Illiberal Remittances. Is Mass Migration and the Demise of the Myth of the West Fueling Populism in CEE?

Freedom of movement—particularly to travel and work in the “West”—was something Central Europeans dreamed of behind the Iron Curtain, and used to be given as the number one rationale for joining the EU. What if mass migration and democratic backsliding are not just coincidental? Are we overlooking the impact of personal experiences of the ‘West’ on CEE politics?

While Europe is always said to be in crisis, the recent rise in Eurosceptic attitudes and the increased prominence of populist and nationalist forces in parliaments and governments has sparked widespread concern among liberals. Commentators speak of ‘democratic backsliding’—the erosion of constitutional liberalism and an orientation toward illiberal and authoritarian hybrid regimes.

This trend is prominent in Central Europe, where democratic consolidation was arguably never fully completed. Viktor Orbán’s self-proclaimed illiberal Hungary, the indirect personal rule of Jarosław Kaczyński in Poland, and the gradual introduction of illiberal ‘innovation’ in the Czech Republic under president Miloš Zeman and oligarch-turned-prime-minister Andrej Babiš are only examples as other CEE countries are also struggling with the erosion of liberal democratic standards.

There are two common explanations for this backsliding. One emphasizes domestic dynamics, arguing that economic conditions, political culture, and other supply and demand factors have worked together to bring illiberal forces to power.¹ The other focuses on the simultaneous emergence of similar developments in different countries. The concept of ‘authoritarian diffusion’ attempts to capture this phenomenon,² along with looser notions of a ‘Trump effect’ (even though CEE backsliding surely began before Donald Trump took office), or the invocation of some populist Zeitgeist haunting Europe.

Both domestic and transnational factors surely matter. What is striking, however, is the rather simplistic image of European politics and of the European Union as a set of easily separable polities and national societies. Both above explanations largely ignore the multi-level nature of EU governance and the degree of contact and exchange between European citizens, including perhaps the most significant ‘channel’ of East-West exchange in the past two decades: migration.

Chase the West or Move to the West?

Following the well-known, symbolic scenes of 1989: Poland’s semi-democratic election, Imre Nagy’s reinterment in Budapest, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the key-ringing crowds in Prague’s Wenceslas Square, a no less symbolic journey had begun. Its culmination in political terms was Central European countries’ European Union accession in 2004 and 2007.

In the context of a ‘return to Europe’, the mass wave of migrations that followed was portrayed in positive terms, not as a response to high unemployment and economic deprivation at home.

For the new EU members, or at least for much of their elites, the Eastern Enlargement was finally undoing the Yalta division of Europe. For decades, domestic dissidents as well as political exiles—most famously the Czech writer Milan Kundera, but also his compatriot Jaroslav Šabata, the Slovak intellectual Milan Šimecka, the Hungarians György Schöpflin and Mihály Vajda, the Polish activist Jacek Kuroń or exile writer Juliusz Mieroszewski—tried to cast ‘Central Europe’ not so much as a cultural space, but as a geopolitical project with a non-Eastern political identity.³ The “return to Europe” provided the master narrative, and the process leading to accession was characterized by high levels of Euro-enthusiasm among CEE societies.

While 2004 and 2007 marked the end of one journey, it was also the beginning of another one, less symbolic, more real—mass migration. Almost overnight, CEE countries became the most important senders of migrants to Western and Northern Europe (the EU15 as well as Norway or Iceland), with the peak number of people moving there reaching an astonishing six million. A whole ‘continent moving West’.4

A Divisive Exodus

In the context of a “return to Europe”, the mass wave of migrations that followed was portrayed in positive terms, not as a response to high unemployment and economic deprivation at home, but as an opportunity for improving life chances in the West. That ‘European dream’ coming true was coupled with the dominant vision of intra-European migrations as ‘fluid’ and largely temporary. You go, you see, you earn, and you come back. Everyone wins.

Parts of the host populations shared these latter hopes, since the ‘European dream’ of ‘Eastern’ migrants was immediately reinterpreted as a possible nightmare of ‘Western’ societies, personified by the Polish plumber arriving to take their jobs.

Fifteen years since the Eastern Enlargement, we know surprisingly little about the impact this divisive exodus had on intra-European relations. Symptomatically, Thomas Risse’s landmark work on European identity does not even mention intra-EU diasporas, although it pays considerable attention to the impact of the enlargement on European identity.5

From Liberal Democracy with Love

Yes, the impact of migrants on the host countries has received attention, particularly in the context of the Brexit vote where CEE migrants were turned into a scapegoat. What we are only beginning to realize is the scale and nature of the influence this massive migration wave had on the sending societies. New EU member states have to deal with the fact that a large share of their populations suddenly resides abroad. In absolute terms, Romania, with ca. 3 million, and Poland, ca. 2 million emigrants, were the largest contributors, but perhaps relative numbers capture impact better. Migration rates vary from 5% of the population of the Czech Republic to nearly a fifth of the populations of Latvia (17%) and Lithuania (19.9%).6 Most of those who moved left someone behind: spouses, children, boyfriends and girlfriends, parents. Taken together, this makes post-2004 migration a generational experience for almost all CEE societies.

It was assumed that when exposed to life in mature democracies and welfare states, CEE migrants would—whether they settled or returned to their country of origin—integrate themselves into a ‘European way of life’.

Apart from financial gains, an important element emphasized by the pro-European, liberal CEE elites was the foreseen socialization of migrants into European values and political practices. It was assumed that when exposed to life in mature democracies and welfare states, CEE migrants would—whether they settled or returned to their country of origin—integrate themselves into a ‘European way of life’.

Indeed, some research on diasporas confirms this belief, suggesting that through settling in a consolidated democracy, migrants from less consolidated transitional regimes might internalize values and adopt the practices of their hosts, and in turn “remit democracy home”.7 Much like exiles and Western charities before 1989, contemporary migrants were to send gifts and parcels eastwards—also in the form of ideas of how ‘good governance’ works.

The idea of democratic remittances does not translate unproblematically to the context of contemporary Europe. Democratic remittances are as probable as are illiberal remittances.

Migration researchers have shown that the experience of emigration to a consolidated democracy increases migrants’ satisfaction with democracy,8 even though some may have minimal contact with the host society, e.g. because they do not know the language, and financial success may be a factor here.9 Those experiences can then lead to ‘democratic remittances’ as migrants return or share their experience with families and friends back home.

Yet, a passing look at the empirical evidence suggests that the idea of democratic remittances does not translate unproblematically to the context of contemporary Europe. The CEE diasporas living in Western and Northern Europe, once hailed as the vanguard of liberalism in terms of their political preferences as expressed in sending country elections (e.g. the 2007 Polish snap election where migrants were said to contribute to ousting Kaczyńskis’ Law and Justice), now appear much more heterogeneous.

Poland’s 2015 election saw a surprising shift, where the diaspora supported right-wing populists and nationalists to a much greater extent than did voters at home. The same was true for Latvians in 2018.10 And while a number of disclaimers are due: the diaspora turnout is extremely low, and hardly representative for the entire migrant population; it varies geographically within and across receiving and sending countries; demographic factors play a role; the vote is volatile etc.—what we can surely say is that democratic remittances are as probable as are illiberal remittances.

Democratic remittances presuppose a clear hierarchy, with a superior host country (or region), which appears and feels ‘better’ than the home left behind. The illiberal sway among migrants can be due to the fact that the West’s superiority is no longer a political and cultural axiom at home, and that personal experiences can bring disenchantment as much as fascination or mere satisfaction.

A Return to Where?

Central European dissident intellectuals tried to challenge the East/West divide in different ways—by moving Central Europe closer to the West, like Kundera, or by dissolving the demarcation line and making Central Europe a bridge between two zones, like Šabata and Mieroszewski. However, their heretical geopolitical project has been completely derailed. The division lives on, but what does seem to fade is another feature of Cold War imagery—the myth of the ‘West’.

“In the thirty years of post-communism”—argues Jarosław Kuisz—the citizens of Visegrad countries have never been closer or more similar to western Europeans than they are today, in terms of their material status or the functioning of state institutions. Yet there can be no doubt that something significant has changed in recent years. This is simply that in the Visegrad countries, the post-communist myth about the West has lost the power to convince”.11

To be sure, in Central and Eastern Europe there was always a duality of intellectual traditions, as far as the relationship with the West is concerned. On the one hand, there were those who either wanted to imitate or to learn from the West, and they remained in constant struggle with those, who took pride in not being like the Westerners. Zapadniki and the Slavophiles in Russia are perhaps the best-known examples, but such internal cleavages existed across Central Europe. In Poland they go back as far as the seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries, and the struggle between the Westernizers and the Sarmatians.

Ideological pedigrees aside, what is important is that for the first time in post-War history, in many formerly Westward-looking societies of CEE, the ultimately positive connotation of ‘the West’ is losing ground and political majorities are able to say legitimately: we do not want to belong to the West. “We will always be an Eastern land”—claimed Marek Magierowski, the state secretary to Poland’s president Andrzej Duda.12

Invisibility and Resentment

Where is this demise of the myth of the West coming from? Among political elites, it obviously has many sources. Part of the rhetorical turn to a newly imagined ‘East’ is a strategic response to the criticism CEE’s politicians deviating from liberal democratic norms have received. For years ‘What will Europe say’ was the ultimate disciplining phrase, allowing pro-Western elites to keep opponents at bay. Shaming and blaming, based on invocations of Western values and ideals, was still visibly effective during Law and Justice’s first term in office in 2005-2007.

Since ‘catching up with the West’ was a universally accepted paradigm, and liberal elites were unanimous with their open fascination (it was ‘sheer bliss’, Donald Tusk said of his first trip behind the Iron Curtain), challengers were powerless. Illiberal politicians learned their lesson, however, and understood that instead of being penalized for breaking them, they can refuse to accept the rules altogether. Much like East-Asian autocracies of the 1990s, who responded to human rights pressure with the discourse of ‘Asian values’, Central Europe’s populists built their narrative on an affirmation of the local ways (close to ‘the people’), and the rebuttal of any ‘foreign’ elite impositions.13

For the first time in post-War history, in many formerly Westward-looking societies of CEE, the ultimately positive connotation of “the West” is losing ground.

The economic and social problems that Western Europe faces, and the relative improvement of living standards, pointed out by Kuisz, certainly do not help in maintaining the West’s mythical superiority.

There is another part to this story, however, that of personal experiences, even more important in the context of mass migration. Populist political elites also seem to be prone to a broader disenchantment with the West. Poland’s prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, formerly a successful financial CEO, was speaking of his own encounters with Western Europe in terms of disappointment, in which high hopes for recognition met with disinterest.14 Emotional resentment is easily channelled towards populist politics.

While CEE migrants are often described as ‘invisible minorities’, which supposedly puts them in a more privileged position than that of most non-European migrants, like in Morawiecki’s account, they can feel ‘invisible’ through the lack of recognition they feel they deserve and not being treated as part of the in-group, where they feel they belong. This was particularly visible in the accounts of post-Brexit CEE migrants, complaining that Indian or Pakistani minorities were not threatened by the ‘Leave’ vote, not able to comprehend why ‘they’ feel more at home in Britain than ‘we’— white, Christian, Europeans.

Disenchantment and the peculiar migrant experience

Recent ethnographic studies of EU diasporas suggest that there might be a causal mechanism in play, neither directly linked to demographics nor to conscious political agency. Drawing on first-hand accounts, some authors have identified shame, resentment and disenchantment as key emotional drivers of the migration experience.15 It fuels a broader disenchantment: with host countries, migration, and more broadly with Europe and ‘the West’.

I use disenchantment rather than disillusionment to underline the quasi-messianic character of the geopolitical ‘return to Europe’ narrative, which was put to test by the Eastern Enlargement. For Kees Van Kersbergen, quasi-messianism concerns the “visionary anticipation of a better world that is attainable” which accords politics “an enchanting quality”.16 This disenchantment is triggered in situations involving a discrepancy between the real and anticipated levels of welfare, prosperity, social status, but also the subjective sense of belonging to the West.17

The most telling example of just how outdated the ‘European dream’ has become and how naïve it seems to many who actually lived through it, is the backlash against the words of Poland’s then-first lady, Anna Komorowska, who suggested that “emigration is a chance” and should not “be treated as a drama”.18 A phrase that would most likely be uncritically accepted in 2005 was used as yet additional evidence of the liberal elite’s ‘detachment’, and effectively used in the populist electoral campaign that swept her husband and his party out of power.

Migrants often face social degradation, at least in the initial phase of their settling in a new country. They land in a lower social stratum, often working below their qualifications. As the lowest-paid jobs are in many countries dominated by other migrants, before the Enlargement mostly non-European, on top of disenchantment, many CEE migrants live through a very particular experience of the host society, detached both from the image of home countries left behind, and from the actual image of host countries that most their residents hold.

Many CEE migrants live through a very particular experience of the host society, detached both from the image of home countries left behind, and from the actual image of host countries that most their residents hold.

This peculiar experience is much more aligned with far-right stories of an ‘Islamization of Europe’, absurd as they may appear to middle-class Westerners, and overall contribute to the further undermining of Western symbolic superiority. Nativist and far-right radicalization can be the outcome, feeding on disenchantment and misperception. To be fair, host countries in the West do very little to limit that, since intra-EU migration is often not seen as an object of conscious integration policies.

Unfortunately, due to the scale of CEE migration, this skewed experience is not only limited to the migrants themselves—it can be diffused to their broader social network. The scale and nature of this phenomenon requires much research by anthropologists, human geographers, sociologists and political scientists. For now, we can only conclude that it is plausible that a broad, multi-dimensional disenchantment with the West, to which mass migration greatly contributes, is among the factors fueling far-right and populist tendencies. Liberal elites both in sending and host countries can no longer overlook the nuanced migration experience, including illiberal remittances and the personal burdens emigration involves.


  1. Ben Stanley, Populism in Central and Eastern Europe. In Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser, Paul A. Taggart, Paulina Ochoa Espejo and Pierre Ostiguy (eds.), Oxford Handbook of Populism, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017, pp. 140-160.
  2. Aron Buzogány (2017): Illiberal Democracy in Hungary. Authoritarian Diffusion or Domestic Causation? In Democratization 24 (7): 1307–1325.
  3. Kacper Szulecki (2015) Heretical Geopolitics of Central Europe. Dissident Intellectuals and an Alternative European Order. Geoforum 65: 25-36.
  4. A Continent Moving West? EU Enlargement and Labour Migration from Central and Eastern Europe, edited by Richard Black, Godfried Engbersen, Marek Okólski and Christina Pantîru, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2010. www.imiscoe.org/publications/library/search/2-imiscoe-research-series/15-a-continent-moving-west
  5. Thomas Risse (2010): A Community of Europeans? Transnational Identities and Public Spheres. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
  6. Magdalena Lesińska (2016) Polityczna rola diaspory na przykładzie krajów Europy Środkowo-Wschodniej. Politeja (13): 77–98.
  7. Clarisa Pérez-Armendáriz and David Crow (2009): Do Migrants Remit Democracy? International Migration, Political Beliefs, and Behavior in Mexico. Comparative Political Studies 43 (1), pp. 119–148
  8. Romana Careja and Patrick Emmenegger (2011): Making Democratic Citizens: The Effects of Migration Experience on Political Attitudes in Central and Eastern Europe. Comparative Political Studies 45 (7), pp. 875–902.
  9. William Mishler and Richard Rose (2001). What Are the Origins of Political Trust? Testing Institutional and Cultural Theories in Post-communist Societies. Comparative Political Studies, 34(1), 30–62.
  10. Aija Lulle, 2018, Welcome to the Geography of Populism: The Diaspora Vote in the UK during the 2018 Latvian Elections, LSE EUROPP Blog.
  11. Jarosław Kuisz, The Two Faces of European Disillusionment. An End to Myths about the West and the East, Eurozine, 1 April 2019.
  12. ‘Zawsze będziemy krajem Wschodu: Z Markiem Magierowskim rozmawia Łukasz Pawłowski’, Kultura Liberalna, 24/05/2016
  13. Aleksander Kaczorowski, Returning to the East, Aspen Review, N. 4, 2019, pp. 6-7. Also: György Schöpflin, Europe after Thirty Years, a Long Chapter of Misperceptions? Aspen Review, N. 4, 2019, pp. 19-23; Kacper Szulecki, ‘Conclusion: Can Dissidentism Explain Post-Dissident Politics?’, in Dissidents in Communist Central Europe: Human Rights and the Emergence of New Transnational Actors, London: Palgrave, 2019, pp. 207-229.
  14. Keynote speech by Polish Deputy Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki at the 10th Congress of Polish Student Societies in the UK, hosted by Jarosław Kuisz. Available at: www.youtube.com/watch?v=2t538Oc7yqU
  15. See: Marek Pawlak, Zawstydzona tożsamość. Emocje, ideologie i władza w życiu polskich migrantów w Norwegii. Kraków: Wyd. UJ, 2018. Also: Elżbieta Hołdyńska, Emigracja Ambicji. Poznań: Zysk i S-ka, 2017.
  16. Kees Van Kersbergen, (2010) Quasi-Messianism and the Disenchantment of Politics. In Politics and Religion, 3(1): 28–54, here 28.
  17. Marta Bivand Erdal and Aleksandra Lewicki (2015) Moving Citizens: Citizenship Practices among Polish migrants in Norway and the United Kingdom, Social Identities, 22:1, 112-128; Marek Pawlak (2013): Trust, Reciprocity and Mistrust. The Pragmatics of Living Mobile Lives between Poland and Norway, [in:] J. Kulpinska et al. (eds.), EuroEmigrants, Kraków: Wydawnictwo PAU: 1-19.
  18. „Anna Komorowska: Emigracja to nie zawsze dramat. To szansa”, Gazeta Wyborcza, 15 May 2015.

Kacper Szulecki

is a researcher at the Department of Political Science at the University of Oslo and member of the editorial board of the Polish weekly “Kultura Liberalna”. He holds a PhD from Konstanz and an MSc from VU Amsterdam. His research is mostly on European politics, most important energy and climate policy, as well as transnational diffusion, protest movements, and dissent. An ex-pat for over thirteen years, he currently leads the project “DIASPOlitic: Understanding the Political Dynamics of Émigré Communities in an Era of European Democratic Backsliding”, financed by the Research Council of Norway.

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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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