Central Europe’s Multispeed Dilemma (6/12)     Print Email

By Joseph Bebel, Washington DC

In the wake of the Brexit referendum, the European Commission published a white paper on the future of Europe. The document detailed five scenarios for moving the European Union forward in its future integration efforts. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker framed the paper as a starting point “for a united Europe of 27 to shape a vision for its future.” The white paper begins the process for EU27 to determine a coherent course of action before European Parliamentary elections in June 2019.

In their response to the publication, a number of European leaders bolstered the scenario entitled “Those Who Want More Do More.”[1] At a summit in Versailles, the leaders of Germany, France, Spain, and Italy all supported a multispeed Europe model, signaling their solidarity in moving the European Project forward. President Francois Hollande of France strongly encouraged this “new form of cooperation” and German Chancellor Angela Merkel supported the idea as “necessary” for the EU to move forward.

In Central Europe, the Visegrad nations[2] (Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic) responded to the “Big Four’s” support with their joint statement “Strong Europe – Union of Action and Trust.” The statement claimed the old paradigm of more Europe “obsolete” and called instead for a new focus on developing a “strong Europe.” The Visegrad states discredited notions of a multispeed Europe, instead proposing a Europe of “mutual respect,” where “regardless of the speed of integration,” every nation “pull[s] in one direction.”

The main concern coming from the Visegrad nations is that through a multispeed Europe, their interests and influence would be sidelined within the European Union. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the leader of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS), stipulates that a multi-speed Europe means “downgrading” some to an “inferior category of members.” While Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has declared that there “cannot be” a multispeed Europe that would create a “first-class [and] second-class” Europe. Kaczynski sums up the attitude of the region in stating that multispeed Europe will result in the “liquidation of the European Union” as it currently functions.

In 1990, the fall of the Soviet Union jump-started a “return to Europe” by Central European countries. By 2004, many of these nations had successfully established fully-functioning liberal democracies and market economies. Membership in the EU and NATO also reflected their successful “return to Europe”.

At first, the Visegrad nations were decidedly optimistic about their future in Europe. At a celebration of Poland’s EU membership, then-President Aleksander Kwasniewski announced that Poland had officially returned to its “European family.” In a 2004 official declaration, the Visegrad nations lauded their membership in NATO and the EU as a “significant step” towards the reunification of Europe and pledged to support the “successful continuation” of European integration.

Since that time, however, difficulties have arisen within the regional bloc. Initial economic growth has given way to economic strains as portions of the population are beginning to feel “left behind.” A recent OECD report shows Slovakia and the Czech Republic leading in the share of jobs that are at risk of being lost to automation. As of 2016, purchasing power parity (PPP) was well below the EU average (100%) in Slovakia (77%), Poland (69%), Hungary (68%), and the Czech Republic (58%). Populist politicians on the right and the left argue that Brussels has overpromised and under-delivered to these former Soviet-bloc nations. As Former Hungarian PM Ferenc Gyurcsany puts it, “People thought we would have the same living standards as Austrians or Britons.”

The worst refugee crisis since WWII has also caused serious divisions. While the region does not always agree, all four nations have vehemently opposed EU refugee quotas. Visegrad leaders argue that it is not their responsibility to house migrants, but rather to protect “Fortress Europe.” PM Orban calls migrants “poison” as they pose a serious “public security risk.” Slovak PM Robert Fico has even stated that he will prevent the creation of a “coherent Muslim community” within his nation. Against the backdrop of rising xenophobia and islamophobia, the central bloc has reignited efforts to increase its influence and voice in Brussels.

Beyond the economic and refugee issues, the governments of Viktor Orban in Hungary and Kaczynski-led PiS in Poland continue to move towards increasingly illiberal democracies and there issome concern that Slovakia may not be far behind. While Euroscepticism is not as high in the Czech Republic, upcoming elections may push the government in the direction of Hungary and Poland.

Nonetheless, the EU believes the best way forward is to do so with a “coalition of the willing.” Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has stressed the need for a flexible EU where “different degrees of policy integration can coexist successfully.” Doing so would allow other countries to take care of their own issues and then hopefully catch up with those who are prepared to further integrate at a faster pace. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that this would happen. Yet, former French President Hollande, argues that “unity does not mean uniformity” and for the time being much of Europe agrees with him.

The biggest perceived advantage of a multispeed Europe is the ability of most member states to work together on solving continental problems. For the Visegrad nations, one positive would be the ability to take a “pragmatic” approach to European integration. The Visegrad bloc has insisted they are not truly Euroscpetic, but rather Eurorealist. That is, they do not advocate the break-up of the EU, but rather desire the freedom for their nations to integrate at their own pace. Initiating multispeed Europe would give these nations that flexibility. These nations would still be a part of Europe, but without feeling forced to conform to a “one size fits all” model. If carried out properly, multispeed Europe may give these countries exactly what they want.

However, multispeed Europe will most certainly weaken the influence of the Visegrad states. Juncker has tried to alleviate concerns in assuring that multispeed EU would not be a new “iron curtain” between East and West. Yet, many are unconvinced.

While many see multispeed Europe as the way forward for the EU, a growing divergence between public sentiment and Eurosceptic governments tells a different story. A recent Special Eurobarometer reports that citizens in Poland (80%), Slovakia (74%), Hungary (62%), and the Czech Republic (60%) all have a positive view of the EU. Protests have broken out in Hungary and Poland opposing government policies seen as anti-democratic and anti-EU. As public support for the EU is remarkably high in these countries, governing parties will have to work more closely with the EU or risk losing domestic support.

Additionally, these countries are quite reliant on EU funds. Part of the appeal for multispeed Europe is that the core group of member states can move forward without “unruly” members. Still, Brussels has leverage. Between 2014 and 2020, Poland alone will receive almost 83 billion euros in EU aid. In 2016, EU funds accounted for over 6% of Hungary’s GDP. As such, the EU can continue to use funding as motivation for these nations to support future integration. As the Visegrad bloc continues to rely on EU funding, Brussels can ensure that these “unruly” members join future efforts of integration.

Indeed, the Commission’s white paper’s scenario “Doing Less More Efficiently” could prove more effective for the region. Under this option, members states agree on which policy areas they are prepared to deepen integration, and then focus efforts on establishing thorough and effective integration in those areas. In their statement on a Union of Action and Trust, the Visegrad nations recommend starting with strengthening the single market, ensuring the future integrity of the Schengen Area, and developing a European common defense mechanism that is complimentary to NATO. According to EU opinion polls, these three areas have the highest public support for future integration.

A renewed policy vision for the EU is necessary for future progress. A vision founded in solidarity, not tiers, is essential for the bloc to achieve its newly proclaimed goal of “unity in diversity.”

Joseph Bebel is an Editorial Assistant for European Affairs.

[1]The five scenarios include: “Carrying On”; “Nothing but the Single Market”; “Those Who Want More Do More”; “Doing Less More Efficiently”; “Doing Much More Together.”

[2]So named after a meeting of Czechoslovak, Polish, and Hungarian leaders held in Visegrad, Hungary in 1991.

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