The choice between the European or Eurasian Union is a civilizational and political choice, a choice of historic fate. The dilemmas that Ukraine now faces were being addressed by Central Europe not so long ago. Does this, then, mean that Ukraine’s route to integration with the European Union runs through the Visegrad Group? On what foundations should this cooperation be built and how can threats be responded to?

 

What is your understanding of the term, Central Europe?

Above all, the experience gained in connection with this term allowed me to see my own fate reflected in the fates of my friends and associates from other countries in this region. Our histories have very often overlapped. This has helped everyone understand others and themselves. For example, Yuri Andrukhovych describes the moment his grandmother saw Archduke Franz Ferdinand ride past her balcony in Stanislau. This intertwining of the histories of various nations that are now geographically divided shows a certain common heritage, even if that heritage is diverse. It also shows a common set of experiences and I consider this common ground valuable. I have the greatest respect for those groups and institutions that consciously make reference to it. This common ground could on the one hand be the whole Visegrad idea or on the other hand what Barbara Toruńczyk called the Europe of the Middle in her “Literary Notebooks” [Polish: “Zeszyty Literackie”]. The Bronisław Geremek Foundation has just published the essays of István Bibó; I feel the book has a great deal to teach Poles, but also Czechs, Slovaks, and Ukrainians.

What has this region given to Europe?

I think the question is worded badly: Europe isn’t about giving. They say that there is no unity without integration; in this sense the experience of Central Europe brings something new to Europe’s table. And I don’t only mean that literally: goulash (Hungary), sirloin meatballs (Czech Republic) and solyanka soup (Ukraine). A Europe without István Bibó, without Imre Kertész, Vaclav Havel, Czesław Miłosz, Zbigniew Herbert, and Andrzej Wajda – not to mention Fryderyk Chopin – is simply worse off for it. This means that this region joining Europe – i.e. the pulling down of the Iron Curtain, the Berlin Wall – made the European project richer, more interesting, and more important.

Our Central European identity is in large part defined by our awareness of being situated between Moscow and Berlin. What can Ukraine find interesting about this conviction?

I wouldn’t wish to speak paternally, as if I knew better. Ukrainians themselves are aware which of the meals on the European menu are going to suit their palate. But I feel they are facing a historic decision. The choice between the Eurasian or the European Union is a choice of historic fate, a civilizational choice, and political choice. In this sense, the experiences of Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Romania can be interesting to the Ukrainian people and their elite.

But you know a thing or two about Ukraine…

In fact I’m an avowed Ukrainophile.

… And you understand the dilemmas and discussions that they currently face. If you were a Ukrainian, would you encourage them to integrate with Europe?

I haven’t a shadow of a doubt, just as I encouraged Poles in Poland. I didn’t know what the future held then, either. There were disagreements. There were those who said that joining the European Union would result in losing: independence, national, cultural, and religious identity, because Euroland is Babylon, the worst possible nightmare – a den of sin, drugs, abortion, contraception, and divorce. Who knows how it would have ended if it hadn’t been for the Pope who unambiguously said, “From the Union of Lublin to the European Union.” But Archbishop Michalik abstained from voting and made a big deal about doing so. Different points of view rubbed up against each other. In my opinion, though, in joining the European Union, Poland has seen exclusively positive effects, without a single negative. Not a single one, even though the EU is in recession. So I would obviously urge Ukrainians to join and I’d use two arguments. The first is that the EU is an anchor for democracy. If Hungary were not in the European Union we’d now have a completely authoritarian administration there. And the second is that it’s a civilizational choice of a certain way of life, it’s an integration of Greek democracy with Roman law and the Enlightenment. It’s simply the best that mankind has produced. In that world it’s possible to live with the most dignity and the least amount of problems.

I recall that in the period leading up to 2004, when we joined the European Union, several editors in chief – including you – declared that they would be encouraging the public to vote in favor of European integration. How do you evaluate this now?

Something of that sort did indeed take place. OK, we didn’t sign any declaration but it was a de facto coalition of pro-European media, but not only the media. The Democratic Left Alliance [SLD] was also in this “coalition” and the Freedom Union [UW] and Civic Platform [PO] of course; Law and Justice [PiS] and the Church were divided on the issue. Lepper and Giertych were against it. I believe that Poland made a historic choice and that it was a very wise choice, a very wise choice.

That was a time of a coalition. The Visegrad Group was also founded in order to enter the European Union together and on better terms.

It started shortly after 1989. Already in 1990, Havel convened the first meeting in Bratislava. This was formed of two groups: one was made up of intellectuals, while the other was mainly politicians. There was the political will to aim for this in Poland and Czechoslovakia. Because what alternative did we have? The Balkans? It’s only now that it all looks rosy – back then it looked more dangerous. Yugoslavia started to break up. Czechoslovakia broke up not long after. In Transylvania there was fierce ethnic conflict along Hungarian-Romanian lines. Let’s not discuss the Caucasus – Sumqayit, Nagorno-Karabakh, and so on. It was no laughing matter.

 Not long afterwards you were more skeptical about the Visegrad project and gave voice to this in 1995, possibly even in the “Central European Gazette,” a joint project of several dailies from the region.

No, that wasn’t skepticism, just a certain kind of dissatisfaction, disappointment. I was enthusiastic about the Visegrad idea then. I still am, in fact. It was just difficult to talk about an effective Visegrad when Vladimír Mečiar was in power in Bratislava, Václav Klaus in Prague, and József Antall in Budapest. The Visegrad project at that time looked like a shirt stitched together by brute force – and with very coarse horse hair.

We were then, though, similar with regard to development and level of modernization. Now things look different. Is Ukraine right to fear that it will be a separate dish on the European menu?

In one sense everyone is alone since the EU is formed by separate states. (…)

 

You can read full article in Visegrad Insight vol. 2 (4) 2013.

Wojciech Przybylski Editor-in-chief

Central European Futures

Over the past several years, it has become ever more apparent that the post-Cold War era of democratic reform, socio-economic development and Western integration in Central Europe is coming to an end.

Visegrad Insight is published by the Res Publica Foundation. This special edition has been prepared in cooperation with the German-Marshall Fund of the U.S..

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