For all those who still don’t understand what problem the “mainstream” Western European elite has with Central and Eastern Europe, and vice versa, watching the recording of the leadership panel discussion at this year’s Bled Strategic Forum can help in understanding it.
It says it all. The panel was attended in person by seven Central and Eastern European presidents and prime ministers, with the online participation of the Italian prime minister and the Bulgarian IMF President. The organizers entrusted the moderation of the conversation to an experienced foreign policy journalist and university lecturer belonging to the BBC, which can be considered as one of the flagships of the mainstream media. Dr. Nik Gowing admitted to having gained serious personal impressions and connections in the region in recent decades. He reported on the activities of the Polish Solidarity Movement and met Viktor Orbán even before the regime change. So, he can be considered a professional who knows the region well. I would like to point out that in this line of thought, it is not at all the person moderating the panel discussion who is interesting, but the phenomenon he embodies.
The topic of the forum was “Challenges and Opportunities in the World in the Post-Pandemic Period”, a more topical question of which is difficult to imagine these days. The three V4 countries represented by their prime ministers (Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary) have proved that, together with Slovakia, they have so far been significantly more effective than the European average in dealing with the consequences of the pandemic. This is true from both a health and economic point of view. The Visegrad Four suffered an average of “only” 11.1 percent decline in GDP in the disastrous second quarter of this year, while the average decline in the EU was 14.1 percent and in the euro zone 15 percent.
The rather successful defense is primarily due to their ability to take swift and effective measures at the national level, and the public has been a partner in complying with them. So, it would have been justified to share experiences, as well as insights and ideas for the future. However, what happened in the panel discussion apparently surprised everyone in attendance. After some general introductory questions, the moderator considered it important to ask questions over and over again about the situation of Hungarian and Polish “rule of law” and accounted the others for their approach thereto.
Regarding the measures taken at the national level, the labels of nationalist, anti-democratic and decentralization came to his mind, and he suggested that these measures were also anti-European. The moderator was not at all disturbed by the fact that the border closure and the ban on the export of defense equipment were introduced not by the region but by the rich countries of Western Europe (France, Germany, Switzerland and Austria) at an earlier stage. It is difficult not to perceive the lecturing and disparaging tone behind the questions, which is already common in Western European liberal circles and media products. They are insensitive to the real problems of our region (e.g. the perception of communism), while they generate scandals from provocative cases, applying a double standard masterfully. Central European countries are being held accountable for media freedom while it is they who are fearful of opinions. Anyone who thinks differently in certain matters and gives a voice to it, are labeled as extremists, fascists and are excluded from public life. They remained silent when the police brutally beat up the protesters in Paris, Barcelona and most recently in The Hague, or in Budapest in 2006, but then it was a different police.
Based on the questions asked at the Bled Forum and the style thereof, we can feel as if we were watching a film based on an Agatha Christie novel, in which an English elite company would be indignant about the terrible conditions in the colonies. Similar feelings can overwhelm us when we look at some debates in the EP about Hungary, such as the “debate” on the Sargentini report. Members who do not know the country at all pat each other on the shoulder and rejoice after a condemning resolution has been handed down, winking that now we have really shown them what the rule of law and Europe are all about. Of course, we also clearly see and know what problem the Dutch Prime Minister had with Hungary and the Hungarian Prime Minister during the EU summit in July. They are not used to the fact that the poor and disdained V4 countries are getting stronger, have their own opinions and are giving a voice thereto. They know what they want and are able to ally with each other, stand together and fight together. What is particularly strange and difficult to deal with during the Bled Forum is that the moderator felt free to use this style in such a venue and environment.
However, the event was also a good opportunity for the leaders of the countries in the region to demonstrate their sensitivity to each other’s problems and their mutual understanding. Regarding the future of Central European cooperation, it was encouraging to see and hear as the Czech and Slovenian, and even the Croatian, prime ministers stood by Hungary and Poland, calling for their fair and equitable treatment. A clear sign of solidarity in Central and Eastern Europe was that all leaders were in favor of Serbia's early accession to the EU and the enlargement of the Schengen area. According to Polish Prime Minister Morawieczki, the V4 cooperation is being attacked by Brussels because Central Europe is on the rise and is now forcing older Member States to compete. At the same time, he also considered it important to say that the essence of the cooperation between the countries of Central and Eastern Europe is that they work together for themselves and not against others.
There are growing and encouraging signs that the leaders in Central and Eastern European countries are aware of their historic mission, and they know that a region can only be successful if each of its states is successful. Moreover, this statement also applies to Europe as a whole, and the EU cannot be successful if there are also dissatisfied and unsuccessful Member States.
The Central European states can only achieve this joint success by joining forces, cooperating and by applying an understanding approach to each other’s problems. A series of historical examples prove that when these nations let themselves play against each other, sooner or later the winner also received the same gift as the loser as punishment. This was the case during the Habsburgs, after World War II, and it is also a lesson of the period of the regime change. We need to further enhance cooperation and build an atmosphere of trust. For me, apart from the moderator phenomenon, this was also the most important message of the meeting in Bled.
Author: István Loránd Szakáli, historian, leading economist of Századvég Economic Research Institute