Eastern Europe: As Illiberal Forces Grow, So Do Tensions
20 September, 2017

With the election of President Emmanuel Macron in France and the upcoming chancellor elections in Germany, a trend for reform in the European Union appears to be emerging. However, for EU countries like Poland and Hungary, which are not part of the Eurozone and its sphere of influence, these changes seem to only signal tension.  

President Macron recently criticised Poland and its right-wing, Euroskeptic government for isolating itself from the rest Europe. One his main critiques was Warsaw’s refusal to comply with EU refugee quotas. In turn, Poland’s Prime Minister, Beata Szydło, called President Macron inexperienced and arrogant.  

Poland is not alone in its rebellion against Brussels. Hungary, another country with conservative leadership, is also refusing to fulfil its refugee quotas from the EU. According to Wojciech Przybylski, editor-in-chief at Visegrad Insight, the current tensions surrounding Poland and Hungary could lead to their diminished role in the EU decision-making process.

Hromadske sat down with Wojciech Przybylski to talk about the latest trends in EU politics and what tensions in the east  means for Central Europe. 

My first question is a broad one about what, in your opinion, are the most important trends in Eastern Europe now? What is happening?

The most important things are set up by the general agenda of two entities. I would say one is the European Union and the other one is NATO and in more general terms, security concerns for the region. We know, and especially in Ukraine you know too much about the security situation, maybe the important factor is that NATO took the decision to relocate symbolic armed forces to the borders of our border countries –Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland – mostly to secure, to make the societies more comfortable and secure the feeling of security and stability is the most important. But the other dynamic that takes place in the region is about the European Union, and within the European Union we know there is a new trend coming up, it's about the reform of the European Union with the election of the French president Emmanuel Macron earlier this year and most probably the reelection of Angela Merkel in Germany in September this year for the position of Chancellor, we will see a new impulse for reforming the continent, not only around European Union, but also predominantly around the Eurozone. The countries of the Eurozone will matter much more in decision-making in the European Union and it's not only about the money, it's also about the other spheres of influence of the members that belong to this group. And here, the important countries that belong already to the Eurozone are Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Slovakia, but unfortunately not Poland or Hungary, which, at the same time, started to – you could say – rebel against the mainstream of the continent in Europe and they are having a lot of political fights with the partners in the European Union. So the dynamic there is set up by what is going to happen, how will the European Union reform itself, change, and who will lose, who will gain in the political power on the continent.

When Macron visited Eastern Europe in late August he criticised Poland and Hungary, and he also mentioned that Poland is isolated. He got a reply from Beata Szydlo, who responded that the French president lacks experience and he is better occupied with his own affairs. Do you think that this isolation of Poland and Hungary is something that we could really talk about now?

That is not completely true. Emmanuel Macron definitely made an overstatement when he evoked – I think deliberately – a diplomatic crisis with Poland. He indeed criticised Poland in the most open way so far – we haven't seen that before – on the issues that are important to the whole community, the European Union. He basically backed the position of the European Commission from Brussels, and also, Angela Merkel followed in his opinion that Poland is not cooperative and not willing to apply the standards of the European Union at the moment. It's partly about Poland, the whole country, but it's mostly about the government. The government of Poland is being criticised by other partners in the European Union on various issues and that comes vice-versa – Poland and Hungary also criticise the other governments, which is within natural limits of political debate in Europe, but it also brings a lot of tension and uncertainty. There is a growing fear that, eventually, this will lead to a smaller part of involvement from Poland or Hungary in the main decision-making bodies within Europe.

You spoke about government – in your opinion, what is the public opinion and reaction to these criticisms, which frequently come from Brussels, Paris and Berlin? Could you say that there this a kind of anti-European attitude in Poland right now?

Surprisingly, no. More than 80 percent of the Polish population are very happy about membership in the European Union and people want to stay members of the European Union. So, the government in Poland does not have an easy task if it wanted to move away from the core of Europe because the population really supports the project. The government therefore says that they criticise other particular governments and, at the same time, claim that they are pro-European. So that's a bit of double standards from the side of the Polish government right now and unfortunately, it is not very effective. What we see is that Polish population, public opinion, but also people sometimes come to the streets, are very much in favour of all the standards that are set within the European Union. That means that, in the long run, we can be rather optimistic about the future of we will proceed.

You just mentioned people coming to the streets and the opposition – in your opinion, what is the potential of the people, the opposition, that are not happy with the government? What could change maybe in several months or one year?

First of all, that puts pressure on the politicians. Demonstrators criticise, not only the government, but also the opposition parties. They don't like official politics that much and that creates opportunities for newcomers, for new power centres. Within Poland, for instance, this is the President of Poland that, for the first time, openly attacked the government of the party he comes from. He vetoed the two laws that were proposed by the government and the parliament. That creates interesting dynamics. We will only see in a couple of months if he uses this opportunity and creates a new political direction, let's say, because the president of Poland is unlikely to create any political party, it never happens so, and it's very difficult for the Polish president considering the Polish constitution to create anything like a party. But, within the current system, we can already see that there are new actors trying to propose something that addresses public concerns. And I think that's similar in many other countries. In Hungary, for instance, there were also lots of civic protests, civic movement on the street, and there were some public activities, including a referendum against organising the Olympics. That referendum didn't even take place, but the organisers of this referendum, Victor Orban, the Prime Minister of Hungary, saw as a danger. They were so successful that the Prime Minister cancelled the proposition to have the Olympic Games and they organised a new party and now they are trying to run for government. So, I think a lot of internal dynamism is taking place within the system, within the major revolution, but political actors are emerging, and, in a few years we might see new leadership in these countries.

You sound optimistic, but, at the same time, there are still some people, maybe a lot of people, who supported Orban and supporting the Polish ruling party. There might be a demand for a conservative turn in Poland as well as in Hungary. How would you explain it if such parties came to power?

These parties are by no means conservative, they are revolutionary, they even claim that they want revolution, a change of the system. It's not so much power of attraction, but every government also has the power to insight fear and they make people fearful of the migrants, of the potential terrorist attacks – that we know about – and because of the international instability, they get a popularity bonus, like any government which shows a strong hand would get. So the current popularity of those parties is not so much about the positive proposals –  they do have some policies that are implemented – but it's mostly about uniting the population behind them, that is a bit fearful of the others, of some potential threats, so the international environment helps the right-wing to be a little stronger than the open society people.

What about the United States? We have followed the story of the Central European University located in Budapest which has had some problems. Could you tell us the story – what is happening now with this university?

The university in Budapest is one of the best – if not the best in the region then one of the best in Europe – teaching bachelors and masters, and I think also PhD in English, and it is registered as a university in the state of New York but it mainly operates in Budapest. In the whole country, like Hungary, this is like an oasis of liberals, also people to the left, not to mention that some of the students and professors are also to the right, but it is perceived by the government as an attraction for all the society from the – I'd say – opposition to the current government. The government therefore tried to have a law that would limit the operation and actually damage the university so much, that they would have to move. It would be the second time in the history of the university because their original location, at the beginning of the nineties, was Prague, in the Czech Republic, and at that time, the right-wing government in the Czech Republic did a similar thing and then they had to move to Budapest. But the gains of the government, or what they hope to gain, was to have special contacts or deals between the state departments, American administration and the Hungarian government, that would elevate the position of Victor Orban, and that didn't happen. The proposal to limit the operations of the CEU only brought outrage from the American Services. It even scaled down the situation of the Hungarian government vis-a-vis the American administration even further, and it resulted in the international European Union criticism, to the extent in which Victor Orban had to move a few steps back. I interviewed the American director of the Central European University, Michael Ignatieff, he used to be a Canadian politician, and, at the moment of the crisis, he was calling for CEU to stay put, to consolidate and to defend their position in Budapest, and it seems they succeeded. There were crowds of 70 to 80 thousand people on the streets of Budapest protesting for the university. the government tries to have a diplomatic way out of the scandal – pretty much – to secure the situation so that the CEU can stay and not to lose face, not to be blamed for what has happened. So the Central European University is to stay in Budapest, it is going to flourish, and perhaps it's going to be even better off now because it had so much publicity. It's a university to be in and to visit, and it's a really good university, so if Hungary lost it it would be a big damage to its higher education system and the country's prestige.

That's great news. What about Ukraine? Ukraine and Eastern Europe have followed this war between Ukraine and Poland for many months, maybe two years. We'll be speaking to politicians, historians and journalists about what they think would be the most efficient way to stop it. So the main question to you is: in your opinion, what would be the quickest and most efficient way to stop this war over memory?

I leave history to professional historians, and from the politics of memory, from the political side – because the situation has been politicised – it's a political game of memory, rather than through historians finding facts and establishing what really took place and how. So this game of memory can only be stopped in one way, and I know it from other examples, other countries have done the same. First you forgive, then you forget. There is no other sensible way and it has been done between Poland and Germany, it has been done between Germany and France and many others. Of course, you cannot completely forget what was happening, but simply, there are so many other things that are important, much more important, contemporary important, that the natural process of every healthy society is to overcome some traumas, there are always traumas, and to leave it to the books and long-reads rather than Twitter and Facebook discussion on things that, I think, many of the people who get excited about don't really have the full knowledge, or they don't take the objective side, but they want to do a political game.