The War in Ukraine Is Emancipating Central Europe

By Caroline de Gruyter

At a June European Union summit meeting in Brussels, Slovenian Prime Minister Robert Golob spoke for 15 minutes about Europe’s energy problems. This was remarkable, as it was his first European summit ever. Usually, newcomers mostly listen at first. If they speak at all, they keep it ultrashort.

Even more remarkable, Golob also spoke on behalf of Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. He did it skillfully and with authority, diplomats said afterward. Before winning Slovenia’s elections in April with his new Freedom Movement party and forming a government in May, Golob, an electrical engineer, founded a successful energy trading company, GEN-I, and led it for many years. He is one of Slovenia’s leading green energy experts.

Western European prime ministers asking a Central European colleague to speak on their behalf would not have happened five years ago. It is just one example of a remarkable trend in European politics: Central Europe’s slow emancipation into the European Union. Countries in that region are finally becoming full members of the club.

The main catalyst? The war in Ukraine.

It can take new EU countries years to reach their full potential in Brussels. It takes time and hard work to build up an extensive network—not just in Brussels but in all the European capitals—to have competent civil servants working in European institutions and to master complex issues that sometimes go back many years.

Eighteen years after the biggest enlargement of the EU, when 10 mostly Central European countries joined, some politicians, diplomats, and civil servants from that region still suffer from a kind of inferiority complex. Compared to the Dutch or the French, who were there from the start of European integration in 1952, these countries are still sometimes considered newcomers.

In their 2020 book, The Light That Failed: Why the West Is Losing the Fight for Democracy, and articles in international journals, Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev and New York University School of Law professor Stephen Holmes have written that after 1989, many Central Europeans tried hard to become like the West: “The political philosophy of postcommunist Central and Eastern Europe could be summarized in a single imperative: Imitate the West!” This involved “importing liberal-democratic institutions, applying Western political and economic recipes, and publicly endorsing Western values,” they wrote. “Imitation was widely understood to be the shortest pathway to freedom and prosperity.”

Chasing an idealized foreign model, however, turned out to be more frustrating than many had expected, both morally and psychologically. Imitators are haunted by a constant feeling of inadequacy, dependency, and inferiority while the imitated settle into a role of patronizers. “While the mimics looked up to their models,” Krastev and Holmes wrote, “the models looked down on their mimics. It is not entirely mysterious, therefore, why the ‘imitation of the West’ voluntarily chosen by East Europeans three decades ago eventually resulted in a political backlash.”

In the end, some governments became so frustrated that they started rebelling against the former role model. This resentment was one of the driving forces behind the populist wave of democratic regression and xenophobia that engulfed Central Europe in the past decade or so. Some, like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and former Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa, started to side openly with former U.S. President Donald Trump, who loathes the EU. From Poland and Hungary to the Czech Republic and Slovakia, politicians turned against everything Brussels stood for: independent institutions, respect for minorities, a free press, and so on. According to Orban, “The globalists can all go to hell.”

But with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, things changed. Central Europe is the area between Germany and Russia. When those two countries had good relations, it was sometimes unclear where Central Europe stood because it did not have to take sides. But now that relations between Germany and Russia have completely soured, that ambiguity is evaporating. Apart from Hungary, which maintains cordial relations with Russia and tries to have it both ways, Central European countries have made a clear choice: They belong in Europe.

Take Poland. In recent years, the ruling Law and Justice party maneuvered itself into a corner by politicizing the judiciary system and thereby violating the European rule of law. It even refused to obey European court rulings on the matter. When the European Commission withheld EU funds for Poland in response, Warsaw still refused to budge. Because of this, ministers from other EU countries hardly ever visit Poland anymore.

European politics often involves coalition-building among countries seeking to push or block decisions in Brussels; yet because of its intransigence, Poland—a large country that could have clout—was often sidelined. In a 2020 European Council on Foreign Relations report visualizing every EU country’s potential for coalition-building, Poland emerged as the second most disappointing partner for other member states, punching far below its weight.

But now, with Ukraine at the top of the EU’s priority list, Poland is a front-line state. With its long-time warnings of Russian danger finally being taken seriously by the rest of Europe, it has confidently taken center stage in many respects. It took in millions of Ukrainian refugees. Having a long border with Ukraine, it has a key role in the provision of humanitarian aid and military equipment to the war-torn country. Poland is also crucial for NATO’s defense plans for Europe. For all these reasons, European ministers and heads of government are visiting the country again. For visits to Kyiv, they travel via Poland. Poland was also the first to raise the issue of Ukraine’s EU membership in Brussels during a meeting just days after the invasion.

Suddenly, Poland looks credible again, which gives it leverage. And Warsaw is trying to use that to solve its rule of law problem with the EU. A new law reforming its disciplinary regime for judges contains some concessions, aimed at finally unlocking some of the 36 billion euros (or $36.7 billion) in frozen EU funds. Those concessions are not yet enough, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen recently warned. But the fact that Poland is trying to get down from the high tree is noteworthy in itself.

Another sign of the slow emancipation of Central European countries is the disappearance of the Visegrad Group, a platform Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia often used for joint positioning in Brussels, notably on migration issues. Only Hungary is still fiercely anti-immigration—Orban recently even warned against “race mixing” in Europe. Although they have not openly changed their stances on immigration from Africa or the Middle East, the other three countries have opened their borders widely to all Ukrainian arrivals, who are mostly housed in private homes. In just a few months, Prague has taken in more than 80,000 Ukrainians, most of them women and children.

The Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Slovenia have all voted out authoritarian leaders in recent months, reversing the populist trend of the previous decade. These leaders of what some are calling the “new European order”—where countries’ opposition to Russia is becoming a criterion to European unity—are repairing damage done to the rule of law by their predecessors and seem keen on fighting corruption. Another new leader with clout in Brussels is Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas. The EU’s current anti-corruption boss is Laura Codruta Kovesi, Romania’s fearless former public prosecutor.

As a sign that its imitation pains may finally be over, the Czech Republic started its six-month presidency of the Council of the European Union in July by putting “democratic values” on its priority list. The country clearly wants to invest in Europe again. The previous Czech prime minister, Andrej Babis—who is to face trial for alleged fraud involving EU funds—allocated such meager funds for his country’s EU presidency that his successor, Petr Fiala, faced immediate hiring problems. At the last minute, Fiala managed to top up the total amount somewhat and resolved to work with volunteers instead.

This Czech turnaround is one of several in the region that Sophie in ‘t Veld, a Dutch member of the European Parliament who is outspoken on fundamental rights and the rule of law, recently alluded to when she wrote that the places where the European rule of law is on the rise are “remarkably often in the east.”

In Brussels, this momentum is becoming palpable. For the first time, a Romanian woman could become secretary-general of the European Council, an influential post that has never been held by a Central European. Since her main rival is the current French ambassador to the EU and France is currently considered very dominant in EU affairs already, she may stand a chance.

Romanian philosopher Andrei Plesu once said he had only one important message to Europeans: “Relax.” Yes, he seemed to say, we are constantly struggling to find the right balance between centralization and flexibility. In Europe, nothing is ever easy, and everything takes time. But in the end, all will be fine because culturally, we’re all Europeans.

He may be proven right, after all.

Caroline de Gruyter is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a Europe correspondent and columnist for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad. She currently lives in Brussels.

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