The sovereigntist and illiberal trend that is so strong in Central Europe fails to gain traction across the continent. While this trend remains confined to the region, it produces an array of political regimes from an effectively authoritarian and nationalist variety in Hungary to a mixture of democratic paternalism and patriotism elsewhere. Meanwhile the EU, led by a core of older members, overcomes the bloc’s protracted malaise and enforces democratic and rule of law standards. Central European states must choose their place within, or outside, the European project. The four states opt for four very different futures, spelling the end of Central Europe as a coherent political region.
Led by a reinvigorated Franco-German tandem, the EU gradually finds a way out of the crises that have nearly wrecked the bloc over refugees and migration, the eurozone, and domestic and regional security. With EU stabilisation and even progress becoming increasingly obvious from 2020 onwards, the Europe-wide political pendulum starts to swing again.
However, nationalist impulses remain comparably stronger in Central Europe given a confluence of two factors. Many citizens remain regretful of the sweeping transformation they had to endure after 1989, and they harbour grievances over having been colonised by Western capital, culture and politics. An imbalanced political landscape provides nationalist and populist forces with a competitive advantage, not least after having been in government and cemented their political, business and media control over many years.
This specific political culture continues to set apart Central Europe from the remainder of the EU. This contrast will become more frequent and harsh, whether in the forms of a multi-speed integration or EU sanctions over illiberal regresses. Rather than finding a regional answer, each country of Central Europe is likely to produce its own solution.
Poland is the earliest to seek such an answer. Its parliamentary and presidential elections in 2019-20 centres around the EU vs. Poland dichotomy, through which the nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) government tries to defend its power amid a strongly pro-European society. PiS wins the election but fails to defend its absolute majority, forcing it to govern in coalition with a moderate and pro-EU ally. The subsequent presidential election propels into office a clearly pro-European and politically independent head of state, who further limits PiS’ leeway.
This domestic opening meets with a new EU approach that leaves behind past disputes and appreciates the critical position that Poland holds for the cohesion, economy and security of Europe.
In an effort to bolster the more moderate political leadership in Warsaw, Brussels agrees to a substantial package of benefits.
Poland is guaranteed to remain a large net recipient of EU funds under the bloc’s next multiannual budget as well as a new European Security Initiative, which includes major investments in Poland as the key state on the EU’s Eastern flank. Poland’s political role will be upgraded, portraying and treating the country as a crucial member of core Europe despite its non-adoption of the euro.
In contrast, Hungary – Poland’s erstwhile illiberal peer – finds itself in increasing political isolation. Abroad, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has to bury his ambitions to become the Europe-wide leader of a sovereigntist and illiberal revolution.