The reassertion of Central Europeans is beginning to change the face of politics in the Old Continent. The so-called Visegrád countries – Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia – have made considerable economic strides, while generally maintaining moderate income inequality and relatively low poverty.
Now these nations are increasingly consolidating as a bloc and challenging the liberal-internationalist leadership of the European Union, which had traditionally been dominated by Western countries. The Visegrád bloc is increasingly articulating an alternative “conservative” vision of what Europe should be.
All the Visegrád countries now have leaders who could be fairly described as national-populists. In Western Europe, their rhetoric would often put them at the far-right of the political spectrum: they typically reject migrants and Islam, and do not wish to reproduce the Westerners’ experiment in multiculturalism in their own countries. This has led to clashes with Western Europe, notably Angela Merkel’s Germany, and the European Commission, who have advocated the welcoming of millions of refugees and the distribution of thousands across Central Europe.
Furthermore, the Visegrád bloc has been shifting towards a soft euroscepticism. A symbolic example of this was Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydło’s decision upon taking office to remove EU flags from press briefings. In general, public opinion in these countries has supported membership of the EU, which was associated with the security and prosperity of the liberal West. What’s more, Central Europeans benefit economically from the many billions of euros in financial aid and from the right to work in Western Europe with its much higher salaries.
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However, the governments of Central Europe are generally reluctant to cede more powers to the EU. Only Slovakia is a member of the long-struggling Euro common currency area. The others have become increasingly wary of joining, at least until the monetary union is put on a sound footing.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, no doubt the most radical of Central European leaders, has even copied the controversial U.S. President Donald Trump’s slogan, calling to “make Europe great again.” For Orbán however this implies abandoning “the illusion of federalism” rather than the creation of a strong European state with the size and clout to rival America or China.
Furthermore, all these nations – with the exception of Poland – have made various pro-Russian statements, and implied that they would ideally want a reconciliation and reinforcement of economic ties with Moscow. This bodes ill for the maintenance of the EU’s sanctions against Russia, in retaliation for the annexation of Crimea, and which can only be maintained by unanimity. More generally, Trump’s traumatic surprise electoral win in the United States is likely to embolden Central European conservatives in challenging Brussels and Berlin’s leadership of the EU.
Whatever one thinks of all this, it is questionable whether the Visegrád bloc has much of a plan to restore Europe to “greatness.” Borders and national sovereignty will not in themselves stem Europe’s steady decline in the twenty-first century.
The area in which this is most apparent is perhaps demographics. Central Europe faces severe medium-term decline in the face of ongoing emigration – while wages have risen, they remain much higher in the West – and extremely low fertility, which goes from 1.3 children per woman in Poland to 1.5 in the Czech Republic.
As a result, the European Commission projects that all these nations, with the exception of the Czech Republic, will see a drastic decline in population between now and 2080, falling by as much as 25 percent. In Poland, this would mean almost 10 million less people. This will inevitably mean a weaker Central Europe in the world, with a rapidly-shrinking labor force obligated to commit an ever-greater share of resources to an exploding population of pensioners.
Women have been reticent to have children in a context of traditional gender norms, low wages, and inadequate childcare. The Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Sustainable Government Indicators (SGI) project reports that in the case of Slovakia:
Working women face an enormous double burden of both professional and domestic responsibilities. This situation is reinforced by the low incidence of part-time employment, income tax splitting and the relatively long duration of parental leave. Child-care facilities are limited and have not kept up with the increase in birth rates. Child care for children under three years of age in particular continues to be virtually unavailable. Larger towns have insufficient kindergarten slots.
Central European governments have attempted to raise fertility through pro-family policies, generally of a conservative bent. In Hungary, Orbán has increased parental leave from two to three years and instituted tax breaks for families. The SGI’s latest Hungary report observed that the government “has aimed at stabilizing traditional family models rather than at improving opportunities for women to combine parenting and employment” and has aimed to “lur[e] women away from the labor market.”
In Poland, the previous liberal government instituted “an extension of parental leave from three months to one year, increased public spending for the construction and maintenance of crèches, and a cap on kindergarten fees,” as the SGI Poland report notes. The new conservative government in Warsaw has furthermore instituted costly child benefits worth €115 per month, which may have contributed to a modest increase in births last year.
The results of such measures, thus far, have been limited however. The reality is that the best performers in terms of fertility today are to be found in Western and northern Europe – notably France, Great Britain, and the Nordic countries – where there are liberal attitudes towards women, more generous childcare facilities, and measures for work-life balance. Perhaps similar measures could also help in Central Europe. The welcoming of skilled migrants would also help counter these demographic trends and be economically beneficial.
The case of demographics shows the weaknesses of Visegrád’s alternative vision for Europe. Borders and national sovereignty are indeed means of slowing change, including undesirable change. But in themselves, they would do little to halt Europe’s decline to an elderly collection of statelets on the western Eurasian periphery. No doubt more creative and forward-looking measures are needed to prevent such a scenario and secure a sovereign Europe’s place among this century’s leading powers.
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