The Visegrád countries have a difficult standing in Europe today. At a time when hundreds of thousands of refugees flood the continent, there is an outcry in parts of Western Europe about the lack of solidarity Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia show in sharing the burden. Many ask: how can those societies that produced millions of refugees during the Cold War and that have benefitted the most from EU enlargement
be so unwilling to accept their “fair share of responsibility”?
Of course, the Western European conception of Central Europe is still marked by half-truths and prejudices. Very few truly understand the complex historical roots of the Visegrád countries and consequently their approach to political matters. Some of these roots are in fact closely associated with Europe’s imperialist and nationalist past for which Western European powers bear partial co-responsibility.
Poles, Hungarians, Czechs and Slovaks were strongly influenced by the rise of ethnic nationalism in Europe in the 19th century. The First and Second World Wars strengthened rather than weakened ethnic nationalist thinking. Since then the belief that their own language and culture can best be defended by getting rid of existing minorities and by preventing the emergence of new ones has been consolidated.
While Germany was forced to deal with the excesses of her nationalist past, Czechoslovakia and Poland got away with the expulsion of twelve million ethnic Germans and some Hungarians after World War II. They still manage to justify this act in their conception of history. This helps them maintain an underlying ethnic nationalist and collectivist rather than individualist approach to political and human rights questions, although in Poland in a slightly differentiated way as more than a million Poles themselves were victims of post-war expulsions.
An important aspect of the national self-conception in Central Europe is that their own language and culture is usually given the role of the historical victim while other ethnic groups are collectively portrayed as aggressors. This view is transmitted from one generation to the next by the education system, the media and the political system.
As a result of this ethnic nationalist political conception, Central Europe has mutated from one of the greatest melting pots of languages, religions and cultures to the embodiment of monoculturalism since the breakup of the Habsburg Empire. The catalyst for this transition was the rather forceful establishment of ethnic nation states with arbitrary boundaries after World War I leading to inter-war nationalism, Nazism, the Holocaust, the post-war expulsions, communism and an ongoing policy of assimilation towards minorities.
Under these circumstances it does not come as a surprise that the opposition to refugees in the Visegrád countries is more pronounced than in other parts of Europe. The Western European countries need to accept this to a certain degree as it cannot be changed overnight. Forcing quotas or major financial liabilities onto the Visegrád Four would only strengthen anti-European sentiment and give the rising nationalist forces further impetus.
Instead, more emphasis should be placed on building relevant European institutions to jointly combat the roots and effects of the refugee crisis, especially in the fields of immigration, border control, defence and foreign policy. At the same time Europe needs to strengthen democratic participation and economic flexibility by giving substantially more power to regions and communes. We don’t really need to decentralise the EU but we need to make her more effective and less bureaucratic. On the other hand we certainly need to decentralise Europe’s centralist nation states to make them more democratic as well as economically and socially relevant to local and regional needs.
It is rather ironic how nationalist and euro-sceptic groups in Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia constantly wage a war against EU centralism while they ignore their own respective national centralism. Those who complain about too much dependence from Brussels should not forget to do something about the even greater dominance of Prague, Warsaw, Bratislava and Budapest over regions like Moravia, Silesia, Pomerania, Masovia, Transdanubia, the North Eastern Carpathians or the Eastern and Southern Great Plains of Hungary. This is where action is needed the most!
Strengthening regional and local autonomy should therefore be paid substantially more attention in all Visegrád countries. Such a decentralisation process is not only vital to strengthen democracy and economic performance, but it is the only way Central Europe can overcome its nationalist presence and face the multicultural reality of an increasingly globalised world. Building fences and fighting diversity has never been a successful recipe in the past. It is certainly also not the right way forward to face the challenges of our future.
Peter Josika is a Swiss-based historian, political scientist and author who writes on topics related to human rights, democracy and European integration. He can be contacted on his website www.europaderregionen.com and www.blogger.com/peterjosika