Central European Idea Still Has Merit

It would be pessimistic to see the idea of Central Europe failing altogether, but it is under threat.

The sun rises over Prague, the Czech Republic, February 26, 2011 (Sam Whitfield)

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and Western countries’ lackluster response to it, poses a serious challenge to the Central European idea that enabled the “Westernization” of former Soviet satellite states in the region during the last two decades. But it has hardly killed off an idea that remains a powerful rebuke to geography.

Andrew A. Michta, author of The Limits of Alliance: The United States, NATO and the EU in North and Central Europe (2006), may be too pessimistic when he argues in The American Interest that the idea of Central Europe — which he describes as “a freshly minted geostrategic entity, owing more to the Western belief in a new dawn of ‘Europe whole and free and at peace’ than to the hard power realities on the ground” — was a mirage from the start. That “Europe’s center-periphery dilemmas are again in full view” is certainly true, though. Indeed, it is within that very context that the Central European idea still has merit.

Michta allows that the idea of Central Europe was a potent tool of political transformation, “for it carried with it the promise that the ‘lands in-between’ could finally escape the dilemma of being the periphery of either the East or the West, depending on how great power competition unfolded.”

The concept implied connectivity with the Mitteleuropa of yore, relinked with Germany as a now benign leader of and partner in the European project.

In the nineteenth century, wrote Robert D. Kaplan in The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate (2012), Central Europe was “a zone of relative multiethnic tolerance under the umbrella of a benign if increasingly dysfunctional Habsburg Empire.” In the twentieth, it became a “rebuke to the geography of the Cold War.”

For Central Europe to properly exist, as a part of Europe, the nations there first need to be free and secure. The collapse of the Soviet empire and the subsequent admission of its client states to the European Union and NATO guaranteed both.

As Kaplan put it, if the countries in the region can survive as independent states, “there is a chance for the emergence of a Central Europe, in both a spiritual and geopolitical sense.”

But the “idea” of Central Europe also implies the region is no longer a contested zone for influence, as Michta suggests. And in that sense, it may very well be failing.

Russia’s aggression in Ukraine has revived security concerns across Europe’s eastern frontier. With it, the Central European nations’ “old peripheral status has resurfaced,” he writes.

Michta attributes the failing of the Central European idea not so much to Russia. Rather, it is Germany that plays the key role.

The Central European hedge rested on the assumption that Germany’s intraregional relationships, especially its relationship with Poland, would offset its Russian Ostpolitik as a historically dominant policy vector.

Central Europeans’ assumptions “rested on the premise that Germany’s commitment to the region trumped its historical sensitivity toward Russia,” he argues, “and that economic integration within the EU would ultimately displace those trends.”

Although Germany has cautioned against expanding NATO eastward, balking at letting in Georgia and Ukraine, and although it rejects permanent NATO bases in the Baltic states and Poland, it has also taken a harder line against Russia than many outside the country expected and economic integration with Central Europe is far more important to German business than trade relations with Russia.

Germany is also depending more on Poland, which shares its relatively liberal economic outlook and conservative fiscal instincts, to balance against protectionist and profligate France and Italy when the United Kingdom seems to be slowly retreating from the European Union.

At the same time, Germany recognizes Russia’s security concerns and remembers its own history. Whenever Germany and Russia ended up sharing a border, they were soon at war. Even if the Central European states are economically and politically largely integrated with Germany and the rest of Western Europe, they remain useful buffers between East and West.

It may altogether be too soon to tell if Germany is indeed failing the aspirations of Central Europeans.

What can be argued certainly is that it would be a mistake to omit the “Central” from “Central Europe.” The region has a culture of its own, similar to Western Europe’s but also influenced by the East. Regional integration, however actively backed by Germany, will not change that except perhaps in the very long term.

If the present East-West standoff is eventually to be resolved and Russia drawn into Europe again, Central Europe’s “in-between” identity and status might even prove useful.

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