In the next seven years Central Europe will determine the future of Europe

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Children dance during a party celebrating the end of the Hungarian presidency of the V4 or Visegrad Group countries in a square in Budapest, Hungary, 30 June 2018. [Tamas Kovacs/EPA/EFE]

Central Europe could become more positive to the core EU in the likely case of another major economic crisis, which would oblige them to marry the eurozone family, writes Wojciech Przybylski, who also looks at several other, more dramatic, scenarios for the region.

Wojciech Przybylski is the editor-in-chief of Visegrad Insight. The op-ed is based on the report Central European Futures: Five Scenarios for 2025, by Visegrad/Insight and the German Marshall Fund of the US.

This fall, exactly the same day as Poland’s president paid a visit to the White House asking for more US commitment in defence of Central Europe, Viktor Orbán – an ideological ally and mentor or the Polish government – visited Vladimir Putin pledging Hungarian commitment to Russian interests in the region. That is confusing, and not only to the foreign observers.

For the first time since 2004, Central Europe needs a new strategic direction. The liberal certainty that defined its recent path from the enlargement of NATO to their accession to the EU is no more.

The last time Central Europeans had a discussion on their strategic direction was fifteen years ago. The urgency is real as the achievements of the last decades may be at stake, given the uncertainties of the EU’s future and the geopolitical order.

A group of new generation thinkers from the region developed five alternative scenarios regarding future developments and it is time for the people of the region to discuss the options.

The rationale for the exercise is simple: whichever future unfolds in the V4, it is likely to have a large impact on the rest of the continent. Currently, about 40% of the Visegrad Group’s total trade is with Germany.

This level of economic interdependence translates into a new level of political engagement. Even though France, for strategic reasons, will remain the most important partner for Germany on the continent, Central Europe has recently become a significant influencer of Germany’s future course.

Germany looks at the V4 with understandable concern because no one has figured out yet, including the governments in those countries, the strategic objectives of the group. With no clarity on strategic objectives, the unpredictability increases and it is both easy and dangerous to assume only one doomsday scenario.

By now, the level of integration of regional economies, societies and political institutions within the Western world is so strong that the path the region may take will project an influence on the course of events in the rest of Europe.

If it is the triumph of illiberalism in Europe that Budapest aims to achieve, it may lead to a hollowing out of EU institutions and reducing the European project to merely an economic exchange platform. In effect, the political stability of Europe would be at stake and the likely increase of nationalist tensions would likely produce a new dynamic, with potential exits from the EU on the horizon.

Brexit may not be the last unscheduled departure from the EU. This largely depends on the political direction that the V4 will take but also on the agile response to the illiberal stride.

The signals from governments – like the very recent request of the Polish Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro to the Constitutional Tribunal for determining incompatibility of parts of the EU Treaty with the Polish Constitution – is a step in this direction.

Next year, Poland may limit its illiberal stunts if PiS loses the majority in the parliament. Yet, the conditionality on EU funds regarding the rule of law may increase illiberal trends elsewhere. Especially in the Hungarian and Czech cases, evidence has been mounting that EU funds are misappropriated.

There the funds are to a large extend channelled to government-related or straightforward government-owned businesses.

Under increasing pressure from the EU, illiberals may well flirt with even more radical incarnations. If Orbán is on one hand ousted from the EPP and on the other fails to deliver on his economic promises of redistribution, he may face a challenge from the more radical right wing of his party.

Then, in order to save himself, he may resort to the same referendum tactic that befell David Cameron. With Russian influence on the media and the public sphere in Hungary as strong as it is today, the outcome may be a decision to leave the EU.

If political elites would once more play va banque, the group may be at the brink of collapse, along with the with EU project as we know it.

In all likelihood, it may also be a real concern for Jarosław Kaczyński and his people in the Polish government, including the president, who are determined to secure Poland’s future by preparing for the worst-case scenario.

Taken along ideological lines, one may try to understand Warsaw’s perspective with a bit of empathy for its obsession with a long history of being betrayed, invaded and destroyed by its larger neighbours in Europe.

This fatalist perspective is fueled by the recent land-grabs of Russia. The trouble with that perspective is that it renders preparations for all other options obsolete and may become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

One can also imagine a fairly realistic positive scenario. As the economic cycle can soon produce another major crisis and should the EU’s response be more adequate than last time, Central Europe may feel coldheartedly positive about further integration.

This option would essentially force the V4 to marry into the eurozone family in order to bail out their troubled economies, which would have been shaken by the rapid financial insecurity, and this outcome is just as likely as the three negative scenarios mentioned thus far.

The other trend that may become a tipping point for the region is the generational change that would formulate a new political culture. The potential for this turn has already been signalled by the political influence of the Black Protests in Poland or #AllForJan in Slovakia, where the governments had to take steps back or even be dismissed under the pressure of protesters manifesting the voice of a new generation.

None of the scenarios may evolve exactly as described and the options are more intertwined than presented for the purpose of clarity. But now is the time to discuss the options and preferences in the public to respect the sovereign’s rights. Central Europe needs to take informed control of its future.

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