Marcin Chruściel speaks with Aleks Szczerbiak – Professor of Politics at the University of Sussex, UK. His research focus is on comparative Central and East European politics (especially Poland), the impact of European integration on national politics (including the politics of Euroscepticism), political parties and electoral politics.
Marcin Chruściel: There is a growing debate about the future of the European Union as a political project, there are federal versus confederal visions of integration. Do you believe that Central European countries, mainly Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia, which are gathered in the Visegrad Group format, can make a real difference in the shape of this debate? How the war in Ukraine may influence this?
Prof. Aleks Szczerbiak: Potentially they can make a real difference, but it is going to be quite difficult. I think that if you look at the post-communist states, they represent quite a sizeable block within the European Union, both in terms of their economies, if you add it all together, and politically, if you consider their votes within the EU Council. I have been at various conferences where people pointed out that if you add together the voting weights and the size of the economy just of the Visegrad Four you have got something that is comparable to the Franco-German axis. So, in one sense, they look quite powerful if they are to work together and can influence debates about the future of the European project. The difficulty is obviously getting them to follow a common line. This is very difficult even just within the Visegrad Group – and even, at times, just between Poland and Hungary, who were generally, until recently, the closest allies among these states. Even if you look back to times when these countries were candidates for EU membership, there was not really much of a record of them working together. Indeed, at times they were almost competing with each other to get to the front of the queue, as they saw it. I think that is one of the problems. They have different approaches to lots of different issues. Eastern policy and Russia is one really good example of this. Here obviously Poland is at the forefront of trying to get the EU and the Western international community to have a more robust common response and tough sanctions, especially now in the context of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Whereas the other countries have generally been more reluctant about this, especially Hungary.
M.C.: Do you consider the Visegrad cooperation as more problematic now?
A.S.: Indeed, the Russian invasion – and the very different responses of the Polish and Hungarian governments which has severely undermined the relationship between Warsaw and Budapest – has made co-operation between the Visegrad Four extremely problematic. In fact, at the current time the Group’s activities have effectively been suspended. For sure, the two countries have always had a somewhat different approach to developing relations with Moscow. However, the war has made regional security the defining issue in European and regional international politics putting the relationship under severe strain – indeed, making it impossible for the two countries to co-operate in a forum like the Visegrad Group at the present time. It is difficult to know how long this will continue – and when and if relations can be restored to the status quo ante; this obviously depends on the course of the war. Notwithstanding their different approach to the Ukrainian conflict, the two governments still have very similar views on the broad trajectory of European integration and moral-cultural issues – and are both in dispute with the EU political establishment over ‘rule of law’ issues.
M.C.: Don’t you believe that the recent pressure to go in the direction of a federal European Union, put forward openly in the coalition agreement in Germany, can in some way unite Central European countries to somehow oppose these developments, also in the context of the ongoing war?
A.S.: I think the problem here is that if you cast the debate in theoretical terms about ‘do you want to see a more federal EU or one that is more rooted in nation states?’, a lot of the post-communist states would probably answer in terms of the latter and have a more anti-federalist approach. I think the problem here really is that the approach that most Central and Eastern European states have had to advancing their EU agendas – up until now – has been to very much locate themselves within the so-called European ‘mainstream’, which really means working very, very closely with Germany. That has really been the mainstay of their strategy in terms of advancing their interests within the European Union, which makes them very reluctant to break from the EU political establishment. This establishment is, as you correctly say, increasingly committed to putting forward a more federal view of the future of the EU project, and I think this is really part of the problem of trying to get these countries to co-operate with each other. For a lot of these countries closer regional co-operation means breaking with the axiom that they have had up until now, which is that the way that you advance your interests within the European Union is to get close to Germany, and to locate yourself within the European ‘mainstream’.
The war in Ukraine has moved security issues to the top of the political agenda in most post-communist states and Berlin has simply not come across as credible on this issue
Whereas Poland – and obviously, to an extent, Hungary – have been trying to pursue an alternative policy of what is – I think it was Andrzej Duda who coined the term – developing your ‘own stream.’ So, in other words, to try and develop an alternative power block, or alternative power blocks, within the European Union, to advance the interests of the post-communist states. This is a very ambitious project, but it is also a very difficult one to take forward for the reasons I have outlined.
M.C.: Do you think that this prevailing strategy of working closely with Germany in the EU will be changed now in the context of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and Berlin’s ambiguous reaction in terms of supporting Ukraine and sanctioning Moscow? Would you agree with the thesis that Central and Eastern European states have gained political leverage now to develop ‘their own stream’ in the EU (relying more on the US)?
A.S.: This is possible but it is a bit too early to tell at the moment because the situation is so dynamic with so many ‘moving parts’. Germany has certainly lost a lot of political capital through what many leaders and citizens of post-communist states now see as it over-conciliatory approach towards developing economic and diplomatic relations with Moscow over the heads of their European allies. At the same time, Poland’s credibility and international standing has been enhanced through the fact that it has been at the forefront of efforts to persuade the Western international community to develop a common, robust response to what they always saw as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s neo-imperialist de-stabilisation of the region, and specifically to ensure that sanctions on Moscow were maintained and extended.
This is a particular problem for Germany as the war in Ukraine has moved security issues to the top of the political agenda in most post-communist states and Berlin has simply not come across as credible on this issue. On the other hand, there may also be a sense in these states that deeper EU integration – and, therefore, working closely with Berlin and the EU political establishment – may help to embed them more deeply within the Western international community and thereby enhance their security. Moreover, if security moves down the international agenda for these countries and more mundane economic concerns start to assert themselves, the pressure to work closely with the European ‘mainstream’ may once again assert itself strongly in post-communist states.
M.C.: Do you expect that the Visegrad Group will try to formulate a common vision of the European project in the future, according to the euro-realistic approach? It is very interesting, whether we should expect from the Visegrad countries any attempts to produce such an alternative vision to the mainstream political establishment in Western Europe, especially the Franco-German coalition. Do you think that the Visegrad Group will be able to at least try to produce this kind of common vision?
A.S.: Well, it is able to do that, but I do not think it is anywhere near doing that at the moment. I think that is the problem. Because, for a lot of these countries, and particularly if you go beyond Poland and Hungary, this means breaking with their traditional approach to how they pursue their EU interests. And I think the Polish government, which is at the forefront of trying to push for the development of Central and Eastern Europe as an alternative power block within the EU, is, in many ways, pursuing a much more pragmatic, kind of long term, bottom-up approach to advancing this project. So if you look, for example, at the Three Seas Initiative, this is an attempt to try to secure co-operation between all post-communist states, not just the Visegrad Four, and indeed more broadly. But rather than being pitched explicitly as developing an alternative to the Franco-German axis with some kind of an alternative vision of European integration, it is starting by co-operating in very pragmatic sorts of policy areas. So, in terms of infrastructure, technology, energy – these kind of areas where it is much easier to get countries to co-operate because they have a tangible common interest, rather than starting with this more abstract idea of trying to develop an alternative inter-governmental project for European integration, which is going to be much more difficult for this countries to sign up to.
One of the interesting things that has happened in recent years is the way that attempts to deepen European integration have often not survived confrontations with democracy
And I think that an interesting sign of the fact that the Polish government is realistic about what it can do in the short term – with things like the V4 and the Three Seas Initiative – is the fact that it is seeking allies beyond Eastern Europe for promoting its vision of European integration. So, it has been working much more closely with parties on the Eurosceptic right in Western Europe. Initiatives like the Warsaw Summit, which you saw just before Christmas, was a good example of this. So, the fact that Poland has had to seek allies among parties that it has been very wary of trying to build alliances with in the past, because of their approach to Russia – groupings like the French National Front, now the National Rally, or the Italian radical right parties, like the League. Even before the Russian invasion, Law and Justice and the Polish government were worried about building links with these parties because of their relations with Russia, but I think they realised that if they wanted to have partners in terms of building an alternative vision of European integration in the long-term, they could not simply rely on trying to work with other post-communist states. And of course, Britain’s departure from the EU was very important in this respect, because at one point Poland saw Britain as a key ally in this project. Whereas, with Britain leaving the EU, its main ally on the mainstream right in Western Europe – the British Conservatives – were gone, as far as the EU affairs were concerned at least.
M.C.: As long as I understand, you are trying to say that because of the lack of consensus within the Visegrad Group on the EU’s future, and also because of the departure of the British Conservatives from the European structures, the Law and Justice government was actually pushed to seek for additional allies, which are probably more difficult politically, in order to try to create an alternative vision to the Franco-German one in the EU. Should we understand it in this way and if so, do you think this strategy is still viable taking into account the developments in Ukraine?
A.S.: I think that is a pretty accurate summary of where we are now. With the only addition being the difficulties of forming a common approach with the post-communist states, and in particular of getting them to break with the European mainstream and with Germany. You could probably have developed a common approach if the Polish and Hungarian governments – obviously, if there had been a change of government in Budapest – were also to fall in line with the European mainstream. But then it would not be a common approach in terms of building any kind of alternative vision of European integration.
I think that, in order to achieve its strategic objectives, Law and Justice, and the Polish government, is forced to pursue various options. It has not abandoned the idea of developing an alternative axis to Berlin among the post-communist states. This is still critical to its EU strategy, particularly in the longer term. But for the reasons that you have outlined Law and Justice is also having to look for other allies in places where it might not necessarily always feel very comfortable looking for them. But it does not really have any choice if it wants to pursue its strategy of building alternatives to the European mainstream.
M.C.: Do you think this strategy is still viable taking into account the developments in Ukraine?
A.S.: In the short-term, Law and Justice will not want to give a high profile to its links with West European right-wing Eurosceptic parties as it leaves them open to opposition criticisms that it is developing links with politicians and political groupings who have in the past had close relations with Moscow and been insufficiently critical of Vladimir Putin. However, building links with these parties is part of a long-term project to shift the terms of the debates about the process of European integration, so it will not abandon it completely and return to this project at some point in the future.
M.C.: There is also a very interesting question whether the societies in post-communist states in Central Europe are ready for the federalization project, because they have a different history than the ones in Western Europe, they still remember the times of administration from the above within the Soviet bloc and cherish their regained independence.
A.S.: Well, I think they are different and I think that that plays itself out in a number of ways in terms of their relationship to membership in the European Union. But actually, in this particular respect, I wonder whether the societies of post-communist states really are that different from West European societies? What I really wonder is whether, if you go beyond the political elites, there is really that much support for a federal approach or deeper political European integration among the West European public? Traditionally, the approach of the European Union elites was to pursue integration by stealth. It was on the basis of something that was called “the permissive consensus”. So, essentially, integration was pursued in a very technocratic, apolitical way. With the publics of those countries basically not really being aware of what was going on. I think that this has been extremely problematic since the Maastricht Treaty and since the attempt to develop a single European currency. Because, from that point onwards, the European Union started to become involved in areas which were previously assumed to be very clearly in the domain of nation states.
With younger generations, it is much more about calculating the costs and benefits of EU membership. It is much more instrumental
One of the interesting things that has happened in recent years is the way that attempts to deepen European integration have often not survived confrontations with democracy. As a result, the EU political establishment – I mean the main EU powers, the Commission and the majority of the European Parliament – which does remain committed to deepening European integration and more federal approach has had to proceed extremely cautiously and has been really wary about any kind of attempts to achieve this aim through changing the Treaties. I think that you are now seeing a lot of the attempts to further European integration again essentially by stealth, with a lot of people not realising what is at stake. I think if people realised what was at stake with, for example, the proposal for the mutualization of debt, which is one of the elements of the EU’s response to the coronavirus pandemic crisis, then there would be a much stronger reaction to it.
M.C.: What do you mean by saying that ‘integration by stealth’ is back?
A.S.: What I mean is that the EU is going back to doing things in a very kind of technocratic way, or using the EU legal framework to advance integration. So, the idea that the EU political establishment furthering integration through using, for example, the rulings of the European Court of Justice – is one of the arguments that the Polish government is currently using. And again, this is a way of achieving this objective of deeper integration without confronting it with the democratic process.
So, I think you are absolutely right – there are some key differences in the way that the EU and EU integration is perceived in the post-communist states of Central and Eastern Europe. But at the same time, I think that opposition to a federal Europe and deeper integration is something that is a pan-European phenomenon. I think federalization is an elite project. It is something that, when is confronted with democracy through referendums, against which there is often a lot of pushback. And that is not just something that is true in post-communist states.
M.C.: Do you think that this integration by stealthis actually behind the strong support in Central Europe for political parties which are more EU-sceptical? Because it does not have to be scepticism towards European integration as an idea, but rather towards the way how the EU is functioning, and how it is trying to develop its policies and potentially widen its competences. So, according to your distinction between Soft and Hard Euroscepticism, I would place these parties within a soft Euroscepticism.
A.S.: So, first of all, I think you are absolutely right to draw this distinction between what I, with my Sussex colleague Paul Taggart, have termed Hard and Soft Euroscepticism. The first thing to say here is that there is really very little support for Hard Euroscepticism, this kind of rejectionist approach to the European Union, in the EU. I mean among both political parties and public opinion. Indeed, Brexit has not really led to any kind of impetus for this. If anything, it has probably put a few people who were thinking of their country trying to leave the EU off. The criticisms of the EU in Central and Eastern Europe are – as you say – about the way that it functions and about the trajectory of the European integration project.
But I think the root of this, the upsurge of this what you called EU-scepticism or Soft Euroscepticism in post-communist states, is actually to be found elsewhere. I think that there is a process that has been taking place in recent years, where what has driven support for EU membership and the EU integration in post-communist states in the past has changed – in the sense that it is now much less romantic, and therefore more instrumental, more ‘cost-benefit’ driven. When these countries joined the EU – in 2003 they held referendums, in 2004 most of them joined, apart from Bulgaria, Romania and Croatia who acceded a little bit later – the real thing that drove support for European integration through the EU was the romantic notion that they were making a kind of historical, civilizational choice; that they were re-joining a West that they had always belonged to spiritually and culturally. So joining the EU was seen as completing the process of post-communist transformation. It was seen as the final or the most significant stage in that process. And this made it really difficult for any Eurosceptic to argue against, because essentially they appeared to be arguing against the logic of history. It also provided a really important ‘cut-through’ issue for a lot of people to identify with that went beyond the kind of dry discussions about economic costs and benefits.
M.C.: Do you think that that has changed in the recent years?
A.S.: Definitely. Maybe with the older generation, maybe with those people who voted in that referendum in 2003 and remember back to Communism, there is still that kind of romantic element to it, but I think a lot of that kind of romanticism has gone. And particularly with younger generations, it is much more about calculating the costs and benefits of EU membership. It is much more instrumental. And obviously that is problematic for the EU because it means it does not have the kind of diffuse support that it might need in a time of crisis, and if the result of that cost-benefit analysis feels like it is changing to the EU’s disadvantage.
For me, a really important episode here, as far as Central and Eastern Europe was concerned, was the migration crisis of 2015. Particularity the EU’s proposal to introduce the migrant relocation scheme – compulsory quotas of migrants from North Africa and from the Middle East, from predominantly Muslim countries, to be located in all EU states. This was viewed by many people in Central Eastern Europe, and indeed by their governments, as enforced multiculturalism. It was something that went against the original idea that underpinned their joining the Union. Many people in these countries felt that they did not join the EU because they wanted to have multiculturalism forced upon them. This was not part of what they were signing up to – and if they were going to become multicultural, like countries in Western Europe, then that was a choice that they would like to make for themselves. So, it was really about the principle of what was involved. Whether you like it or not, that is how many citizens in post-communists felt about the prospect of mass Muslim migration.
For sure, the numbers involved in the scheme were pretty small, early on at least. But for many citizens it was not about the numbers, it was about the principle of who should determine which non-EU migrants should be admitted by these states. And it was also about the idea that maybe this civilizational choice that these post-communist countries had made, or thought they were making – to rejoin the West – well maybe they were actually making different civilizational choices, or wanted to make different civilization choices, from those being made by the elites and the governments in the West. I think that opened the gates to broader questions relating to other moral-cultural issues, where people in Central and Eastern Europe have also often made somewhat different choices. And when they were joining the EU they did not realize that they would be required to make – or, in fact, it was explicitly argued that EU accession would not involve making – choices on these sort of moral-cultural issues.
M.C.: Thank you Prof. Szczerbiak for this part of the interview.
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