Last year, the European Commission presented five scenarios for the future of the EU. The debate had to be channelled around the prospect of continued integration through deepening, limiting (and seeking more efficiency) or bringing the whole process back simply to the common market.
A year later, Visegrad/Insight and the German Marshall Fund drew up five scenarios for the Central European (CE) countries over the next seven years, and the starting point is the illiberal trends in Hungary and Poland.
The first scenario allowed for a triumph of illiberalism not only in the region but throughout the EU, which would lead to a gradual dismantling of the main European principles – democracy and the rule of law. As a result, the European project degrades to a free trade area between nominal democracies.
In the second, these same illiberal trends remain regional political folklore. The German-French engine continues to move forward with integration, leaving the Central European countries to choose between maintaining their current course or realigning themselves with Brussels, which will lead to the break-up of the V4 as a political bloc.
The third focuses on external factors (migration pressures, climate change, destabilisation in the neighbourhood of the EU) that will lead to political unity in the EU. The CE countries will be on the periphery while economic turmoil triggers a new wave of euro-enthusiasm. The result will be a much more cohesive EU by 2025.
The fourth option predicts a political revolution from the younger generations, who will replace the post-Cold War elite and lead a progressive and pro-integration movement.
The last scenario focuses on Donald Trump’s rhetoric, which points to an America withdrawing from Europe – refusing to place its security as a priority regardless of Russian military and political activity. Central European countries, isolated for their illiberal nature, will seek bilateral security treaties and focus on state protectionism.
Breaking down the analyses
Creating scenarios is an unenviable job. No matter how much effort is made nor as many elements are taken into account, the likelihood of omitting a substantial combination of factors that will ultimately prove to be crucial remains large.
Additionally, critics are meant to point out how authors can be mistaken, and of course, scenarios are subjective.
The EU’s proposed alternatives to the future of Europe, for example, do not allow the prospect of total disintegration. Similarly, the Central European visions are also built around the presumption that the main motive for the politicians is illiberal politics.
According to the authors, the only option for symbiosis between illiberal democracy and European integration is the existence of a free trade area, but this is not necessary so if the political elites see more positives than negatives in national protectionism.
However abstract and incomplete these scenarios may feel or as distant as they may seem to us today, the processes defined relate not only to the European Union and the Visegrad Quartet, but also to all other countries nominally grouped as Central and Eastern Europe or new EU Member States. In fact, some of the scenarios outline prospects that are already well-known realities.
Learning from the Bulgarian case
There are many similarities between the possible charted futures and the realities which have taken place in Bulgaria.
The scenario accenting the proliferation of illiberal power and its consolidation in the EU resembles many of the characteristics of the political interaction between the Bulgarian political elites and Brussels.
Likewise, the possible peripheralization of the countries – with regards to EU integration and the associated benefits – due to their illiberal character has the potential to send a few Central European countries to where Bulgaria is today.
Moreover, the prospect of linking EU funds to the state of the rule of law is not in itself a new policy but rather a stretch of the precedent created by the EU during the 2007 enlargement of Bulgaria and Romania. Known as the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM), it is already an established standard which has the potential of being enlarged, despite its dubious effectiveness.
Indeed, Bulgaria’s experience in the EU is ahead of some of the scenarios. The symbiosis between façades of democracy and EU membership has created ambiguous versions of the integration process.
Bulgaria’s nominal full membership in the EU is limited by informal and political mechanisms.
As an example, Bulgaria’s aspirations for membership in the Schengen Area and the eurozone will not materialise until there are changes to government policy regarding the judiciary.
These reforms, however, will endanger not only the existence of pathological political practices but also the political elite itself as the political practices of Bulgaria are open secrets.
Public procurement is a mechanism by which the powers that be redirect state funds into private, often their own, hands. Adjusting the tender conditions to fit pre-selected contractors renders the pursuit of quality and competitiveness meaningless.
The consequences of this model are visible at every step – from the endless and repeated repairs of Vitoshka street (the main street in Sofia) to a tragic bus crash in Svoge (in late August a bus crashed killing 19 passengers) caused by the provisory and badly executed road renovation.
In this reality, society becomes the overseer, replacing governmental agencies in their implementation of controlling functions.
However, civil society does not have the capacity to perform these functions on a daily basis nor is it equipped with the competences vested in the public agencies. It can only react after the fact to the consequences stemming from the inefficient performances of state institutions.
Even worse, when a state institution tries to actually perform one of their stated obligations (e.g. oversight), it often turns out that either the law is too weak for meaningful enforcement and regulation or informal dependencies predetermine the final result.
At the same time, the political elites easily sacrifice one another for the sake of illusionary justice.
Consider the swift administrative decisions to expel the G.P. Group from a register or to chase away some families involved in the draining of public resources and money laundering, these actions do not change the reality on the ground.
The lack of an independent prosecution, judicial system, instrumental laws or political self-restraint as well as generally corrupt practices cannot be replaced by several spectacular arrests or rapid verdicts. These practices are characteristic of authoritarian regimes, not of democracy.
Yet, even in such circumstances, Bulgaria is still an EU member state. The authorities are not only official partners in European affairs, but also, as the European Presidency has shown, a bright example of political stability in the sea of integration problems.
Therefore, looking through the prism of the Bulgarian reality, there is another scenario which allows for different degrees of integration, in which the democratic values will not play a major role but be subordinate to the dominant core vision of European integration.
The democratic European nucleus will consciously keep the doubtfully-democratic East European vassals at a distance, pouring in alms and expecting political stability in return. The vassals will preserve their position with the help of the existing internal system, which will contain authoritarianism wrapped in democratic rhetoric.
The elite will thrive while the rest eke out an existence.
The deepening gap will lead to a radicalised public searching for alternatives to their insane reality. Internal destabilisation will question EU membership and give the European elites arguments to continue the integration process without taking into account the unstable and unjust states. Of course, this is just another possible scenario.