Thursday, 25 August 2016 18:47


Ivan Krastev, The Financial Times, 24.08.2016   



In an old Polish joke, a Frenchman and a Russian are travelling in opposite directions on the Moscow to Paris express when their trains pull into Warsaw central station at the same time. Mistakenly believing they have reached their final destination, each steps out of the train and on to the platform. “My God, Moscow is every bit as desolate as I expected!” the Frenchman cries. Meanwhile, the Russian exclaims, “Ah, Paris is beautiful.”    


How much has changed since the two gentlemen arrived in Warsaw?    


The debate about the future of Europe in the wake of the UK’s vote to leave the EU takes place in the shadow of rising Euroscepticism. But it could well turn out that it is not Euroscepticism (the belief that the EU is fundamentally evil) that is Europe’s central problem today, but Europessimism, the feeling that the project is doomed. It is not the anger of the Leavers but the worries of those who fear being left out that will decide the future of the EU.  


Central Europe is the land of Europessimists. Most people in the Visegrad group of EU member states (the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia) are still positive about the union but they worry about its survival. For many, it carries echoes of the disintegration of the Soviet empire.  


The day after the British referendum in June Poles woke up to the realisation that an estimated 850,000 of their compatriots live and work in a country that wishes no longer to be part of the EU. They also saw that Warsaw was in danger of losing a critical ally in its struggle to resist further political integration in the bloc and to balance the preponderant influence of Germany.   


The difficulty here however is that, while Poles are uneasy about the direction in which the EU is heading, many Europeans are concerned about recent political developments in Poland.  


Once the poster child for success in a post-communist world, Poland is deeply divided. Less than a year after the Law and Justice party (PiS) won the general election, the country faces a constitutional crisis fomented by a conspiracy-minded rightwing government.  


The conservative revolution spearheaded by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the PiS leader, has polarised the country, scaring off foreign investors and minimising Poland’s influence within the EU.  


The government has curbed the powers of the independent judiciary; announced a plan to put the majority of the banking sector back in Polish hands; made public television a propaganda vehicle for conservative Catholic values and has been ruthless in seeing off opponents.  


A report published in July by the liberal Stefan Batory Foundation asserts that the draft constitutional tribunal law before the Polish parliament would, if it is passed, constitute a “serious violation” of the principle of the rule of law and a “threat to … fundamental … civil rights and freedoms”.  


From the PiS point of view, it is logical to try to concentrate power in party hands because, if it does not control institutions like the courts, media or central bank they will be controlled by its enemies.  


The separation of powers enshrined in liberal democracies does not stop those in charge from abusing their office; instead, it enables them to evade responsibility and stymies popular demands for radical change.  


One could be forgiven for assuming that such a government would be Eurosceptic, yet neither it nor the majority of the Poles wants to leave the EU. The bloc therefore has a tough choice to make. The European Commission and some member states are tempted to insist that the Polish government has violated the values of the EU and to seek legal recourse. With Britain having voted in favour of Brexit, some in Brussels believe that the EU should demonstrate not only that it can hurt the Leavers but also that it has the power to sanction those who break the rules. Such a policy would be a mistake.  


Brussels and the individual member states should not shy away from criticising Poland, of course, but they should make clear that reinventing and reinvigorating the EU will not take place at the expense of central Europe. Any reform of the EU that looks like it will split the bloc along the west-east axis will further the process of disintegration.  


European politics today presents a paradox: in their vision for the EU, central European governments appear to represent the frustration and resentment of the populists, yet it is their own pro-EU voters to whom they are answerable.  


So Brussels should not be in a hurry to write central Europe off.  


The writer is chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategy in Sofia and fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna

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