01 October 2018
First and perhaps foremost, developments in Central Europe will hinge on the EU’s responses to illiberalism in the region and beyond. Broadly speaking, three replies are plausible. Continued opportunism, whether driven by hopes of reigning in illiberal politics through inclusion or fuelled by economic arguments, is one option. Punitive action, from naming and shaming to loss of EU voting rights to cuts in EU funding to side-lining illiberal governments in future EU policies and institutions, is another. A mixed option may combine vocal EU condemnation of illiberal politics, restraint on political and financial sanctions, and a systematic outreach to pro-EU publics in Central Europe. Each of these EU approaches is conducive to very different scenarios in Central Europe.
No less importantly, the course and outcome of Brexit will be key for Central European dynamics. Though increasingly unlikely, a mutually satisfactory and soft arrangement between the EU and the U.K. will be a strong impulse for EU sceptics in Central Europe. In turn, a hard Brexit that inflicts clear losses on British politics, its economy and standing in the world will certainly mute exit temptations in the region. Either of these directions may yet be reinforced by a second referendum on British membership in the EU.
Related to both is the broader question of relaunching the European project. On the one hand, the EU will have to demonstrate convincingly that it has adjusted its policies and institutions to prevent a return of the eurozone and refugee crises. On the other hand, the bloc needs to make visible strides to advance on, among others, the digital economy and European security, areas where Europe has fallen behind global competitors. EU success or failure in some or all of these areas is likely to either restore, or further damage, the attractiveness and legitimacy of the bloc among Central Europeans.
Thus, a new and chaotic mass influx of refugees from the south will only renew Central European fears of an “invasion” and lend itself to politicisation at home and in Europe.
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By contrast, possible refugee pressures from the east, as a result of further Russian aggression against neighbouring nations, may well change Central European attitudes on this issue, especially if met with effective EU policies and solidarity. Similarly, this would hold true in case of an economic recession. If relatively spared, the political status quo in Central European will remain intact. If, however, its impact is severe in the region, its political fallout can evolve in a number of directions. Impressions of being left alone or neglected by the EU will fuel political and anti-EU radicalisation, while an experience of swift and effective support assistance will bolster support for the bloc.
In a similar vein, another security crisis provoked by Russia will put Western solidarity and cohesion, and with it Central Europe’s broader political positioning, to the test. Whether directed against Ukraine or another neighbour, or unfolding in the broader Baltic or Black Sea area, a common and effective response by NATO and the EU is not a given. Any wavering or open splintering on the part of the collective West cannot but drive Central Europe further from both institutions and their values. By contrast, a serious investment into the broader security of its Eastern-most members, including the four Central European countries, by both European and transatlantic structures will not only reduce their external vulnerability but also help to reign in domestic political developments.
Closely related is the possible withdrawal of the US from European security. In this case, NATO will inevitably collapse without being replaced even approximately by an EU-led alternative. The effects of such a development will be most strongly felt in Central Europe. In the absence of credible security support from the EU neighbours, the countries of the region will become further alienated from the bloc and seek bilateral arrangements with non-EU powers and partners, even at the price of reduced sovereignty.
While these factors are all external to Central Europe, internal developments also offer possible triggers. Most importantly, elections are likely to have an impact far beyond individual countries of the region, and will set Central Europe on one or another trajectory.
In addition, ballots elsewhere will have ripple effects. These include the U.S. and its presidential elections in 2020 and 2024, Russia that will have to confirm its current leader or find a successor in 2024, and Ukraine where elections are scheduled for 2019 and again four years later.
Given the strong personalisation of Central European politics, the death of a key political leader would set in motion unpredictable domestic and regional dynamics. Much the same applies to a leadership or even regime change in Russia, just as previous geopolitical re-orientations in Moscow have opened or closed development options in Central Europe.
Finally, there are always wild cards, or fully unpredictable events. A major natural disaster or public emergency in this part of Europe – whether it is a drought, flood, epidemic or industrial accident – may well put regional politics and societies before extreme decisions. A major breakdown of the world trade or financial system, however induced, would shake the foundations of Central European economies, open and globalised as they are.
Seemingly faraway developments, too, may have direct effects on Central Europe. A major war involving the U.S. and China will present the region with political dilemmas, economic fallout or worse. A geopolitical re-orientation of Turkey, away from the NATO and towards non-European powers such as Russia, would provide a blueprint to some leaders and constituencies in Central Europe.
More positively, technological breakthroughs are conceivable in the digital arena, the energy field or production and transport modes that may work to the region’s advantage and usher in a next economic development cycle, with profound social and political effects.