Challenging Brussels has become the political hobby of the day. It has become a big boys’ affair with the Greek financial crisis, then with Brexit the vote and more recently with Italy’s open demand to restructure the setup of the Euro. Overall, the political union and the Euro seem to be the real targets of today’s bunch of discontented political leaders.
However, plans for the Eurozone membership, the Financial Union and many other adjacent policies are only marginally topping the agenda of the Central and Eastern Countries. Most of them are still capital importers and depend heavily on FDIs for their development. Also, they are not direct exporters to non-EU markets, but rather integrated in the supply chains of wealthier European countries. Joining the Eurozone may be an important, but secondary to other development-related policies.
So, how is the anti-EU sentiment growing in Central and Eastern Europe? Is the region evolving towards an exit from the European Union, or is it just playing the role of a „fighting brand” in the marketplace? In the business jargon, a „fighting brand” has the role to challenge the domination of an established brand and prevent it from achieving market control by sucking its resources and driving away consumer preference. It requires relatively limited investment, but draws the dominating brand into a war of attrition, forcing it to allocate disproportionate effort and ultimately become less profitable. In the end, it may change the competitive landscape.
Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic are already in an „illiberal” league. The Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, already has the status of an international mentor.
But let’s look at South-Eastern Europe, case by case.
How about Serbia, for instance? A simple photo, from the recent meeting between Serbian Minister for European Integration Jadranka Joksimovic and Hungarian Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade of Hungary Peter Szijjart tell all the story.
Anti-Brussels Hungary is supporting Serbia’s EU integration!! Hungary hopes Serbia would open seven new negotiation chapters!! Is this the right bet to make by a country aspiring to become a new member state?? Well, if one in Belgrade assumes that the „illiberal” trend will dominate Europe in the next years, this might be the right bet to make.
Of course, Serbia is not yet a EU member and in theory it cannot challenge EU from within. However, it can drive a still strong relationship with Russia. And, it may become intransigent in a Kosovo solution, with the potential to maintain the region in an instability environment. For politicians in Belgrade it may be an easy win, as the Serbs still hold Kosovo close to their hearts. And it may continue a distraction from daiy hardships.
Until recently, Bulgaria seemed to be a determined champion of European integration. The PM, Boyko Borisov, with a decade of domination of Bulgarian political scene, was a good listener for the advisors coming from Brussels. Bulgaria fulfilled its share of the effort during its European Presidency.
However, after the end of the six months mandate, headwinds have become obvious. The opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party launched an aggressive new anti-EU programme, aiming for anticipated elections to be held on the same day as the European parliamentary elections scheduled next year. The coalition partners of PM Borisov’s party GERB have started quarrelling for minor issues, undermining the credibility of the ruling coalition. The PM himself has taken some relevant steps, e.g. opposing Brussels’ initiative to suspend Hungary’s voting rights.
Eager to contain the dissenting trend, Brussels made a political decision to offer Bulgaria the opportunity to become a member of the Eurozone. Even Schengen membership was floated. But, alas, almost immediately a series scandals showcasing Bulgaria’s politically corrupt and incompetent administration undermined the benevolence coming from Brussels.
And the President Rumen Radev did not miss any chance of criticizing the performance of the ruling coalition. Political consensus seems a feature of the past...He has been a fan of Bulgarian-Russian relations, but recently also paid a visit to the future ex-EU member, theUK...
Romania has been de facto diverging with Brussels on several key policies, but without an obvious statement of political dissent. Recently a political truce has been aired - no more internal fighting until the presidency of the European Union will come to a close. Big files will be on the shoulders of the Romanian presidency. However, the Ro-exit option has become out of the blue a debate in Bucharest. Diplomatic circles expect the anti-Brussels mood to re-ignite after the end of the Romanian presidency.
A significant test was the recent Three Seas Initiative meeting in Bucharest. Officially, with the participation of the American, German and European top politicians, it looked like a debate with a joint EU/US umbrella. But in the economic part of the event, there was no shortage of ideas to challenge the wisdom coming from Brussels. Also, the topics for debate in 3SI, intrinsically are a challenge: new infrastructure plans are an alternative to Brussels’ approach, energy policies may generate also an alternative thinking not to speak about digital economy.
So, what is the future for Central and Eastern Europe? Some big players in the global political thought arena, like Henry Kissinger, Steve Bannon or Yannis Varoufakis hint that they still see value in Europe, but one with a different architecture. The risk to avoid was clearly stated by Henry Kissinger in a recent FT interview:
<<The alternative, Kissinger adds, is not appealing. A divided Atlantic would turn Europe into “an appendage of Eurasia”, which would be at the mercy of a China that wants to restore its historic role as the Middle Kingdom and be “the principal adviser to all humanity”. It sounds as though Kissinger believes China is on track to achieve its goal. America, meanwhile, would become a geopolitical island, flanked by two giant oceans and without a rules-based order to uphold. Such an America would have to imitate Victorian Britain but without the habit of mind to keep the rest of the world divided — as Britain did with the European continent.>>
Having this in mind, it is fair to bet that we are witnessing a change in the European political configuration aimed at making the West – of which we are part – better equipped to thrive in the future. Central and Eastern Europe is part of the several political change agents that attempt to facilitate the shift in the current European elites’ paradigm.
However, very rarely change comes without pain. But in the end, the West may be stronger, or may not be at all...