The next presidential elections in Poland and the legislative polls in Slovakia and Hungary should strengthen the extremes, said Jacques Rupnik, a researcher at Sciences Po, at a debate organised by the 'Club Grande Europe' in Paris.
"There has been a real rise of populism and nationalism in Central Europe since these countries joined the EU," Rupnik added.
The debate also focused on communication failures between East and West.
"In 1989, I was told that I was an East European. Before that, I thought I was just European," Estonian film-maker Ilmar Raag commented ironically. "Even before 1989, I was already sure I was a Westerner," he added, referring to the times when he was a citizen of the then Soviet Republic of Estonia.
"Before 1989, belonging to Europe was claimed throughout the region," agreed Rupnik.
Magda Szabo, artistic director of the Hungarian Institute in Paris, said that instead of 'enlargement', the term 'rebuilding Europe' should have been retained.
Soon after the fall of communism, the dominant political discourse radically changed or even took the opposite direction. "European integration has been perceived in this region as a threat to national identity and sovereignty," Rupnik claimed.
This phenomenon was illustrated by the low turnout in the June 2009 EU elections and the good results of nationalist parties in those polls, speakers said.
Perceptions of the EU remain ambiguous in these countries, Josef Bator, a professor at Comenius University in Slovakia explained. "The continued support for membership expressed in polls in Slovakia should be seen against the background of the declining turnout in elections," he said.
"We should wonder about the causes of this disease," said the Hungarian Institute's Szabo. "Only 400,000 voters from a population of eight million voted" in the European Parliament elections last year, she said in reference to Hungary.
"The election result is not necessarily related to the country's EU accession, but rather to the gradual decomposition of the state and the collapse of confidence in institutions," Szabo added. "The crisis has also worsened economic disappointment in my country, but Europe is not found guilty. The onus is put on globalisation" she said. "There was an internal crisis before the recession," she insisted.
'A real danger for the future'
According to a recent survey conducted by the Median institute, the party of former Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán (65%) should win the legislative elections in April 2010, ahead of the Socialist Party (20%) and the far-right Jobbik party (10%).
"There is a real danger for the future," said Szabo.
The austerity measures introduced by the current government to fight the crisis will lead Hungarians to vote massively for the right and extreme right, which have said they will remove the most painful measures put in place by the government so it could benefit from EU help (EurActiv 14/04/09).
A similar scenario, with a reversed political situation, is also expected in Slovakia in June. The current ruling coalition in Bratislava, headed by Prime Minister Robert Fico's social democrats Smer-SD alongside nationalists LS-HZDS and small xenophobic party SNS, is in pole position ahead of the upcoming legislative elections.
In Poland, the last-minute withdrawal of Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who has announced he will not participate in the presidential elections in autumn 2010, could pave the way for outgoing populist President Lech Kaczyński's PiS party to win the vote.
"The distrust towards political institutions is so high in Poland among young people that they do not vote any more," said Rupnik. "But the major achievement of the past 20 years remains for them the opening to Europe, and they are ready to mobilise if their European freedoms are in danger," he insisted.