CEE: Brexit, migration, EU crisis … and what’s next?

The current European situation dominated by issues such as Brexit, migration and EU crisis poses a set of questions for which we have to seek answers. Does the current European state of affairs have a specific influence on the CEE region in certain matters? How shall the radical Left act in this sphere and what kind of goals will they target?

The events of recent months have shattered all previous ideas and visions – dominant just a few years ago – about the evolution of Europe. The question is whether this situation is also valid for the region of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE). To some extent it is indeed applicable, but there are certain specifics related to this region. These are caused by the fact that the development of this part of the continent in the last quarter of a century has not followed that of the majority of European states. In other words, the CEE countries took a shortcut by bypassing the “burden” of building the western-type welfare state and went directly to the neoliberal, globalized Europe characterised by limited social guarantees. It is worth mentioning that some sociologists and historians consider the rapid expansion of the welfare state in the 1950s and 1960s to be a Western response to the realities of socialism in Eastern Europe. The current situation poses a set of questions for which we have to seek answers. Does the current European state of affairs have a specific influence on the CEE region in certain matters? How shall the radical Left act in this sphere and what kind of goals will they target?

The CEE region’s growing importance

Currently, there is a greater awareness in other countries about the role of the CEE countries in Europe and its impact on European affairs. Brexit will further increase the CEE countries’ importance as a result of the growth in its relative weight. Currently, the countries of the CEE region comprise 21% of the EU population and account for 26.5% of seats in the EU Parliament. When the United Kingdom leaves, the CEE countries’ share of population will reach 23% with Poland becoming the 5th most populous country in the EU. And that is not even mentioning the region’s increasing geostrategic role. In today’s world, practically all countries of the CEE region are located on the frontline of growing political, and in some cases, military, tensions, while also being members of NATO. All these states went through a so-called transformation that was based on the principles of the Washington Consensus (although some countries prefer to use a different name – e.g. the “Ran-Utt Program” in Bulgaria) and all of them have remained at the European semi-periphery with minimal chances of moving closer to EU averages within a reasonable timeframe. The history of the region is replete with attempts to find political arrangements. Nowhere else in Europe has the goal of implementing the neoliberal concept and the eradication of the populations’ mentality of solidarity been achieved to such a degree as here.
Some of the consequences of the transformation processes of the region’s societies have been: the loss of relevant representation of the radical Left in politics, significant suppression of Leftist views at all levels and the loss of popular support (alas often in favour of populist and/or radical right-wing parties and movements).

The practical disappearance of the Left in the CEE region

Unfortunately, since the 1990s and at least up until the onset of the crisis in 2008, the differences in social and political development have been appallingly neglected; the thriving assumption was that following the (western) European radical Leftist example would automatically lead CEE Leftist forces to success. The opposite has been proven to be true – in the West we have witnessed the fragmentation and weakening of the Left, while in the CEE region we are talking about its practical disappearance with no back-up structures. Again, it should be noted that the CEE region is not and never has been homogenous, from either a geopolitical or historical point of view. There are various profound contradictions and problems among many of its components. However, the CEE countries have many things in common, for example their current position in the European integration process as semi-peripheral actors. This point, unfortunately, is practically absent when it comes to formulating the strategic and tactical goals of the European radical Left. The CEE‘s Left bears part of the blame for this since it has almost completely reneged on its historical role and has not put forward its own ideas for the Leftist European structures.

Negative attitudes towards the EU

Next, I would like to focus my attention on the “Vysegrad 4“ (the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Poland). In all of these countries, apart from Czechia, the radical Left has been almost completely destroyed. Overall, the countries of the V4 group have been trying to coordinate and consolidate their position within the EU with varying degrees of success since their ruling circles adopted the idea that this sort of collective bargaining tends to increase their negotiating powers. For the Left, however, we do not see any real cooperation within the V4 group despite the real necessity for it. None of these countries is characterized by an excessive enthusiasm towards the EU – in Slovakia, Hungary and Poland ‘trust in the EU’ does not exceed 40% while in Czechia it is at a meagre 28% (comparable with the UK’s 30%) combined with levels of distrust of 62%.
Trends in positive attitudes towards the EU are steadily declining across all V4 countries, nowhere more so than in Czechia where 26% hold such an attitude (compared to the UK’s 31%, an increase of 1% (!) in the last year). An important factor in this development is citizens’ perception of how their voices are heard in the EU. The highest positive evaluation of this measurement, 47%, was achieved in Poland, with 37% in Slovakia and 31% in Hungary. The lowest position was held by Czechia with 21 % (compared to the UK’s 35%). In Czechia itself, this is not an a priori rejection of the idea of European unity and the integration of certain activities common to the whole of Europe but rather distrust of the current institutionalized solutions associated with the EU.
Brexit has probably sharpened the issue of attitudes towards the EU, but their essence has remained unchanged since they are determined by long-term processes. The Czech radical Left, represented mainly by the Communist party of Bohemia and Moravia (CPBM) has, over the decades, sought the implementation of the Constitutional provision allowing for the holding of a legally binding referendum. Currently, they are calling for Czech citizens to be allowed to have their say on the country’s membership of NATO, considering it to be the key problem at present. However, the CPBM is not bringing to the table the idea of leaving the EU. The party’s conference should discuss what approach to take regarding Czech membership of the EU. So far there is no broad consensus within the Czech Communist Party of how to address the process of European integration. Currently, the loudest voices are those emanating from nationalist positions whose approach is rather close to the right-wing populist one. This is no surprise considering the prevailing mood against EU-style integration in Czech society.

Defining a radical Leftist regional concept of action

Now we face the question of how to proceed given the absence of real radical Left-wing forces in most of the countries of Central Europe. As a first step, it is necessary to define the radical Leftist regional concept of action in finding solutions to the crisis of European integration (especially after Brexit). This is time-critical since Slovakia, which holds the presidency of the Council of the EU, has called for an extraordinary EU summit this September. The absence of a Left-wing concept that is based on the realities in Central European societies opens the way to the further promotion of right-wing populist ideas by strongly nationalist European players, even among the traditional supporters and voters of the Left.
Now we turn to the question of who will actually formulate this vision. Given the current reality, this cannot be accomplished by the radical Leftist structures in these countries since they (apart from in Czechia) do not possess the necessary political weight, implementation capabilities or local popularity. Of course, these forces will participate in the process and contribute their knowledge of local realities. The Party of the European Left also appears to be incapable of carrying out this task since it has little influence and representation and thus does not possess enough leverage. The only relatively strong part of the EL in this region is the CPBM which actually keeps a certain distance from the mainstream EL. This means the task rests with the alliance of the GUE/NGL parliamentary faction and the radical Left-wing parties of countries, like Germany’s Die Linke (which is currently trying to reconcile the integration of its socialist past with the need to present radical Leftist politics in the current neoliberal world). Furthermore, various foundations and professional institutions – The Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, The Nicos Poulantzas Institute and others will take part. It would be advisable to work with the CPBM as well. I personally believe that even transform! should play a very significant role in the overall set-up through initiating analysis and presenting alternatives. This process shall also involve a broader Leftist intellectual front, but I would be rather hesitant to accept only them as experts in the area when most of their compatriots are working in Western institutions often associated with various activities of the business magnate George Soros. The involvement of German actors is justified by geostrategic factors since we are talking about the area of interest of German national policy. Despite the active underscoring by Poland of the importance of partnership with the USA, we will keep in mind that Germany, being a leading economic partner of every V4 country, plays an increasingly important leadership role within the EU.

Real European unity and reasonable integration

The next milestone will be the upcoming European elections in 2019. Currently it appears that this will be a crucial event that is going to address both the future of European integration and the European Union itself. The experience of the so-called post-Soviet countries of an unexpected, unforeseen and very rapid disintegration of the Soviet system taught us to carefully and critically assess any project‘s future development. We will keep in mind the fact that the TINA motto (“There Is No Alternative”) is not applicable even regarding the very existence of the EU. Therefore, it will be necessary to analyse all practical options for further strengthening European unity while protecting the interest in and the benefit of promoting radical Left-wing concepts – greater solidarity, equitable distribution of wealth, strengthening of democratic principles in the management of societies, in other words, democratic socialism. That does not mean condemning everything that has already been implemented in the EU (sometimes even against the interests of the neoliberal elites).
The radical Left in the CEE region represents primarily those who see hope in the fundamental systemic changes in European society and have strong reservations about modern neoliberal capitalism. Our common goal should be to create in the CEE region the conditions for real European unity and reasonable integration. To do this, it is necessary to define a strategic goal while disregarding some differences in the approaches of individual national Left-wing structures to certain issues such as, migration, environmental issues (e.g. nuclear power) and lesser emphasis on the promotion of multiculturalism/various minorities’ rights. The common interest will rest with overcoming the neoliberal European project and securing reliable support for the Left in the CEE region. This will be a primary issue in election campaigns in this region.

The goal of the upcoming European elections in 2019

But it is unrealistic to gamble on just one common leader for these elections. The experience from past elections of “using” Alexis Tsipras as a common representative showed that this approach did not work here. His acceptance in the region by many Left-wing parties and their voters was rather lukewarm. He received active support from some (often electorally marginal) structures only. Despite producing very good results in a number of the Western European countries, this practice has yielded no significant outcome in the CEE region. It makes no sense to set unrealistic goals. For the upcoming election it will be necessary to choose a different path. Now we should seek to stop the destruction of the Leftist movement by restoring its credibility in the region. “The European” representative or representatives undertaking this mission will be able to take into consideration the historical experience of the region’s population (including the period of socialist regimes) and to articulate the social and political aspirations of CEE citizens within Europe as the region is integral to Europe and one of its parts of equal value. We have to create the conditions to achieve an outcome that will bring about at least a slightly stronger representation of radical Leftist CEE movements in the European structures. This is the goal that we need to identify as the highest priority. Hence I would disagree with Slavoj Žižek, who recently wrote (read more, here): “… the existing Left … is well-known for its breath-taking ability to never miss a chance to miss a chance.”