1 October 2018
Increasingly dangerous external threats force a substantial deepening of EU integration. A series of crises creates an EU-wide consensus that the multiple challenges of globalised finance and technology, swelling migration flows, accelerating climate change and an increasingly insecure neighborhood can only be weathered through European unity and protectionism. The resulting integration is driven mostly by the eurozone and initially resisted by Central Europe, given the EU scepticism of its illiberal governments. But when a fresh round of economic and security troubles around 2020 affect the region, Western bailouts help it to recover. Popular sentiment swings in favour of full EU integration, and the politics of the day – if somewhat grudgingly – discard its nationalist course. By 2025, the entire EU is more integrated than ever.
The European project, from its very origins through successive rounds of broadening and deepening relations, was born out of crises. Their latest iteration, between 2008 and 2018, was the triple challenge that nearly bankrupted the eurozone, severely strained social and political cohesion with the influx of millions of refugees and almost surrendered European security to Russian aggression.
When under President Trump’s tenure, Europe’s key ally ceases to be a reliable trade partner and security provider, it finally dawns on EU leaders that they are in the greatest peril since 1945. And remarkably, they once again muster the political will to respond to an existential challenge with deeper integration.
In close succession in 2018-2020, the EU launches a number of key initiatives to address its worst vulnerabilities.
Eurozone governance is finally overhauled and both fiscal restraint nationally and EU-wide solidarity are instituted.
Refugee pressures from the South are reigned in through massive reinforcements of EU external borders, joint management of refugee entry and distribution across the EU, and more effective conflict management and development aid to countries of origin. European security is strengthened through an EU defence initiative that bolsters the necessary capabilities, logistics and intelligence, significantly adding to NATO’s capacities in the region.
In related efforts, a fully-fledged EU energy union diversifies sources and types of energy supplies and invests in a close-knit energy infrastructure, while a cybersecurity pact safeguards European vulnerabilities to digital attacks. Finally, the EU completes its single digital market, launches sizable systematic investment programmes into new technologies across the continent and adopts legislation to protect its strategic industries from non-EU capital, takeovers and espionage.
As a result, the European project, seemingly in unstoppable decline just a few years earlier, surges back to life.
This initial revival has mixed effects for Central Europe. The EU has prioritised political unity to achieve this progress and refrained from political, legal and financial punishments in response to the digressions on democracy and the rule of law, though it continues to voice criticism. In this agree-to-disagree deal, whereby Central Europe agrees to not block reforms and integration steps that it is not forced to be party to (including not having to share asylum contingents), Central Europe becomes the new periphery of the EU, and its political weight in the Union is greatly reduced.
Such is the situation of Central Europe when a series of new crises hits the region and the EU overall. The first of these is the next aggressive push by Russia against its neighbours Belarus and Ukraine in early 2019.
Unhappy with the political middle ground that Alexander Lukashenko, the Belarusian autocrat, has steered between Russia and the West, the Kremlin stages a coup d’etat, installs a pro-Moscow government and establishes a strong military presence in Belarus. In Ukraine, presidential and parliamentary elections broadly confirm the reform process and European orientation of the country, prodding Russia to launch a military offensive from the North, East, and South in the winter of 2019. Ukrainian gas transits to the EU are interrupted and a million refugees set off from war-torn regions to seek safety in Central Europe. Moscow then unleashes a massive disinformation campaign that blames the West for the regional turmoil and conducts cyberattacks against Polish government servers.
Past and present political disagreements notwithstanding, the EU swiftly comes to the aid of its Central European members in this grave situation.
In coordination with NATO, it retaliates with cyber strikes against Russian targets and provides technological support to restore functionality to the damaged Polish systems. It also furnishes emergency gas supplies from Western European reserves and lends resources, equipment and personnel to Central European states to manage the Ukrainian refugees, many of whom are eventually redistributed to other EU countries. This major act of EU solidarity helps Central Europe, by the summer of 2020, to regain control and stability.
Yet the region has barely recovered from this shock when trouble emerges on the economic front. Triggered by fresh trade disputes between the U.S., China and the EU, a global recession sets in. While its effects are moderate in much of the eurozone, Central Europe with its reliance on manufacturing sees a strong downturn. Unemployment shoots up as does the demand for social welfare. A sizeable portion of the labour force, especially younger and the more-skilled, moves elsewhere in the EU, further reducing tax revenues. Real estate markets break down, mortgage payments fail in large numbers and domestic banks come under pressure.
The EU decides to step in with a large bailout package; in return, the EU expects Budapest, Warsaw and Prague to make good on their original – but long postponed – commitment and to introduce the euro by 2025.
Having come close to the brink several times in 2020-2021, and having felt strong EU solidarity in each case, Central European populations undergo a strong pro-European shift. Past misgivings over distant Brussels-based institutions, Western capital or migration notwithstanding, Central Europeans rationally conclude that the EU provides them with the best-possible shield from the ever-greater turbulence shaking up global politics, markets and security. Their regional politicians quickly sense this mood change and decide the adoption of an EU-friendly course to be politically expedient. Within years of Central Europe’s gravest crisis in decades, the region fully returns to the European project.