Prime Minister of Poland Mateusz Morawiecki (L) and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban (R) (Photo credit ATTILA KISBENEDEK/AFP via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Is there a cultural Iron Curtain emerging in Europe?

Central and eastern European states want a better standard of living, but not at the cost of their sovereignty

The vetoing of the EU’s budget and recovery package by Hungary and Poland (responding to plans which would tie funds to the “rule of law”) is the latest manifestation of a pre-existing and growing cultural division within the bloc, a division that extends beyond these two countries.

Earlier this year, the Czech Republic joined Hungary and Poland in opposing an EU migration pact, and while not actively joining the latest veto, Slovenia’s prime minister Janez Jansa wrote that it would not be appropriate for a body to adjudicate in disputes over the rule of law.

A new cultural Iron Curtain is emerging. In contrast to western Europe, central and eastern states are increasingly assertive in their nationalism and conservatism, many even re-Christianising.

According to the Pew Research Centre, central and eastern Europeans “are more likely than western Europeans to say being born in their country and having family background there are important to truly share the national identity.” The Centre also found: “In many central and eastern European countries, religion and national identity are closely entwined.”

As William Nattrass has pointed out, “nearly two-thirds of Czechs think the country should not take in refugees” while in this year’s Slovak general elections, “three of the top four political parties were explicitly anti-immigration.” Hungary and Poland also opposed a recent plan to promote gender equality and female empowerment as part of EU foreign policy.

Central and eastern European states seemingly want a better standard of living, but not at any price

Hungary and Poland show no sign of backing down now either. In a recent joint declaration, the Polish prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, and his Hungarian counterpart, Viktor Orbán, stated: “Neither Poland, nor Hungary will accept any proposal that is deemed unacceptable by the other.” Mr Morawiecki said the two governments are “open to new proposals” from the EU. However, spokesman Piotr Müller added that any agreement “has to be compliant with EU treaties and conclusions from the European Council meeting in July”.

Orbán meanwhile has said that Hungary will stand firm, while downplaying any suggestion that a declaration attached to the regulations would be enough to satisfy Budapest. Mr Müller tweeted on Friday that Warsaw’s stance has not changedand Deputy Foreign Minister, Pawel Jablonski, said his government will never accept any proposal that “would effectively leave us at the mercy of the European Commission.”

Representing the view in Brussels, the EU’s budget chief, Johannes Hahn said that Budapest and Warsaw “cannot stop us from helping our citizens.” Meanwhile, the EU Council President said respecting European values was at the core of the EU. Charles Michel said the issue is “key because it is linked to the DNA of the European project.” Earlier this year Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte even asked if a new EU could be created without Hungary and Poland.

The fact the EU is even now contemplating proceeding with its recovery fund without Hungary and Poland highlights the severity of the crisis. While it is commonly believed that central and eastern European countries will eventually acquiesce to Brussel owing to their perceived dependence on EU funds, the bloc may have helped central and eastern European countries to the point where a) they have less need for EU funds, and b) they no longer qualify for the same level of funds anyway.

While central and eastern European countries are generally net beneficiaries of the EU, even at the highest end the contribution to GDP is around 1.5-3 per cent, while attempts have been made to reduce funds. Moreover, having invested in growth technologies and engaged in economic reforms, central and eastern European states are increasingly the preferred destination for western European companies. Furthermore, most central and eastern EU member states have retained their own currencies, meaning they could extricate themselves from the EU more easily than say Italy.

According to Konrad Popławski for the Centre for Eastern Studies – in a paper also published by the University of Pittsburgh – Visegrád countries have actually helped the competitiveness of the German economy, not least through outsourcing. Between 2003 and 2014 the German share in the Visegrád countries’ foreign trade fell from 30 per cent to 25 per cent. Over the same period, the participation of these states in Germany’s foreign trade rose from 7.9 per cent to 20 per cent. Germany has in fact been a beneficiary of investments in these states from the EU cohesion policy.

Central and eastern European countries are in relatively strong financial positions too. According to the European Commission, GDP forecasts for 2020 suggest that Hungary (-6.4 per cent) will fare better than both France (-9.4 per cent) and Italy (-9.9 per cent), and even the EU27 (-7.4 per cent). Meanwhile Poland (-3.6 per cent) will fare better than Germany (-5.6 per cent). In terms of government debt as a percentage of GDP, Hungary’s figure for 2020 (78 per cent) is not only lower than those for France (115.9 per cent) and Italy (159.6 per cent), but the EU27 as a whole (93.9 per cent). Moreover, Poland (56.6 per cent) again fares better than Germany (71.2 per cent).

We hear much about central and eastern Europeans still supporting the EU. Many still believe the EU can be transformed into an EFTA-plus organisation. However, the fact a recent poll by think-tank Median found around half of Hungarian voters believe the EU is using this recent issue to force Hungary to accept more lenient immigration regulations, demonstrates growing support for a hard-line stance. Central and eastern European states seemingly want a better standard of living, but not at any price, least of all (as they see it) at the cost of sovereignty and identity.

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