Austrian experts: Central Europe is the future of Europe

Polish Premier Mateusz Morawiecki, interim Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis, Slovakian Premier Robert Fico and Hungarian Premier Viktor Orban hold a panel discussion during the meeting of the Heads of Government of the Visegrad Group (V4) countries in Varkert Bazaar in Budapest, Hungary, 26 January 2018. [EPA-EFE/SZILARD KOSZTICSAK HUNGARY OUT]

The relations of the Visegrád Four with many EU countries, as well as with Brussels, are currently very tense. Despite some differences of opinion, Austria is endeavouring to establish a good neighbourhood policy. EURACTIV Germany reports from Vienna.

Austria’s accession to the Visegrád Group is not up for discussion and enlargement is being rejected by the four states themselves. However, the Viennese government should maintain and intensify cooperation, the director of the Diplomatic Academy, Emil Brix, told EURACTIV in an interview.

Brix imagines that Austria might also involve one or two other EU countries – such as the Netherlands and a neutral state – into a special cooperation. Ireland, for example, which will be particularly affected by Brexit, should be brought more into the centre of Europe.

Iron Curtain separated Europe into two worlds

In the coming year, it will be 30 years since the Iron Curtain fell, starting with Hungary on June 27, 1989, along the border with Austria. At the time, the Austrian Foreign Minister Alois Mock and his Hungarian counterpart Gyula Horn symbolically and publicly cut through the barbed wire fence at Sopron, which had divided Europe for 40 years and separated the two political systems from Grense Jakobselv in the north of Norway to Trieste on the Adriatic.

The political term “Iron Curtain” was first mentioned in 1920 by the Briton Ethel Snowdon in her travelogue on Bolshevist Russia. Today, it is mostly attributed to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who telegraphed to U.S. President Harry S. Truman on 12 May 1945, that “from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent.”

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In 1989, the Cold War era came to an end and Europe began to grow together again. The people’s democracies turned away from Communism and from Moscow, changed into new democracies and wanted to join the European Union (and NATO).

This was accompanied by a change on the European map whose geopolitical importance for the EU has not yet received the weight it deserves. Brix, along with Erhard Busek, former Austrian vice-Chancellor and foreign minister who is now the head of the Institute for the Danube Region and Central Europe, are together calling for this recognition.

Central Europe has shifted to the East and Southeast

The book “Central Europe revisited”, recently published by Busek and Brix, says: “Central Europe has shifted East and Southeast since the end of the ideological East-West division of Europe. It fills again the entire space between Germany and Russia. Central Europe is the future of Europe”.

Emphasising the importance of paying more attention to Central Europe, the book says “nobody knows where exactly the journey is going.”

This can be seen, among other things, in the questioning of traditional ideas of democracy (by Orbán in Hungary), tendencies towards stronger leaders (Vučić in Serbia, Kaczyński in Poland), and the general weakening of democratic institutions (in which parties mutate into movements).

And the Internet too would not lead to the “final triumph of direct democracy,” but with “Facebook & Co. rather create instruments of aggressiveness, that lead to polarisation.”

No “Mexit” in the centre of Europe

Central Europe expert Busek, who maintains many contacts in the region, sees no danger of a “Mexit” in the centre of Europe. Poland, as well as Hungary, is dependent on EU support.

None of the Visegrád states wants to leave the community, but the attacks against their respective neighbours (and Brussels) have increased, according to the findings. Moreover, “before and after the fall of the Iron Curtain there have been undoubtfully more initiatives for the establishment of neighbourly relations than there are today.”

Austria opts for dialogue with the Visegrád four

Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is an irritation to many EU politicians. However, it is becoming clear that the new Austrian government relies on dialogue and wants to fulfil a “bridging function”. EURACTIV Germany reports from Vienna.

According to the authors, it is above all areas of science and culture, art and tourism, as well as infrastructure measures, that tolerate more intensive cooperation.

Engage against the divide of Europe

However, there is a lot of catching up to do when it comes to political rapprochement. In the public realm of the Central European states, the critique of the EU and of foreign influence is more and more on the rise. Whereby the critique is also often based on prejudices that are used by populist politicians to influence the electorate.

“It is important that the civil society of Central European countries strikes up the conversation about those topics,” reads the message of Busek and Brix. “The development of democracy in Central Europe will be more defining for the future of Europe than we have assumed until present. It has an impact on the functioning of the EU; on the future ideas of national identity and patriotism.”

Austria’s roadmap for its upcoming EU presidency

Brexit, the EU budget and security will be the three major priorities when Austria takes over the EU presidency in the second half of 2018, in what will be the final full presidency before all-important elections in May 2019. EURACTIV Germany reports from Vienna.

Austria takes on a special task here. On the one hand, because following the fall of the Iron Curtain, it has moved from the eastern edge of free Western Europe to the centre of the new Europe, and on the other, because of its traditionally and historically strong ties to this region.

“It is more important today than ever since the days of the Cold War to oppose the disappearance of the idea of Central Europe. Austria must stand up against this split in Europe. It is time for Austria to turn its attention more to Central Europe because only then can a truly common Europe emerge,” the book said.

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