The scenarios outlined in this report paint the near- to mid-future of Central Europe in stark colours. Some of them are desirable while others are disastrous. All of these trajectories are plausible, yet none of them are inevitable. Instead, which of these scenarios eventually prevails in Central Europe will depend on policy interventions by domestic, regional and international stakeholders alike. The European and transatlantic community can and must carefully consider its responses to Central European dynamics so as to mitigate any destructive trends and accelerate those that work for the good of the region and Europe overall.

Taking Central Europe Seriously

The fate of Central Europe is closely intertwined with that of Europe as well as the transatlantic community. While most of the trends active in the region have broader, even global, dimensions, they often impact Central Europe earlier and with particular force. Whether positive or negative, the scenario that eventually materialises here will presage the future of Europe.

For this reason, Central Europe and its Western neighbours need to break free from the considerable alienation and silence that has dominated the last few years. Europe needs to invest in better understanding of regional dynamics, politics and societal sentiments among broader European decision-makers, opinion-leaders and populations. Central European concerns and constituencies, whether supportive or critical of the European project and individual policies, must feel that they are being heard across the EU rather than being sidelined or even castigated by the bloc.

In turn, regional decisions and debates need a more robust European dimension. All too often, it seems, Central Europeans treat the EU – and to a lesser extent NATO – as if these organisations were external to their countries and region. Instead, a much stronger sense of membership and identity should be fostered by policy-makers and government officials. Central Europe also has a responsibility for the future of the European and transatlantic community, and its actions will shape these relationships for better or worse.

Reinvigorating the European Project

As the scenarios outlined in this report should have demonstrated, Central Europe’s prosperity, stability and security – and its democracy and rule of law – are best-served by the region’s full integration with European and transatlantic structures. The European Union is in particularly urgent need of re-establishing its legitimacy and effectiveness, lest the gulf between Central European and other member states will widen even further.

One area of particular importance will have to be a clear and principled stance by EU institutions on the rule of law in individual member states. The illiberal momentum of Central European governments is potentially contagious. EU counter-measures are imperative to stem this illiberal drift which comes with a constant risk of decomposition of the European project. Permanent, regular and transparent monitoring and analysis of illiberal policies are necessary. Infringement procedures pursued by the European Commission must have clear support from member states, and Commission action should be buttressed by statements from the European Council.

Another field for EU action relates to the long-term integration model of the bloc. Multi-speed integration as realised to date has failed, as demonstrated by Brexit, and needs to be phased out. For Central Europe, this primarily implies a swift accession of Czechia, Hungary and Poland to the eurozone. In turn, an EU that allows for any continued cherry-picking by individual members not only reduces its own overall strength and coherence but also cultivates the sovereigntist pockets that will always be tempted to undo European integration. Highlighting the success of eurozone members, especially their economic performance, can go a far way to increase confidence in the common currency. Such positive messaging should target the populace in the remaining non-eurozone countries in Central Europe. Highlighting examples such as Latvia and Slovakia, agile economies that adopted the euro amidst an economic crisis, can help to quell the anxieties of their Eurosceptic neighbours.

New Groups, New Members

The EU should also actively support geographical and thematic platforms that bring together groups of member states. A lesson from Central Europe is that single-issue orientation, as with the Visegrad group and its position on refugees, is highly divisive and destructive. To avoid such pitfalls, country groupings should be encouraged that address a broader set of policy issues of relevance for a subset of EU members. In Central Europe, such policy issues include energy, infrastructure and education, among others.

An important driver of European integration has always been enlargement, as illustrated not least by Central Europe. EU enlargement must be kept on track in the Western Balkans and European perspectives should be provided to Eastern neighbours, both regions adjacent to Central Europe. As a lesson from the current illiberal tendencies and democratic backsliding among some of its newer members, the EU will need to develop mechanisms that extend political conditionality beyond the accession process and ensure leverage over new entrants.

The EU will need to find ways of addressing resurgent nationalism, or at least those expressions of it that are openly hostile to European integration and democracy. One element should be a more inclusive role for national parliaments in the legislative process of the European Parliament.

Reappraisal of European Security

A key dimension for the success or failure of European integration, and for the future of Central Europe within this project, is security. Recent years have seen a triple challenge on European security: Russia openly violating existing rules and arrangements; Europe remaining reluctant and unable to provide for its own security, and the United States questioning its traditional role as Europe’s security guarantor. In response, a serious re-reappraisal and strengthening of European security are urgently needed.

First and foremost, NATO remains the central actor for preserving a secure Europe. Political leadership, in Central Europe as well as among the remainder of the alliance, must clearly and without conditionality manifest their resolute commitment to Article 5 of the Washington Treaty and Alliance in general. Individual NATO members must demonstrate this commitment through meeting defence spending targets, including investments in materiel and personnel as well as facilitating a permanent military presence on NATO’s Eastern flank.

An important area for additional NATO engagement in Central Europe could be information campaigns and regular training to prepare the general public for crisis and emergency situations, including military, cyber and natural disasters. With the help of NATO and individual member states, contingency plans for such security situations in Central Europe should be drafted and made public to improve preparedness for fast-tracking relief to the population and, as a result, to increase the sense of security among the civilians.

NATO and individual members should continue to support Ukraine, a key neighbour of Central Europe and the Alliance alike, with training, equipment, information and institution-building. Meanwhile, NATO mediation and political pressure should be stepped up wherever a bilateral issue involving an alliance member threatens to block cooperation and integration of non-NATO neighbours, as was the case with the Hungarian obstruction towards Ukraine.

The EU Sharing NATO’s Burden

In parallel and closely coordinated with NATO, the EU must finally make real progress on defence and security. One element is the further expansion of EU multinational forces and battlegroups in Central Europe, another is EU investment in critical infrastructure required for military logistics and civilian relief in Central Europe.

PESCO, the EU’s new framework for defence cooperation, must advance swiftly. 

Besides infrastructure, a considerable portion of EU funds should be set aside for the cooperation of European defence industries and their technological modernisation. Investment decisions, whether in infrastructure or industry, should be clearly guided by security threats rather than EU parity and cohesion, and a significant portion of resources must be channelled into Central Europe, one of the most vulnerable and exposed regions of the EU.

EU solidarity in the security field should also be bolstered institutionally in the EU Treaty. Having remained rather unknown to the public and fuzzy in its provisions, the relevant Article 42.7 should be turned more fully into an EU equivalent of NATO’s Article 5. In terms of procedures, substance and necessary responses by EU countries to an aggression against one of the member states, this treaty provision requires far more political backing and public acknowledgement.

Finally, EU action is needed on crisis prevention and civil protection. The 2015 migration crisis has clearly demonstrated deficits in the EU’s Crisis Response System, which needs adjustment to better avert external challenges to EU security and, ultimately, political solidarity. Meanwhile, the EU Civil Protection Mechanism should increase its capacity to respond to natural and man-made disasters. Besides resources, EU-wide cross-border training and coordination of crisis management systems are urgently needed.

Blunting Sharp Powers

In Central Europe as well as in Western democracies, developments over the past few years have revealed a vulnerability to external influence by non-democratic regimes that is often described as sharp power. The openness of societies, politics, markets and media is the strength and the defining characteristic of liberal democracies.

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