Ties with Germany Divide Central Europe

Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán arrives for a meeting with other European People's Party leaders, December 13, 2012
Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán arrives for a meeting with other European People’s Party leaders, December 13, 2012 (EPP)

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

Central Europeans Urge EU to Get Back to Basics

Bohuslav Sobotka, Robert Fico, Beata Szydło and Viktor Orbán, the prime ministers of the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and Hungary, meet in Prague, June 8
Bohuslav Sobotka, Robert Fico, Beata Szydło and Viktor Orbán, the prime ministers of the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and Hungary, meet in Prague, June 8 (PiS)

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

Germany’s Schengen Threat to Central Europe Backfires

German chancellor Angela Merkel speaks with Czech prime minister Bohuslav Sobotka in Berlin, March 25, 2014
German chancellor Angela Merkel speaks with Czech prime minister Bohuslav Sobotka in Berlin, March 25, 2014 (Bundesregierung)

When Germany temporarily shut its border with Austria this weekend and warned that the Schengen visa-free travel agreement would be at risk if Central European nations didn’t admit more immigrants, it seemed an ill-veiled threat to those states that have benefited the most from unimpeded access to the West.

But so far, it isn’t working.

On Tuesday, Hungary closed its border with Serbia altogether and said it would turn back asylum seekers who had crossed through a country it now considers safe.

In the early hours of Wednesday, Austria — which earlier likened Hungary’s policy to Nazi deportations — followed suit.

Serbia said the Hungarian measure was “unacceptable” and responded by bussing migrants to the border with Croatia instead, another European Union member state.

The moves come after European interior ministers failed to agree on a quota system at a Monday summit in Brussels.

The European Commission has proposed distributing asylum seekers proportionately across the countries that are in the European Union. Germany and Sweden now take in far more immigrants relative to their size than most. Germany’s Thomas de Maizière suggested that nations that don’t comply with the scheme — which could be forced through by a majority — should be penalized.

“I think we must talk about ways of exerting pressure,” the German minister told ZDF television before pointing out that some of the countries that oppose quotas are net beneficiaries of European Union funds.

Millions of workers from the former East Bloc nations that joined the union in 2004 have also benefited from Europe’s free-movement policy and its internal market to find jobs in richer Western countries.

But the Central Europeans won’t budge. Tomáš Prouza, the Czech state secretary for European affairs, said De Maizière’s threat was “empty but very damaging.” Slovakia’s prime minister, Robert Fico, insisted that his government would never agree to quotas and that threats of financial retaliation could lead to “the end of the EU.”

Slovakia earlier said it would prefer to only take in Christian refugees while Hungary’s Viktor Orbán argued that the migrant crisis was Germany’s to deal with. “Nobody would like to stay in Hungary so we don’t have difficulties with those who would like to stay in Hungary,” he said.

His German counterpart, Angela Merkel, backpedaled on Tuesday, saying, “I don’t think threats are the right way to achieve agreement.”

She expects Germany to take in as many as one million asylum seekers this year from the Balkans, the Middle East and North Africa. The cost of processing and sheltering the record number of migrants could be as high as €10 billion.

For weeks, Germany has warned that it may not be able to bear the strain. Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel said that now-welcoming attitudes toward newcomers could change if local governments are forced to choose “between caring for refugees and renovating a school or financing a swimming pool.”

Conservative German politicians have argued that Western Balkan nations, such as Serbia, should be declared “safe” so asylum seekers from the region can be returned.

Many applicants from the Balkans, numbering in the tens of thousands, are sent back already but they each need to be assessed anyway, delaying the process for refugees from countries like Syria.

Germany absorbed millions of refugees from the East in the aftermath of World War II and now has around 1.5 million citizens of Turkish descent and another two million from countries that used to be in the Soviet bloc.

Hungary, Poland and Slovakia, by contrast, are ethnically more homogenous than their Western neighbors and had far more traumatic experiences with population transfers during and immediately after the war.

Yet they are not the only ones wary of admitting more immigrants from especially Muslim states.

Denmark, where the nationalist Danish People’s Party got 21 percent of the votes in June’s election, closed a motorway and rail links with Germany last week in an attempt to stop migrants heading north to Sweden.

In the Netherlands, the Freedom Party is the largest in the polls and advocates leaving the European Union altogether to stop what it describes as the “Islamization” of the country.

In France, former president and conservative party leader Nicolas Sarkozy has said that Europe’s second largest nation may need to pull out of Schengen. He also argues that quotas will only make the crisis worse if they attract more asylum seekers.

The Socialist administration of François Hollande is ambivalent.

Germany’s only real allies on the issue are the very countries that resist its austerity program of fiscal consolidation and liberalization in the eurozone: Italy and Greece. They are bearing the brunt of the crisis on the Mediterranean. More than 400,000 people have made the dangerous boat crossing this year alone. The majority came through Turkey to European problem child Greece.

Mass Migration Seen Dividing Europe, Attitudes Harden

African refugees are rescued by the Belgian navy in the Mediterranean
African refugees are rescued by the Belgian navy in the Mediterranean (Frontex)

Mass immigration into the European Union is threatening to overwhelm governments and calling into question member states’ commitment to free travel within the bloc.

The German interior minister, Thomas de Maizière, warned on Wednesday that unless other European countries agreed to take in more refugees, the lack of border controls within the Schengen Area would be unsustainable.

“In the long run, there won’t be any Schengen without Dublin,” he said, referring to the agreement signed in the Irish capital that requires refugees to claim asylum in the country they first arrive in. Some border states, including Greece and Italy, have been lax in enforcing the rule, allowing refugees to travel north and claim asylum there.

De Maizière reported that Germany expects 800,000 refugees will arrive in the country this year. “Germany cannot bear the strain if, as has been the case, around 40 percent of all asylum seekers to Europe come here,” he said.

107,500 migrants arrived in Europe in July alone, a record number. 37,500 of them applied for asylum in Germany.

The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung estimates that the refugees will cost Germany up to €10 billion this year.

Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, a Social Democrat, said Europe had “failed miserably” in its approach. “It is a shame that many countries inside the EU do not want to take in any refugees or only accept a small number of them,” he told the Rheinischen Post.

In June, leaders rejected a quota system to more equally distribute migrants after hundreds had died in the Mediterranean when their boats capsized. Bulgaria, Hungary and the United Kingdom pulled out of even a voluntary arrangement to spread 60,000 asylum seekers across member states. Countries did agree to deploy naval forces to stop the smuggling of people across the sea.

Germany and Sweden admit more migrants relative to the size of their population than most while all new member states in Central and Eastern Europe except Bulgaria and Hungary take in less than half the asylum seekers they would under a proportionate system.

Austria has threatened to launch a legal challenge against the European Commission’s “unfair” proposal for a quota system. It also urged the commission on Wednesday to enforce the Dublin rules so migrants can be returned to their country of arrival.

A commission spokesperson responded saying, “This is definitely not the right time to take each other to court. It is the time to show solidarity and implement the ambitious migration agenda put forward by the European Commission.”

The same day, Slovakia said it would only accept Christian refugees anymore. Prime Minister Robert Fico cited “security risks” while a spokesman for the Interior Ministry referred to the absence of mosques in the country and told the BBC, “How can Muslims be integrated if they do not feel comfortable here?”

Hungary is building a razor-wire fence along its border with Serbia in an attempt to keep out the 300,000 migrants who are expected to arrive there this year.

Although few asylum seekers settle in Hungary, it is the main entry point for migrants from the Balkans.

In addition to refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, some 40 percent of asylum applicants in Germany are from poor Balkan states, such as Albania, Kosovo and Serbia.

Handelsblatt reports that support is growing in Germany to recognize the Balkan states as safe to make it easier to return refugees there. Even left-wing leaders in the states of Baden-Württemberg, Bremen and Hamburg favor the proposal but others are wary.

Gabriel warned that German attitudes toward migrants could shift dramatically if local governments are forced to choose “between caring for refugees and renovating a school or financing a swimming pool.” Current capacity to house refugees will be inadequate if indeed as many as 800,000 arrive this year.

Tens of thousands took the streets of Dresden in former East Germany last year to protest against what they saw as the “Islamization” of Europe. The demonstrations were denounced as xenophobic by the German establishment but the sentiment is resonating elsewhere.

In Sweden, traditionally one of the most welcoming European nations to migrants, the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats would now get 25 percent support, a recent YouGov poll found, making them the country’s largest party.

In the Netherlands, the nationalist Freedom Party, whose leader, Geert Wilders, is an ardent critic of Islam, is vying for second place in the polls, behind the ruling liberals.

In France, the Front national‘s Marine Le Pen could get up to a third of the votes in the first voting round of the 2017 presidential election, all but guaranteeing a victory for the conservative Nicolas Sarkozy, a hardliner on immigration, in the runoff.

In Bid to Divide Europe, Russia Expands “Gas War” to Slovakia

Russia appeared to expand its retaliation against Western sanctions on Thursday by cutting in half its natural gas flows to European Union member state Slovakia. Prime Minister Robert Fico told a news conference in Bratislava his country had been caught up in a “political war where gas is being used as a weapon.”

After an emergency government session, Fico said the national gas company SSP had concluded a five year deal with Germany’s E.on to receive up to two million cubic meters of gas per day via Austria to compensate for the drop in Russian supplies.

Fico said SPP had recorded a more than 50 percent decline in flows for the second day in a row after smaller reductions throughout September.

A pipeline otherwise used to deliver Russian gas through Slovakia to the Czech Republic could be used to reverse flows. Read more

Slovak Coalition Collapses After EU Bailout Vote

The Slovak parliament approved expansion of Europe’s temporary bailout fund on Tuesday night but not before losing confidence in Prime Minister Iveta Radičová’s government. She tendered her resignation to compel the left-wing opposition to vote with the ruling party.

Eurozone leaders agreed to expand the €440 billion European Financial Stability Fund this summer to enable it to not only provide aid to heavily indebted nations in the periphery of the currency union but also to respond with short-term lines of credit to banks and governments in financial difficulty.

Slovakia was the last eurozone nation to ratify expansion of the rescue fund which has been used by Ireland and Portugal to finance their borrowing costs.

The vote broke up Radičová’s four party coalition. The junior Freedom and Solidarity party, a libertarian and Euroskeptic platform, abstained from an initial vote on expanding the EFSF. The three conservative factions in the coalition did approve the measure as did the opposition Social Democrats during a second vote. They had conditioned their support on early elections however which they hope will return them to government.

Slovakia, one of the poorest members of the eurozone, joined the single currency area in 2009 and voted against the Greek bailout the next year when it was keen to point out that average pensions and salaries in Slovakia are far lower than those in Greece, even after they were cut in austerity measures. Slovakia did approve the creation of the EFSF in May of last year.

The Rise of a New Right in Europe

Old school socialists may allege that the credit crunch once and for all proved that free-market capitalism and globalization had failed yet across Europe, a new generation of liberal and conservative politicians is stepping up who favor even smaller government.

In the wake of the financial crisis, social democrat and labor parties across Europe lost ground to both their larger conservative counterparts as well as third or fourth party liberals who championed deregulation and austerity. As countries braced for spending cuts this summer, from Britain to the Netherlands to the Czech Republic, voters had greater confidence in candidates who were frank about the need to slash public spending than politicians on the left who resisted any suggestion of welfare reform.

In Germany, the Social Democrats lost dramatically in 2009, surrendering almost a third of their seats in parliament while the liberal Free Democrats fared well. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats remained in power but have since been able to govern on the right and implement necessary spending.

Defense minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg is routinely mentioned as a possible successor of Merkel’s as head of the Christian Democrats in Germany and his popularity would almost certainly assure him of electoral gains. He cultivates the image of a moderate and a centrist, rather similar to the forward looking cosmopolitanism of the Free Democrats though with an aristocratic streak. From Bavaria, Guttenberg actually belongs to the slightly more leftist affiliate of the main conservative party which may allow him to mend some minor discord between the two on immigration policy.

In Britain, David Cameron’s Conservatives returned to power on a similar platform, promising to rein in spending whereas Labor insisted that government had to continue to direct the economy if it weren’t to imperil a still fragile recovery. In coalition with the centrist Liberal Democrats, Cameron’s administration is committed to entitlement reform and has started to cut spending across the board — except for health care and foreign aid.

The exemptions are characteristic of Cameron’s approach to conservatism. While he is urging Britons to take on greater responsibility for their lives, reminding them that government cannot be there for them at every turn, Cameron does not present himself as a free-market purist. Government is nevertheless expected to contract more seriously in the years ahead than it did during Margaret Thatcher’s reign in the 1980s.

Cameron’s Dutch counterpart Mark Rutte also believes that government should be less expansive. His right-wing coalition, with the Liberal Party, for the first time in its history, as the senior partner, is cutting in foreign aid budget, slashing subsidies for arts and culture and it intends to rein in welfare spending.

The political right has been on the rise in the Netherlands for quite some time as the anti-establishment Freedom Party of Geert Wilders continues to prosper in the polls. Across Europe populism is gaining strength in fact, forcing liberals and conservatives on the right to adopt more stringent positions on immigration and security.

Anti-immigration parties are already strong in Denmark and Norway and earlier this year, the nationalist Sweden Democrats managed to win parliamentary seats for the first time in their existence. The response from the liberal side has been quite the opposite from that on the rest of the continent however as Prime Minister John Fredrik Reinfeldt moved his Moderate Party to the center in order to appeal to formerly leftist voters. Like David Cameron, who has vowed to protect the British National Health Service from austerity measures, Reinfeldt presents himself as the guardian of Sweden’s pervasive welfare state despite his party’s traditional support for deregulation, privatizations and tax cuts.

Such pragmatism has been less pronounced in Central Europe where this summer several countries took a right turn. In both the Czech Republic and Slovakia relative newcomers did exceptionally well, including Most-Híd and Freedom and Solidarity in Slovakia, centrist and neoliberal respectively, led by Christian Democrat Prime Minister Iveta Radičová as well as TOP 09 in the neighboring Czech Republic which has been particularly popular with urban and young voters.

TOP 09, which boasts “Tradition, Responsibility, Prosperity” as its slogan and was founded just last year by aristocratic foreign affairs minister Prince Karel Schwarzenberg, is both highly in favor of European integration and a proponent of further market liberalization. It formed a government with the similarly capitalist thought slightly more conservative Civic Democratic Party of President Václav Klaus who is an economist by training and an admirer of Margaret Thatcher’s, as well as another newcomer, Public Affairs, which campaigned on transparency in government and fiscal restraint.

A certain degree of pragmatism and centrist appeal may have helped propel pro-market parties to power in Northwestern Europe but there is a danger in this strategy. Without coherent vision about the future and proper role of government in people’s lives, conservatives and liberals now often in coalition risk alienating part of their newfound electorate, if not to outspoken socialist then probably to populists who used to reside on the fringes of national politics but now offer a safe haven in tradition and Euroskepticism.

The fate of small-government conservatives and neoliberals in Central Europe is evidence that electoral success for politicians does not necessarily depend on their ability or willingness to compromise. Even if people increasingly vote on issues while party loyalty is scarce, they will always appreciate ideological honesty and clarity from their leaders.