Ties with Germany Divide Central Europe

Benjamin Cunningham reports for Politico that Europe’s Visegrad Four are an “illusionary union”. The Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia are often lumped together in a Euroskeptic club hostile to closer integration, he writes — “wary of domination by big Western European countries like Germany and wary of accepting migrants, especially Muslims” — but they are actually riven by tensions.

In particular, the Czechs and Slovaks are keener than their fellow Central Europeans on building strong relations with Germany, their key economic and political ally.

The two also worry about being left on the sidelines if the European Union consolidates itself in reaction to the threat posed by Britain’s exit, according to Cunningham.

A confluence of politics and geopolitics helps explain this division. Read more “Ties with Germany Divide Central Europe”

Central Europeans Can’t Count on France Alone

François Hollande David Cameron
British prime minister David Cameron and French president François Hollande pay their respects at the First World War memorial in Pozières, March 3 (10 Downing Street/Georgina Coupe)

It’s an old Eastern Europe strategy: boxed in between Germany and Russia, you ally with Western nations, like France, to safeguard your independence.

It doesn’t always work. France restored Polish independence in 1807 and went to war, together with the United Kingdom, when the Germans and Russians invaded the Baltic states and Poland in 1939. But the West couldn’t kick Joseph Stalin out of Central and Eastern Europe after the war; the “betrayal” of Yalta that was only rectified 45 years later when the Iron Curtail came down.

The countries in the region then wisely reached out to United States, which is still the ultimate guarantor of their security. The Americans, after all, have no immediate stake in what the European balance of power looks like, as long as there is a balance.

Unlike the French. They have their own history of accommodation with Russia, in order to balance against German power.

It’s a history that may not be very relevant anymore, but it does help explain why France doesn’t see Russia the same way its neighbors do.

If Britain’s exit from the European Union shifts power to France, Europe’s only other major military and nuclear power, that’s not a happy prospect for Eastern Europe. Read more “Central Europeans Can’t Count on France Alone”

With Britain Out, Poland Must Repair Ties with Berlin

Poland mourns the British decision to leave the EU, Politico reports today. The nation that most shares Warsaw’s pro-American and market-oriented vision for the bloc is now on its way out.

As a result, the balance in Europe could shift in favor of the eurozone core, where some countries believe the answer must be deeper integration.

“This is not the appropriate solution,” argues Konrad Szymański, Poland’s Europe minister. “Such scenarios only bring closer the further disintegration of the EU.”

He’s right. But Poland isn’t in a strong position to block such centralization proposals because his conservative Law and Justice party has burned the bridges its liberal, Civic Platform predecessor built with Berlin. Read more “With Britain Out, Poland Must Repair Ties with Berlin”

Central Europeans Urge EU to Get Back to Basics

Central European countries have endorsed the call for a more modest European Union in the wake of Britain’s referendum vote to leave the bloc on Thursday.

“The work of the union should get back to basics,” argue the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia in a statement that was released on Tuesday: “upholding the fundamental principles upon which the European projects has been founded, using the full and genuine potential of the four freedoms, achieving the still incomplete single market.”

They also emphasize the need to listen to European citizens and the national parliaments. Read more “Central Europeans Urge EU to Get Back to Basics”

NATO to Deploy Battlegroups to Baltic States, Poland

NATO defense minister have agreed to station four battlegroups in the Baltic states and Poland to guard against Russian aggression in the region.

Britain, Canada, Germany and the United States would each send some 800 soldiers to protect the three Baltic nations as well as the narrow strip of land around the city of Suwałki that connects Poland and Lithuania.

Kaliningrad, Russia’s Baltic Sea enclave, lies to the northwest and Belarus, Russia’s closest ally, borders Lithuania and Poland to the south and east, respectively.

The plan falls short of Eastern European requests for permanent NATO bases in the region but still marks “the biggest reinforcement of our collective defense since the end of the Cold War,” said Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. Read more “NATO to Deploy Battlegroups to Baltic States, Poland”

Poland Ignores Expert Advice to Shoot Itself in the Foot

Poland’s ruling conservatives have vowed to abandon the free-market approach of their liberal predecessors in favor of a more paternalistic economic program that experts warn will weigh down on growth.

In an interview with the Rzeczpospolita newspaper that was published under the headline “Farewell to Neoliberalism,” Prime Minister Beata Szydło’s deputy, Mateusz Morawiecki, said that economic policy should “serve citizens, employees, entrepreneurs and Polish families, and not statistics, numbers and percentages.”

The problem, argued Morawiecki — an economist who ran Santander’s Polish banking operation for eight years — is that the country has “to a huge extent” become dependent on foreigners. Read more “Poland Ignores Expert Advice to Shoot Itself in the Foot”

Austrian Nationalists Take Risk by Demanding Recount

Austria’s nationalist Freedom Party is taking a risk with voters’ faith in their democracy by demanding a recount of the votes cast in last month’s presidential election, which it lost by a whisker.

Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache said on Wednesday there had been irregularities in the counting of postal votes, which might have swung the election in Alexander Van der Bellen’s favor.

Van der Bellen, formerly of the Green Party, defeated the Freedom Party’s Norbert Hofer by under 31,000 votes. Read more “Austrian Nationalists Take Risk by Demanding Recount”

Polish Reforms Endanger Rule of Law: Commission

The European Commission has formally censured Poland’s government for endangering the rule of law.

In an opinion published on Wednesday, the EU executive says that constitutional reforms enacted by the right-wing Law and Justice party since it came to power last year are anti-democratic.

It is the first time in EU history that the commission has slapped a member state on the wrist for undermining democracy. Read more “Polish Reforms Endanger Rule of Law: Commission”

Austria’s Presidential Election Was About the Next Election

Hohenwerfen Castle Austria
Hohenwerfen Castle in the Salzach valley of Austria, August 14, 2015 (Daniel Parks)

The near-victory of Norbert Hofer of the far-right Freedom Party in Austria’s presidential election has sent shockwaves around Europe. These have only partially been diminished by the revelation that Hofer, who led by a 52-48 percent margin on election night, actually lost to his Green Party opponent, Alexander Van der Bellen, by a margin of 30,000 votes once postal ballots were fully tallied.

Far-right parties have been enjoying an upsurge in support across Europe in recent years, but it has been rare for them to make it into government — and rarer still for them to make headway in electoral systems that do not use proportional representation.

The United Kingdom Independence Party managed to win only a single seat in the Britain’s Parliament in 2015 despite earning more than 13 percent of the vote. In France, the Front national came first during the initial round of regional elections this past year only to fail to win a single region when those races went to runoffs. Hofer’s achievement is therefore momentous in that he not only came first in the initial round of the presidential race with 35 percent but very nearly prevailed in the second round, when every other major candidate and party united against him. Read more “Austria’s Presidential Election Was About the Next Election”

Poland Warned Policies Will Damage Economy

Poland’s illiberal turn under the nationalist Law and Justice party is starting to damage the country’s economic prospects.

This weekend, the Moody’s ratings agency, which assesses the creditworthiness of states, switched Poland’s outlook to negative, blaming higher deficit spending and unpredictable public policy.

The International Monetary Fund agreed, warning that “downside risks” to the economy — Central Europe’s largest — have “intensified” in recent months.

Moody’s still considers Poland a reasonably safe investment. Its economy is diversified and has kept growing despite the upheavals in the neighboring eurozone. For a decade, it was the best-performing economy in the EU.

But the trend has been going the other way since Law and Justice returned to power last year. Read more “Poland Warned Policies Will Damage Economy”