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Failure to Connect

With European elections approaching, most politicians across Central Europe still can’t figure out how to explain the EU.

by Martin Ehl 13 May 2014

It was almost sad. There was Richard Sulik, the former liberal star of Slovakia’s politics and even for a while speaker of parliament, standing at a lectern in late March on Slovak National Uprising Square in Bratislava. As the country’s presidential campaign was reaching its peak, he was trying to attract voters to his candidacy for the European Parliament. Most people didn't notice him.


On the other hand, Sulik’s Freedom and Solidarity Party is almost the only one to take seriously the European elections, which will be held in two weeks. That’s a reflection not just of attitudes toward Europe (Sulik’s party is rather euro skeptical) but also of how much parties can and want to give to the campaign. Most in Slovakia, like their Czech and Hungarian counterparts, are financially exhausted by other recent elections. For Polish political parties, though, the European elections are the main event this year – and they are approaching them more seriously, responsibly, and energetically.


Generally in Europe radical and populist parties are expected to make more emphatic gains in the elections, although it’s not clear if that will be true in post-communist Central Europe. In any event, low turnout could produce the same result.


Throughout Europe, an average of only 43 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots in the last European elections. According to an April survey conducted in 12 EU countries by the lpsos-MORI agency, an even smaller number, just 35 percent, are preparing to vote this time. They are likely to be particularly loyal or disgruntled voters.


In various surveys on the 10th anniversary of accession, the countries that are most reserved about their EU membership are the Czechs and Hungarians, while the Poles are the most euro-enthusiastic. Poland – its people and its elites – simply decided to take advantage of this historic opportunity, as much as possible, to move the center of gravity of their civilization from the East to the West – even though Poles, too, have their share of complaints about Brussels.


The Ukraine crisis, for example, has shown how the boundary of the West has moved physically and mentally. As noted many times, GDP per capita in 1990 was roughly the same in Poland and Ukraine. Now in Poland the figure is three times higher. However, that issue is not being addressed in the election campaigns. Voters seem more concerned about how much members of the European Parliament, who have a much stronger role since the Lisbon Treaty, get paid. And candidates return the favor by promising things the European Parliament cannot influence – such as the introduction of the euro in the Czech Republic.


Politicians are not doing much to help voters understand how the European Parliament can be useful. Hungary, after four years of the conservative Fidesz government, is perhaps an extreme example. Before the April parliamentary elections, Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his colleagues often warned of the dangers of Brussels. And his government has become known for unorthodox economic policies, which often went against the logic of what was happening in the rest of the union.


But Laszlo Kover, the old-new parliamentary speaker and a Fidesz leader, last week called for stronger European integration and above all harmonization of national economic policies, which would, he said, increase the union’s competitiveness. For his part, one of the opposition leaders, former Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai, said at a pre-election meeting that in the European Parliament elections Hungarians would decide on which side of the “Iron Curtain” they want to belong. He said the European policy of both the governing Fidesz and extremist Jobbik parties are moving Hungary closer to Russia.


Maybe this Hungarian vision of the European elections is too fatalistic. But it shows that even after 10 years, the membership of Central European post-communist countries in the union is not a natural part of political thinking, to be taken for granted, as it seems to be in euro-optimistic Poland or the Baltic states.

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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