Over the past several years, it has become ever more apparent that the post-Cold War era of democratic reform, socio-economic development and Western integration in Central Europe is coming to an end.
Instead, illiberal politics is hollowing out both the bedrock of these democracies and their rule of law. Resurgent nationalism is putting the region at odds with its neighbours in Europe. The economic model that has long driven regional development now finds itself challenged by developing technologies and changing demographics.
The European Union and NATO – the two key international anchors of Central Europe – are facing uncertain futures. Geopolitics is returning to the region with Russian aggressiveness, Western reluctance and Chinese advances posing serious security risks. In short, the historical path that the region has taken for the last quarter of a century is being called into question, risking the unprecedented levels of democracy, prosperity, stability and security that Central Europe has achieved.
It is against this background of rising uncertainty that Visegrad/Insight and the German Marshall Fund of the United States launched an initiative to chart possible trajectories for the region. Titled “Central Europe 2025”, this scenario-building exercise aimed at mapping out key political, socio-economic and international trends in order to identify potential triggers, isolate concrete risks and offer policy recommendations to key stakeholders in the region and abroad.
For this purpose, a diverse group of Central European experts from academia, think tanks, business, the media and politics combined their knowledge and experience to examine the circumstances and challenges likely confronting Central Europe in the coming years.
In order to manage the complexity of the task and to arrive at practical recommendations, several general parameters guided this intellectual exercise. Firstly, the timeframe was limited to seven years. Though comparably short, this horizon will see several key regional and global trends unfold their full impact – in such areas as politics, the economy, technology, society and security. Of equal importance, the coming years will be dotted with many notable events – from the selection of new EU leadership and budget negotiations to regional and EU elections, including determinations on American and Russian presidencies – all of which can potentially represent major turning points for the area.
Secondly, the geographical scope of this exercise was limited to Czechia, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia. Though historically, culturally and politically, Central Europe covers a much larger region, the Visegrad quartet has clearly become its main political exponent and voice.
Thirdly, the ambition of this exercise was not to forecast specific events and their sequence. Instead, it worked to identify and detail central dynamics that can remake Central Europe. The key criteria applied to these dynamics and the resulting scenarios were neither their general desirability nor consensus among the participants; what mattered was exclusively their analytical soundness, plausibility and distinctiveness.
The notion of an ideal Central Europe did hover over this exercise: a region that is democratic and respectful of citizen rights, that is economically thriving and provides its people with growing prosperity, that is fully integrated with the broader community of European nations and that is at peace with itself and its neighbours. It is this ideal that all scenarios from this exercise compare to, whether as lasting departures from or possible returns to.
This report initially lays out five major scenarios that could conceivably unfold in Central Europe over the coming years, which can potentially lead to the spreading of Central European political trends to the rest of the EU, the fragmentation of the region into EU exiteers and remainers, a returning to the European project as dictated by external threats or demanded by the next generation of Central Europeans, or the emergence of a new security vacuum in this part of Europe.
Following these possible trajectories, an overview of key trends and triggers is provided that not only shaped the individual scenarios but also offer important points of intervention from within Central European politics and societies as well as outside. These tendencies then lead to a number of concrete policy recommendations that are provided in the final part of this report.
This publication is for all those whose work requires a better understanding of the region. In these uncertain times, we all depend more and more on strategic decisions and trajectories; therefore, we hope to engage readers in public discussions and feedback during a series of debates launched alongside this report as well as in an online forum at our dedicated project subpage at cefutures.visegradinsight.eu/.
Editors of the report
Dr. Joerg Forbrig, Senior Transatlantic Fellow, Central and Eastern Europe, The German Marshall Fund of the United States
Wojciech Przybylski, Editor-in-Chief of Visegrad/Insight, and Chairman of the Res Publica Foundation.