The East-West Divide in the EU Is Reaching a Critical Point

The East-West Divide in the EU Is Reaching a Critical Point

As the European Union has expanded its membership, more seats at the table have meant more diverging opinions on how the EU should operate. These divisions have widened in the wake of the refugee crisis and exacerbated existing gaps between the West and the East, between “core” Europe and newer members, between the more affluent nations and the less well-off. The so-called Visegrad 4—Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia—have been especially defiant in recent years on questions of democratic principle and placement of refugees.

As the Hungarian government targets civil society organizations, Poland's ruling party passes legal reforms that threaten the independence of the judiciary, and an anti-establishment politician is poised to become the Czech Republic's next prime minister, it's a good time to evaluate this divide within the EU.

We sat down with Eurasia Group's Managing Director for Europe, Mujtaba Rahman, to ask about the main points of contention and whether there is any room for compromise.

You've written about an emerging East-West divide within the EU. What do you mean by that?

As the name indicates, this divide falls largely along geographic lines, as well as when countries joined the union. The newer member states from Central and Eastern Europe (eight joined in 2004) sought membership to improve their economic prospects, establish national identity and independence in a post-communist era, and allow their citizens the mobility to move to the West. At the same time, there is resistance to other aspects of EU membership, including oversight from Brussels, pushes for deeper European integration at the expense of that same hard-won national freedom, and the desire to protect national and cultural identity at home.

Briefly bring us up to date on the progress of “illiberal democracy” in the “Visegrad 4”-- Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic.

The Visegrad 4 originally sought mainly to intergrate into Europe. More recently, the overwhelming force bringing the countries together has been this trend toward “illiberal democracy,” a turn away from western political liberalism andtoward the consolidation of political power at the expense of independent institutions and fair democratic processes. In short, those in charge in these countries want to break EU rules in order to tighten their own grip on power.

The process is most advanced in Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orban has pioneered the term “illiberal democracy” and wears it with pride. For him, illiberal democracy means first of all resisting cultural liberalism (multiculturalism, questioning Western values of individual freedom), including with attacks on foreign-backed civil society groups like the George Soros-founded Central European University. Orban has also sought to expand his influence through vast networks of corrupt cronies, loyal media, and politicized state institutions (especially the Central Bank and judiciary).

In Poland, the government doesn't call its political strategy illiberal democracy, but the ruling Law and Justice party has pushed for controversial judicial reforms that threaten the courts' independence. While the president vetoed two laws that targeted the country's courts, the crackdown isn't over - and the European Commission has threatened to trigger a "nuclear" procedure to strip Poland of its voting rights if changes are not made. This may be an empty threat, not least because Warsaw's friend in Budapest will upset the required unanimous vote, but tensions are unlikely to cool anytime soon.

In the Czech Republic, where anti-EU and anti-immigrant sentiment runs high, businessman Andrej Babis is poised to become Prime Minister this fall. Following October elections, we will likely see key ministries like Justice and the Interior used to give the billionaire's businesses an advantage through better access to information and legal processes.

Slovakia, the only V4 country to have adopted the euro, has seen anti-refugee sentiment widely stoked for electoral purposes. And along with Hungary's Orban, Prime Minister Robert Fico took a legal challenge to the European Court of Justice to argue against the legality of EU's quota system that requires members to accept certain numbers of asylum seekers based on the size of their populations and economies. Brussels struck back on 26 July, when the European Commission the advocate general to the ECJ recommended that the lawsuit be dismissed.

How does the election of Emmanuel Macron as France's president affect that East-West divide?

With the arrival of Emmanuel Macron as President of France and German Chancellor Angela Merkel's likely reelection in the fall, there is a refocusing on more integration from core European states, which puts additional pressure on the V4. Macron's election may bring more tension to the East-West relationship, because he is likely to be more aggressive in holding Central and Eastern Europe to their side of the bargain of EU membership. Germany is often reluctant to antagonize the countries due to its own deep economic ties with them. Macron is more aggressive.

Can the V4 find a way to loosen the ties that bind them to the EU while remaining in the union?

For now, all the V4 can do is object to any changes to the status quo in the hopes that they still get to have their cake and eat it too: all four are clear beneficiaries of EU funding and the single market (on funding, Poland will soon become a net contributor, but funds will remain politically important).

So, we see a reactionary, obstructionist V4 on some issues, like refugee policy – but each country also has different strategies and cost-benefit analyses to make, so cooperation among them may fall apart. Most likely to push for a referendum to exit the EU? Hungary (though the chances are still small).

This article originally published on Eurasia Live.