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A Clear Message About the Murky Future of Central Europe

A visionary report calls on Central Europeans to be more assertive about their future. 

by Martin Ehl 21 January 2014

This year post-communist Central Europe enters into the second decade of its membership in the European Union. That pronouncement would be trivial – if Hungary didn't have its unorthodox economic policies; if the Czech Republic didn't have a presidential cabinet, without parliamentary approval, as its government; and if Europe weren’t living through an economic crisis and the euro zone weren’t struggling to ensure its very existence.


Such an anniversary can be either an opportunity for a boring review, or, conversely, a view to the future. A recent report by the consulting company McKinsey focused especially on how the future economy of the region might look through the eyes of Western analysts. This week, however, a group of local, mainly Polish and Slovak, experts will present their vision of the future of the Visegrad Four countries in Europe – significant also for the only rather-symbolic contributions from their Visegrad colleagues in the Czech Republic and Hungary.


The report is called "Central Europe Fit for the Future" and on dozens of pages (in the American way), the authors concisely summarize the state of the region and its potential if politicians would follow the recommendations of the experts in the report's conclusions. The document emerged as a result of several meetings of a group of governmental and nongovernmental experts and analysts, with Pawel Swieboda of the demosEUROPA think tank, a Polish expert on the European Union, and Slovak analyst Milan Nic of Bratislava's CEPI putting the report into its final form.


The Slovak and Polish authorship of the document – given, among other things, the recommendation that the region's countries be more assertive in shaping the future of the European Union – is not surprising. Poland as the sixth largest economy in the EU, and Slovakia as a member of the euro zone and faithful companion of Germany, have a natural and long-term interest in the functioning and prosperity of Europe. In the Czech Republic a sense of urgency about the need to actively influence the future shape of the union is missing. Czechs play at being Euroskeptics, while the Hungarians play at being, in essence, not in Europe.


The report addresses not only the economy but also the state of government institutions and security. The relationship of the region to Germany, which is the main trading partner, is analyzed, but not at all in terms of, for instance, security. Keeping in mind that American troops are pulling out of Europe, a common security and foreign policy in Central Europe should be one of the necessary pillars of stability (all of the countries, except the Czech Republic, are home to an external EU border). The region, the report says, should beat a path to Germany's door, since the United Kingdom, the main inspiration of Central European political thought for the last 20 years, and the ideological ally of local Euroskeptics, has been separating itself from the mainstream of European thought.


One of the most interesting features of the report is its attempt to introduce an Austrian element to the usual thinking about the Visegrad Four – including in the security arena. Another notable feature is that, unlike the McKinsey analysis, this report calls attention to problems beyond just the economy or security – such as the ticking demographic time bomb, the unsolved question of the Roma minority, and the condition of state institutions.


“What we are witnessing is part of an effort to overcome Central Europe’s historical legacy,” reads one of the report's key paragraphs. “Frequent political and institutional upheavals, in particular during the 20th century, prevented gradual change and consolidation of democratic norms and institutions. As a result, this region has weak institutions that are being exploited by vested interests and established groups. Institution building is still an unfinished business, and good governance in Visegrad countries often depends on the personal engagement of well-intentioned individuals.”


The report won't surprise those who are deeply interested in Central Europe, but it will engage them for how concisely yet precisely issues are dissected. Its urgency doesn't come in radical, unrealistic recommendations such as an immediate entry into the euro zone, but in the way in which the options and the recommendations are described, where even a small step in the right direction can make a difference.


The report is realistic and visionary at the same time, filling a vacuum that the region's politicians don't extricate us from. As for them, if they can spare the time from their fight for political survival, they put out fires born of the economic crisis and don’t offer voters even an outline of the options for development in the next few years. In addition, the Poles are too concentrated on drawing EU funds, the Slovaks on maintaining the budget regulations of the euro zone, the Hungarians on trying to galvanize the economy overall, the Czechs on finally inaugurating a full-fledged government into office, and investors from Austria on trying to understand it all.


The unwritten conclusion of this report is that if the Central Europeans don't become more active, at home and in the EU, about their future, their region will become the periphery – regardless of their geographical location. They will then have to hear tales of long-term prosperity from those emigrants who will be returning home for the holidays from their new homes in Western Europe.

Martin Ehl
 is the foreign editor of the Czech daily Hospodarske noviny, where this column originally appeared. He tweets at @MartinCZV4EU.
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