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That European Question

A recent poll on attitudes toward the EU in the Visegrad countries reveals split views of Brussels – something local politicians have been all too ready to exploit.

by Martin Ehl 16 May 2018

As populism and nationalism have increasingly become the common driving feature of Central European politics over the past few years, the future of these countries located in the region between Germany and Ukraine would seem to be more and more connected to their relationship with the European Union. What was a strategic political goal in the 1990s, and an energizing and modernizing factor in the 2000s, has become one of the most divisive topics of political discourse since the 2008 financial crisis. It has also growingly (and surprisingly) come to define the domestic political frontlines in Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia.

 

In this regard, recent opinion research done by Globsec Trends 2018, and published in time for this week’s annual Globsec conference in Bratislava, has shown a couple of interesting trends. Half of Czechs, Slovaks, and Hungarians surveyed in February  and March somewhat prefer a geopolitical orientation between East and West, while a majority of (especially older) Poles indicated their clear, pro-Western stance. Such views, it should be remembered, come after 14 years of EU membership.

 

The result also indicated trends that might be a bit unexpected. The Globsec poll reveals growing support for the EU among Czechs and Slovaks, who have typically been more Eurosceptical than their Hungarian and Polish counterparts. The positive perception of the EU has, however, been decreasing in Poland and Hungary where Eurobarometer polls have long shown far higher levels of support for the EU than elsewhere in the union.

 

This complicated relationship with the EU and its possible repercussions were illustrated in practice twice last week.

 

Hungarian leader Viktor Orban, whose Fidesz party won elections in April for the third time in a row, has officially taken the post of prime minister once again. In his swearing-in ceremony, Orban mentioned the European Union in his speech to parliament a number of times: as a source of money, and as what he said should be a more loosely organized “alliance of free nations.” He also urged a “return to reality,” mainly in relation to migrants. Orban’s government will oppose multiculturalism and political correctness, he said, defining the future diplomatic stance of his country as a balancing act between Berlin, Moscow, and Istanbul.

 

Over in Prague, acting Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis spent his week still attempting to cobble together a government that would be able to gain a majority in parliament. The proposal of a coalition agreement with the Social Democrats mentions general support for Czech EU membership, but also includes a clear attack on EU migration policy. This is the sole, concrete topic mentioned in relation to the EU.

 

In a big interview with my newspaper, the Czech daily Hospodarske noviny, Babis, who gets angry when called an Eurosceptic, spoke about the Czech relationship with Europe. The interview was published the day after the start of a pro-European governmental campaign.

 

In the interview, the Czech prime minister repeats the economic argument for EU membership and his aspirations to remain part of the union, but said he favored a change in migration policy. Two interesting points in the discussion spoke volumes about Babis's pragmatism – and his actual attitude toward Europe. He said that he didn’t remember if and how he had voted in the EU membership referendum in 2003. And he did not clarify after being repeatedly asked if he was politically closer to Orban’s calls for the death of liberalism, or to German chancellor Angela Merkel. (Just as a side note, according to the Globsec survey, 34 percent of Czechs support Merkel's policies, and 38 percent Czechs seem to have never heard of Orban or didn’t know enough about him to answer.)

 

Even politicians who thus would be happy to accuse the EU for any evil are careful when playing the once, very popular blame game towards Brussels. They need their Western partners – and the EU’s money.

 

But at the same time there is a very probable shift within the European views of societies. While Slovaks have more or less a united vision, with the majority of political parties in favor of the country having a role in the EU core (defined mainly as the eurozone), they also have an openly fascist and anti-EU party in parliament. The Polish governing conservatives are attempting to smooth over their conflicts with the EU over the rule of law and other issues while continuing to spout a more hardcore rhetoric at home. That tactic has been mastered by Orban, who has been  walking on that particular edge since his overwhelming victory in 2010. And it seems that Babis is going in the same direction.

 

Meanwhile, under the surface, a shift in opinion toward the EU appears to be taking place within the societies that voted “yes” with great majorities in EU membership referendums 15 years ago. And that shift also concerns generational divides. According to the Globsec survey, only 27 percent of  young Poles aged 18 to 24 support the Western orientation of their country, which is the weakest such percentage among the Visegrad Four. And this is not the only poll that suggests that young voters from the region see things a bit differently then their parents in relation to where their countries should belong politically.

 

It seems that hard historical lessons are not being taught and understood in Central Europe, and that EU supporters should start to think about how to change that before it is too late.

Martin Ehl 
is the foreign editor of the Czech daily Hospodarske noviny. He tweets at @MartinCZV4EU.
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