward the domineering center, without convincing Western Europeans about the merit of European integration, we could find ourselves in the position of an unwanted periphery, and be perhaps forgotten again.

In 2015, when the refugee crisis suddenly hit Visegrad, cooperation became all the rage for all concerned politicians. Until that time it had been hovering at the fringes of their interests.

Unfortunately, today’s Visegrad leaders are fanning the conflict between the West and the East within the EU. The aim of Central Europe should be the exact opposite—bridging differences, deepening the cooperation, so that we can achieve a Europe without peripheries.

Vít Dostál

is the Director of the AMO Research Center. He focuses on Czech foreign and European policy, Central European cooperation, and Polish foreign and domestic policy. He has worked for AMO since 2006. During that time he has authored or edited many publications dealing with Czech foreign policy and Central Europe. He actively represents AMO at conferences and in the media. Vít Dostál completed a doctoral program on European Studies at Masaryk University in Brno in 2017 with a dissertation on the “Paradiplomacy of Czech Regions—Regions as Actors of International Relations”. He did a study and work internships in Warsaw and Brussels.

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Current issue - 01/2020

Heart of Europe on the Periphery

Illiberal backsliding is getting stronger in Visegrad countries recently. Central Europe suffers from a complex of inferiority, they say. Is it a legitimate feeling? Discover the heart of Europe and its pounding chambers on the periphery.

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