Naughty Kids from the East

The perception of the EU’s ‘Eastern wing’ by the so-called ‘old Europe’ seems to be going through a change. It has quickly become a target of Western criticism in the crisis’s aftermath.

After 1989 and shortly after 2004, this part of Europe used to be regarded as a rather successful Europeanisation apprentice who more or less diligently affirmed the validity of the neoliberal democratisation model – an oxymoron that is quite strong but concise, since something the EU has been trying to do in recent years is to pretend that things are going well. Now, however, the countries in this region are turning out to look more and more like naughty children.

The crisis has changed a lot. It has brought not only purely economic impacts and consequences, but also the political effects that have led to the crisis of the whole Euro-integration process, culminating in Brexit and growth in the Eurosceptic ranks. In addition, into the spotlight came a number of inequalities that are intrinsically linked to the functioning of the European Union and its overall political economy.

The EU’s Eastern wing has quickly become a target of Western criticism in the crisis’s aftermath: local societies are regarded as ones that have not sufficiently learned democracy, that keep underestimating the positives of post-communist transformation and whose members do not want to take personal responsibility for values ​​such as freedom and human rights. On the contrary, the domination of materialistic values, paternalism and civic passivity, along with nationalism, is used by the West as proof of the cultural and political backwardness of this region. This is all perceived to have its roots in these countries’ ‘dark’ pasts, while the imposed neoliberal model is regarded, of course, as positive and full of opportunities for the region. The Eastern wing is now considered not to show an adequate gratitude and fidelity to ‘European values’, despite a generous flow of EU funds.

In one of Bloomberg’s latest articles on Eastern Europe, however, specific changes in its tone could be observed: the economic model of Eastern Europe has become obsolete, those countries to start investing in education and innovation, where – what a surprise! – the East lags behind. Otherwise, allegedly, these people are not supposed to deserve their increased salaries, even though their level still does not reach even half of those in Western Europe. And there are risks that these ‘high’ salaries will force Western investors to leave these countries, since the cheap and low-skilled labour they initially came for will cease to exist.

It is hard to deny that in terms of ​​education, research and innovation over the last 30 years have not been very fruitful for the CEE region. Czechia, for example, in comparison with the OECD countries with regard to education expenditure, is located near the bottom of the benchmarking list. According to other classifications, Czech universities have rather poor ratings – well below several universities in China, the country our media enjoy to criticise for its different political and economic system. In terms of registered patents, Czechia is not riding particularly well. This is despite the objectively higher bias in financial and other support given to the technical educational branches compared with the humanitarian branches, which have been chronically underfinanced for many years. In general, the spheres of education and professional training in Czechia have been systematically neglected in the long term, thus bringing the country to the economic and political periphery of the EU.

An emphasis on cheap labour as a source of economic ‘prosperity’ has brought the region to an economic backwardness that it used to experience in its past, the very backwardness these countries attempted to overcome through an introduction of socialism. The contemporary ‘serfdom’ model combined with minimal investment in society corresponds well with the level of politics in these countries, recently characterised by authoritarian tendencies and populist mutiny. The main source of these tendencies is the failure of the ‘cheap labour’ model whose insolvency was made clear by the crisis. This crisis has brutally hollowed promises of local ‘free market’ prophets to reach Western Europe’s quality of life.

The latest article on Orban’s policy, published by POLITICO, an influential Western think tank, represents him as an alter ego of Hungarian communism. It suggests in a very simplified way that the Orban party’s redistribution activities, aiming to provide higher social security mainly to the Hungarian lower middle class, represent the communist scenario in which Hungarians give up their civic freedoms and democratic values ​​for a ‘lentil stew’. However, these thinkers fail to mention the fact that the neoliberal models, which consider the free market as the centrepiece of everything, have broken down democratic values in the post-1989 period through the wipeout of the welfare state and the social market models. In Central and Eastern Europe an establishment of a neoliberal, not liberal, democracy was directly linked to post-socialist transformation and has brought a second-class Europeanisation of the region’s population through the unlimited rule of market forces and consumerism. It is hard to find a better example of how the redistribution policy (authoritarianism and redistribution are supposed to go hand in hand) is again delegitimised through a critique of Orban’s case.

The pro-Western mainstream will thus claim that Central and Eastern Europe has simply ‘slipped’ back into ‘its’ past. Personally, I have witnessed the fact that, there, our Western colleagues in international forums (leftist) share a common opinion that today’s rise of nationalism in Central and Eastern Europe is a consequence of this long-term movement ‘freeze’ during the era of socialism. Most people in the West take rather little notice of the consequences of the almost three decades of torrential globalisation that has swept the region like a hurricane, wreaking cultural, social and economic havoc and preferring to look for the reasons in the pre-1989 period. For them, the past 30 years of transformation tend not to exist. This, of course, leads to basic analytical shortcomings and ignorance. But it also shows our own inability to shape a critical (!) discourse about our region in Western Europe, to represent ourselves. And here, we are returning to the position of a current colony manifested through intellectual dependence and an inability to speak and stand for ourselves. After nearly 30 years of our alleged association with the West, it is a rather sad realisation.

Western media and politicians will, with minor exceptions, evaluate the results of elections in Hungary rather disdainfully. As Hungarian political scientist and philosopher József Böröcz noticed, the Hungarian example serves Western societies as an opportunity to get a feeling of ‘cleanliness’ from the problems that somehow plague Hungary (Russia or Turkey) and reaffirm themselves in the perception of the ‘moral’ predominance of Western democracies over the ‘East’. This kind of attitude will hardly contribute to substantial changes and shifts for democratic and economic alternatives that would make it possible to revive the social basis of democracy. The extreme (allegedly liberal) centrism that Orban and the likes have helped to grow will rather assure that the post-war construction of Western democracy is not exhausted in a way that is similar to its neighbours in the East. The motto of the day, therefore, is democratically clear: when to redistribute, and then, from the bottom up!