Flexible against Populism: Central European Response to the EU Integration Problems

To tackle the issue of current problems of the EU, I have to start with clear statement that will place myself within the discussions concerning existence of the EU, her political system and preferred future way of European integration. I do feel myself to be Euro-federalist, a person who is convinced that reconciliation among European nations is not only needed and welcomed – it is also possible. In the same time, I am dealing with European comparative politics and contemporary Central and Western European political and social history in my daily academic business and these two factors influence my political thinking. Relating this rather general statement to assessment of contemporary stand of European Union, my experience and expertise tells me that something very important is wrong with contemporary settings of this political system. And, sadly to say, the most visible proponents of deepening of European integration should be blamed for contemporary state of things because they lost sense for historical and societal background of politics.


What I mean with this statement? The European integration seemed to reach the climax with building of the European Union in early 1990s. Political and administrative concentration has accompanied economic rapprochement since then. It was an important and thoroughly positive step from the perspective of new or – in some cases – renewed democracies. Delight was however soon followed by disappointment. There is a lesson to be learned from the processes of modern nations’ and states’ development: You can finalize political integration with pure decision of political elites but it takes time, it deserves respect to historical context, and it needs to be backed with elementary consensus among involved citizens to assure enduring stability of new political arrangement.


To put it in a nutshell, method of integration applied since the early 1990s that rushed new and new revisions of the Treaties almost without a break unfortunately paid no attention to this historical lesson. Modern nations have not emerged easily either but such attempts were mostly based in real existing cultural affinities and shared symbols starting with common language taming variety of vernaculars and finishing with comprehensible image of political community. We, conservatives, often unfortunately demonstrate unhealthy tendency to underestimate elements of violence and artificiality connected with nation-making processes thus to believe in idea that a nation is the only real natural community or collective entity. Historically, it is not. In contrast to liberals and socialist we however know how important was the role of time in the process of identification of a person with nation, state, and political community. And we do have little understanding for oppressive methods that speed-up uprooting of traditional regional identities in favor of national identity which were used for example during turning of “peasants into Frenchmen” in the period of French Revolution.


Contemporary political constructors of the EU are not perpetrating the same mistake (at least they are using more polite methods and less violent tools) but they are completely ignoring the fact that public needs time to digest new political framework. The more ambitious the political project is, the more time the public needs to get used to it. The EU project is extremely ambitious in this respect. I really don’t understand the rush that took over European political scene after creation of the Union. It seems to me that whirlwind of Treaties’ revisions and effort to crown the work with European Constitution as soon as possible are a product of arrogant approach of Enlightenment. According to it, rational construct justifies political activity regardless of traditions, feelings, and prejudices of the people. I don’t want to enter the discussion now to what extent is contemporary political system of the EU really product of rational reasoning. I would like to stress instead that the only defense against disruption of the EU is radical slowdown of the whole integration process even at the price of de facto disintegration in some fields.


What should the Central European conservatives do in such a situation? The basic point of departure remains the same as before: participation at the European integration is a key factor assuring political stability and economic prosperity in the region. Geopolitical position and historical experience of Central Europe show clearly that without strong and stable liaison to West (and – like it or not – EU is European West), Central Europe’s developmental trajectory could be easily deviated to the East. I beg hard Euro-skeptics among you for pardon: there is no real alternative to the EU membership for the Central European countries. Main question thus remains what should Central European countries strive for in the EU. I will offer rather general answer to this question recommending concentration on two issues: support of a flexible concept of European integration and fighting populism.


Let us start with flexible integration. I am not trying to invoke issue of two-speed Europe which counts on only one direction of deeper integration, only with different speed. If the tempo of integration slows down and the will to rethink already reached level of integration in concrete areas emerges, European integration will face more options of further development: deepening, remaining at already reached level, or even a reversion of integration when it proves to be neither economically effective nor politically feasible. It is obvious that the views of member states regarding the scope and tempo of integration are not the same. It is clear that the wished extent of integration in various areas will be different. We have to accept this fact as an advantage and opportunity, not to see it as a problem. A conservative knows that needs of the people are not the same and that the needs of the member countries are not the same alike. More flexible integration fits thus better to reality of EU-27 than unique direction and single speed.


There is another potential advantage of more flexible concept of the EU building, namely a potential to restore or at least increase the control capacity of the member states. In regard to democratic deficit and non-existence of European space for public debate and European demos, we should consider strong inter-governmental element in institutional structure as a safeguard of democratic character of the EU. The key to sustaining of democratic nature of the Union is neither in strengthening of the European Parliament nor in useless effort to open the gate for activist of NGOs who are very often not defending interest of civil society but very partial own interests. The key is in maintaining or even restoring the principles of intergovernmental control.


On the other hand, there is no need to restrict efforts to create real European identity as a complement to national, regional, local and other collective identities of Europeans. Mainly support of cultural exchange and support of mobility of students, scholars, and employers have positive consequences for bringing the European populations closer together. But we should get rid of illusion that the new European will emerge at the end of the day who resigns his Polish, Hungarian, or Czech identity. Such a process takes lots of time and the vision of creation of a federal European Union is hardly possible to be accomplished before its end. Until that time, interests of Europeans must be considered in such way as they are represented by their national governments and parliaments. Division of powers inside institutional structures of the EU should conform to this. Nowadays, the balance of powers was shifted too much in favor of supranational institutions. These supranational institutions are vulnerable vis-à-vis claims of some strong member states as we could observe today. And everybody can guess that I am not talking about Central European countries now.


The second goal of Central European conservatives should be fighting populism. Sure, certain dose of populism is inevitable in democracy but it mustn’t be exaggerated. Populism is growing in contemporary European democracies and it is not connected only with extreme left or extreme right. Mainstream parties’ populism is growing as well. Such a trend has some exogenous and endogenous reasons. The most important factor exogenous to political system is the arising medialization of politics. “Videocracy” – to use a term coined by Govanni Sartori – has tendency to simplify complicated political problems and media are becoming more creators of political reality and agenda setters than “pure” watchdogs of democracy. One of the main endogenous factors is based in over-personalization of politics which is related to expansion of sophisticated techniques of political marketing in an environment of highly spread influence of electronic media on shape, direction, and content of political discourse.


Nevertheless, the most important factor is the pressure of the voters. Historically unprecedented increase of welfare and stability in Western Europe after 1945 and Central Europe after the first phase of transition in the beginning of the 1990s has increased the level of expectations of Europeans in the same time. It has fostered new political claims as well. Claims that “must” be – very often in a populist way – cherished and fulfilled by politicians aimed at re-election. It has been however shown that the state is no more able to cope with increasing list of tasks or, more precisely, that the state apparatus does not suffice. The last decades witnessed swift increase of state bureaucracy. Still the state shows lack of ability to face new increasing demands. Relatively new trend is to increase the capacity to solve political problems by externalization of state administration tasks outside the direct state influence to non-state agencies.


It makes sense at the first sight (and it was a product of Thatcher’s neo-conservative revolution once) but it leads to de-politicization of many important processes of citizens’ regulation and public sources’ allocation. Political power is translated or transformed to decisive power of institutions without direct political control. This trend includes many processes like judicialization of politics connected to expanding political role of Courts and judges, certain decline of national parliaments’ powers called de-parlamentarization in favor of executive branch and bureaucracy, decline of parliaments as places of political discussion in favor of their more technocratic operation, and general increase of importance of non-political administration. Such trend is even more visible in the EU than in the member states.


We can see that trend of populist politics (both in its style and content) and trend of de-politicization went hand in hand and are complementary to each other. It looks like a sort of spiral in which increasing demands stimulate further transfers of competences outside the reach of direct political control. This spiral however brings dangerous political consequences: increasing disgust of citizens with politics caused by the fact that the voters are feeling that they are losing control of political processes on one hand but they are demanding maximal guarantees and redistribution of new “public” services on the other hand. The criticism of political clientelism and corruption is growing not only in the Czech Republic but we can object that overstretched welfare state could be seen as a sort of institutionalized of clientelist network for voters of specific groups of voters. I am overstating a bit but I am trying to demonstrate that the way of solving political problems is rational reflection of limits of public services instead of their automatic expansion.


I am aware that I am addressing the quest for Central European countries’ cooperation in contemporary EU in rather vague way. The problem is that Central European countries are employing divergent tactics when coping with the EU related issues. The Czech Republic is actually keeping out of the EU Fiscal Pact but this could be an object of change with different party composition of the Czech cabinet. Poland is trying hard to be active and to become direct influence in the debate now. Hungary is politically something ostracized by now and Slovakia digests her new government after premature elections.


It is hard to say whether the passive opposition close to views of many right-wing Central European politicians is better than active participation at the expense of support for some not very good decisions pushing European integration more or less openly forwards. I would say that the problem of Central Europe (including Poland which very size favors pro-active approach) lies in the fact that it almost doesn’t matter in the framework of the EU-27. I personally think that cooperation at the platforms like Visegrád Group is very important and welcomed. But of no less importance is to look for allies regardless to difference between the EU-15 and “new” member states. This means for Central Europeans primarily to communicate with Germany. Germany is extremely important both in political and economic terms for Central Europe as well as for further development of the EU. Not because compatibility of German and Central European conservative vision of further integration course. Frankly they are more opposite to each other. But without elaborated effort to influence German policy, there is no realistic way of increasing influence of Central European countries in European integration debates. Some other countries should be intensively contacted as well be it the UK, the Low Countries (and among them especially the Netherlands) or some Scandinavian countries.


Author works as the director of International Institute of Political Science and as an associate professor at Department of International Relations and European Studies at the Faculty of Social Studies, Masaryk University in Brno, Czech Republic. His research interests cover contemporary European history and comparative politics of European countries.

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