These global trends will push and pull on the region shaping many developments. However, this does not mean the region has a clear trajectory as these tendencies do not function in a linear manner. Instead, some of them will be more impactful in Central Europe than others, there will be those mutually reinforcing and those neutralising one another. To complicate dynamics even further, specific events and actions, policies and personalities will tip dynamics in one or another direction. Such tipping points, both foreseeable and more opaque, include the following.
First and perhaps foremost, developments in Central Europe will hinge on the EU’s responses to illiberalism in the region and beyond. Broadly speaking, three replies are plausible. Continued opportunism, whether driven by hopes of reigning in illiberal politics through inclusion or fuelled by economic arguments, is one option. Punitive action, from naming and shaming to loss of EU voting rights to cuts in EU funding to side-lining illiberal governments in future EU policies and institutions, is another. A mixed option may combine vocal EU condemnation of illiberal politics, restraint on political and financial sanctions, and a systematic outreach to pro-EU publics in Central Europe. Each of these EU approaches is conducive to very different scenarios in Central Europe.
No less importantly, the course and outcome of Brexit will be key for Central European dynamics. Though increasingly unlikely, a mutually satisfactory and soft arrangement between the EU and the U.K. will be a strong impulse for EU sceptics in Central Europe. In turn, a hard Brexit that inflicts clear losses on British politics, its economy and standing in the world will certainly mute exit temptations in the region. Either of these directions may yet be reinforced by a second referendum on British membership in the EU.
Related to both is the broader question of relaunching the European project. On the one hand, the EU will have to demonstrate convincingly that it has adjusted its policies and institutions to prevent a return of the eurozone and refugee crises. On the other hand, the bloc needs to make visible strides to advance on, among others, the digital economy and European security, areas where Europe has fallen behind global competitors. EU success or failure in some or all of these areas is likely to either restore, or further damage, the attractiveness and legitimacy of the bloc among Central Europeans.
Thus, a new and chaotic mass influx of refugees from the south will only renew Central European fears of an “invasion” and lend itself to politicisation at home and in Europe.