A grassroots pact of V4 mayors to offset populists governments, coupled with street protests in several countries of the region show that attacks on the rule of law do not pass unnoticed. There is a bottom-up appeal to bring back dignity to the political system. Meanwhile, Central Europe is showing limits in terms of brand appeal for cooperation beyond its borders.
Free cities pact
Earlier news of an impending agreement between the mayors of the capital cities of the Visegrad Group countries came to fruition this week. The four local representatives, all from parties in opposition to the ruling governments, met in Budapest to sign a pact that pledges them to combat populism, promote transparency, and tackle the climate crisis.
The pact refers to how grassroots democracy can cure the ills of Central Europe: it talks about the values and principles, such as human dignity, civic engagement and smart governance, which the four mayors stand for. One measure is for the V4 capitals “to advocate tailored European policy solutions and to jointly lobby for better access to EU funding for cities.” Yet, it remains unclear how the pact will be turned into a concrete roadmap to boost cooperation.
The signing ceremony was held at the Central European University in Budapest, which was forced by the Hungarian government to move its activities to a new campus in Vienna.
In response to the news, a spokesman of Fidesz’s co-ruling Christian Democrats’ parliamentary group attempted to denounce the pact as pro-immigration, pro-Soros and left-wing initiative. However, the pact signals the importance that cities play in improving the lives of citizens, finding future-oriented solutions to current problems and resisting populist tendencies in national politics.
Citizens march out (again)
Whether it is the soft winter temperatures or the sign of a growing trend, Central Europe is marked by people going out on the streets to protest against political leaders and populists governments. While civic activism is not restricted to the region, as Sardines Day has shown, there is a particular type of demonstration taking place in many of the V4 countries.
Citizens come out to defend the rule of law in Poland, oppose the Czech prime minister’s conflicts of interests, defend basic freedoms in Hungary or in the aftermath of the murder of Slovak journalist Jan Kuciak and his partner Martina Kusnirova.
Hitherto, the pressure from the street struggles to channel itself into a more effective counterweight within the branches of power. Yet, there are some positive signals. In Slovakia, a non-aggression pact between opposition parties appears to be expanding. Recent elections in Hungary and Poland have shown it is possible for opposition parties to bundle forces and slow down the populist tide.
Many expected the electoral successes in Budapest and in the Polish Senate would moderate the tone of the ruling governments in Hungary and Poland. Quite the contrary, Law and Justice (PiS) has hardened its stance on critical judges who uphold the rule of law, pitting the governing coalition against the EU legal order. Meanwhile, Fidesz shows no sign of backtracking on a legal package to restrict further cultural activities in the country.
As a result, any grassroots appeal from mayors or the street shall only meet firm resistance at the national level.
With trench warfare and protests are set to continue throughout the end of 2019 and the beginning of the new year, fueled by a number of expected developments. In Slovakia, the Kuciak trial will shed light on the possible involvement of high-level politicians. In Czechia, the fall-out of the leaked Commission audit is yet to occur for Andrej Babiš. Fidesz may be removed from the European People’s Party in January, whereas there are fears in Poland of a possible EU exit because of the politicisation of the judiciary.
Limited appeal? Only technical cooperation
The ongoing challenges to the rule of law and democracy in Hungary and Poland, and to some degree in Czechia and Slovakia, clearly have an impact on how the region is perceived by its neighbours. Viktor Orbán’s offer to Romania to strengthen cooperation and build a “new Central Europe”, expressed during a visit to Timisoara, was rejected out of hand by Romanian President Klaus Iohannis.
According to EURACTIV, Iohannis stressed his support for the EU, saying that “I don’t think we should open new fault lines inside the EU, but on the contrary, we should engage to close the existing ones”.
So far, political tensions have not yet upset cooperation and partnership initiatives on a more technical level between the V4 region and its neighbours. Science and higher education are good examples of areas where closer ties can help Central Europe to improve its competitiveness.
For instance, a Central European Science Partnership (CEUS) is set up to pool expertise in the region, increase the scale of research projects and reduce bureaucracy. Among others, the Czech Science Foundation (GAČR), Poland’s National Science Centre (NCN) are expected to cooperate closely with Austrian and Slovenian partners.
CEUS plans to launch its first call for proposals in February 2020.