Challenge for V4 to avoid ending on periphery of changing EU, says Harvard’s Grzegorz Ekiert

Grzegorz Ekiert, photo: archive of Harvard University

Grzegorz Ekiert is director of the Center for European Studies at Harvard University. An expert on democratisation, the Polish-born political scientist recently gave a talk at Prague’s Václav Havel Library exploring the unraveling of the pro-European consensus in the Visegrad states and the major challenges facing the region. Our conversation – which took place prior to the UK’s seismic Brexit vote – began with the issue of how ready Central and Eastern European states were for democracy when communism collapsed.

Grzegorz Ekiert,  photo: archive of Harvard University
“We had the impression at that time that those countries were not ready at all after so many decades of communist rule and destruction of all the democratic traditions and institutions, the lack of civil society and so on.

“The common idea among intellectuals who were studying the region was that it would take many, many decades for those countries to really become democracies.

“Ralf Dahrendorf said that in probably the most powerful way. He said that to have democracy in Eastern Europe you need three things: You need to have democratic institutions and that can be done very quickly. You put the lawyers together and you will write a democratic constitution in a year or so.

“Then, he said, you need a market economy, and this will take maybe 10 years. But then you need civil society and it will take a generation.

“So he was thinking that maybe in 60 years those countries would be ready for democracy.

“Of course, we know that this was not true. At least some of those countries democratised very fast and built credible democratic institutions with quite amazing speed.

“They also moved very quickly to a market economy and we discovered that those Eastern Europeans who never had that tradition under communist rule very quickly adapted to that kind of situation – and were quite successful.”

If we accept that a lot of the potential to become and remain fully-fledged liberal democracies hasn’t really been fulfilled by some of these countries, can we say when and how things started to go wrong?

“The first thing that should be mentioned is that we start to see the decline after those countries joined the European Union. And I think this is not an accidental thing.

“It’s not about joining the EU per se: It’s about the loss of a big collective project.

“Those societies for a number of years had huge challenges, one after the other, which needed to be solved.

Photo: European Commission
“The first was to extricate themselves from the communist system. Then to build democracy, to build a market economy, then to join Europe, which was a very complicated affair with adjustments of various kinds and so on.

“So this was a huge project. And suddenly, after 2004, there were no projects any more.

“Those societies were told, OK, you accomplished incredible things, now relax and enjoy.

“Of course, this is not a good idea. Societies need projects, societies need challenges, to be dynamic, to be entrepreneurial and so on.

“So I think the nationalists used that vacuum of big ideas and debates about the future and stepped in with nationalist ideologies, with populist economic ideas, and are turning those countries back in quite significant ways. That’s number one.

“Number two of course is the issue of the crisis of the European Union. For the last four or five decades, the European integration project was kind of invincible.

“There was no idea that it could be stopped at any point. And suddenly the crisis, which started in 2009, really put the whole project in doubt.

“That opened the space for those critics of European integration, for people who don’t like European ideas, who don’t like liberal politics.

“They sensed an opportunity. And what you see in countries in both Western and Eastern Europe today are those movements and groups, far left in Western Europe and far right in Central Europe, which are using the opportunity to build political support and to take government, like in Hungary and Poland.”

Some people would say that a lot of citizens in countries like Poland and Hungary have benefited hugely from EU membership – why doesn’t that influence their thinking about the EU?

“I think the amount of benefits transferred from the West to the East is unprecedented in history.

“When you look at the numbers, that support is something like 3 percent of GDP every year.

“If you live in those countries and you remember how they looked 20 years ago, you see that it is a completely new world and it was built not with monies coming from these countries but with money from the EU.

Photo: European Commission
“Of course everything has something to do with politics and I think that politicians in Poland and in Hungary did not acknowledge the support they got from the EU.

“The EU is of course a very easy target, as we see in Western Europe, in England, and in Central Europe.

“Today it is very easy to criticise and belittle and there are a lot of people who specialise in doing this.

“In a way I think it’s a paradox – because nobody benefited so much from relations with the EU than the countries of the new member states.

“But when you look at the public opinion polls, 70 percent of the people in Poland and pretty much the same number in Hungary are supportive of the EU.

“When you listen to politicians, you think nobody supports the EU. So I think there is a disparity between the public general support for Europe and the political elite’s project, which is becoming very much anti-European.”

Is there a sense that some forces like anti-Westernism, anti-Americanism, were dormant for two decades but they have somehow been reactivated in recent, or very recent, years?

“What is activated really is anti-liberalism. It’s not really anti-Americanism.

“Anti-Americanism is fashionable among European intellectual elites, but it never had much ground in Central Europe.

“As a matter of fact it was one of the bones of contention between East European and West European intellectuals in many debates which happened over the last 30 or 40 years.

“This is not anti-West, because these countries like Hungary and Poland, and of course the Czech Republic and the Baltics, were always in the Western orbit.

“We got our cultural traditions from there, our art, our science, our medicine and so on.

“This is not your typical Russian idea of living in a completely different civilisation – it is a really pro-West European part of the continent.

“But there are forces in those countries, quite significant ones, as we see today, which really don’t like liberal ideas.

“They don’t like liberal market economies, they don’t like liberal societies with inclusive political communities, with support for various styles of life and various ethnic identities.

Vladimir Putin,  photo: World Economic Forum,  CC BY-SA 2.0
“People don’t appreciate those sorts of ideas. Very often, as in the case of Poland, the Polish Catholic Church steps in and is very vocal against those kind of influences coming from the West to Poland, as corrupting of the Polish national soul, undermining Catholicism, and so on.

“So this is anti-liberalism – not anti-Western types of ideas.”

How much is the aggressive approach of Putin’s Russia impacting politics in Central and Eastern Europe?

“This is a complicated story. Because traditionally you have various relationships between the countries of Central and Southern Europe and Russia.

“So there is of course the long-standing disagreement and conflict between Poles and Russians; I’m not talking about the nations but the governments.

“You don’t have that in Bulgaria. Or Slovakia. So this is one level of diversity that exists.

“On the other hand, what Putin has done over the last couple of years – invading Ukraine and annexing Crime – is a flagrant violation of all the treaties that have been signed since the end of WWII and the biggest geopolitical challenge Europe has faced. So there is that element in it.

“Of course any decent, democratic government should be condemning that kind of reversal in managing international affairs in Europe.

“Very often countries like Hungary today, for example, are trying to play the Russian card, just to annoy the European Commission and Germany.

“And as a matter of fact what Putin is doing in Europe today is endangering European stability and should be treated with utmost concern.”

It’s a little difficult for me to ask my next question because the Brexit vote hasn’t happened yet and this interview is going out afterwards. But do you think Europe is on the ropes right now?

“Anyone watching European politics has that sense. The moment when one of the key countries of the EU is contemplating an exit from the EU is something which should concern everyone.

“But one thing is certain, regardless of whether the Brits stay or go – it is going to be a very different EU a decade from now than it is today.

“And I think that if Central European countries are not careful enough, they may well end up on the wrong side of the new EU.”

If the Brits do vote to leave the EU, is there a danger of some kind of domino effect with other countries at least considering leaving?

Photo: CTK
“I don’t think so. Because places which have received billions of dollars from the EU are not likely to exit.

“The commitment of Germany to the EU is firm and solid, and I can’t imagine that they could say goodbye to the EU.

“France, Italy or Spain do not a have real credible policy to survive outside of the EU. So no, I don’t think so.

“But I think we are going to have an EU which will be very much divided.

“It will have a core which will be centred on the Eurozone. And this EU is going to have a periphery, which is going to end up very badly.

“Really, what is the big challenge for Central Europe, for the Visegrad Four, at this point is to make sure that they will be at the core of the EU.

“Because being at the periphery will not be a pretty thing politically, and it will be damaging economically.”