The economic decline of Central Europe together with a European lack of interest in the region can turn today's populists’ peaceful dreams into nightmares.
Warning signs are coming from Central Europe during the coronavirus crisis. Viktor Orbán empowered his government to rule without parliamentary oversight and pushed further his authoritarianism.
In Poland, even less than two weeks before the vote, it is not clear under what conditions and whether at all the presidential election will take place.
However, can we – in spite of these negative signals – see some light in the dark? Can the current situation be at the beginning of the transformation of Central Europe, which would at the end lead to greater openness and democracy?
Populist parties or movements with strong leaders dominate in the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary and today also in Slovakia. Andrej Babiš, Viktor Orbán as well as the Law and Justice squad in Poland have enjoyed decent popularity for several years. They have benefited from economic stability, which has enabled new social benefits.
Today, however, the situation is changing. Even the long growing Central European economies will not escape the downturn and the worse socio-economic situation may affect political preferences.
Due to the uncertain epidemiological situation, it is not possible to say exactly how devastating the impact will be and whether our region would appear among the most severely affected. However, a scenario where Central Europe would have to undergo a radical transformation is possible. What could it look like?
Central Europe is in the position of being Europe’s supplier economy. This capacity might be threatened by fragmentation of the EU’s internal market, which may occur as a result of the promotion of domestic production and a long-term easing of state aid to companies in Western Europe.
In addition, EU support will mainly go from north to south rather than from west to east. The new Multiannual Financial Framework – a long-term EU’s budget – from which Central and Eastern Europe should benefit, is out of sight due to the stalled negotiations, and our region may expect a lack of investment funds in upcoming years.
Moreover, everyone in Europe is aware of the political implications of the crisis. Although there is now more talk about the situation in Central Europe for the steps undertaken by Orbán and Kaczyński, the main attention will be centred on other countries.
The principle impetus for the coming years will be to ensure that the AfD does not score in the German elections in 2021, Marine Le Pen does not become president in the middle of the French EU Council Presidency and Matteo Salvini does not form a next Italian, one-colour government.
The economic decline of Central Europe together with a European lack of interest in the region can turn today’s populists’ peaceful dreams into nightmares. One possibility is a turn to even tougher Eurospeticism and closedness. But this is not the only scenario.
The race to the bottom between established Europhobes and the ruling political class may bring to the fore a third current – a completely different political generation that will be more open, confident and willing to invest in tough transformation.
Such a pattern may then apply for the whole of Central Europe, including the economy. While traditional industries can struggle with the crisis for a long time, digital industries will prosper. Central Europe can thus be forced into a “leapfrogging” – a rapid transition to new promising sectors.
The election calendar in the Visegrad countries shows that governments and marketing spin-doctors have plenty of time to prepare for a more difficult period. Leaving aside the Polish presidential race, the first major vote will take place in our region in autumn 2021 in the Czech Republic.
Even such a long preparatory time-period might be for the ruling class insufficient. A recent Slovak story shows that a society dragged by disillusionment can suddenly discard hitherto dominant political forces and put its expectations in surprising hands.
The current poor economic prospects may thus eventually lead to a new Central European spring in politics and the economy in a year or two.