Central Europe, The EU and Me
What have the democratic revolutions of 1989 and the EU integration ever done for us, for Central European youth? My following essay reflects on this question which is based on the famous phrase known from Life of Brian by Monty Python. The years 1989 and 2004 are turning points in our historical remembrance and they still formulate our lives in Hungary in 2020. That is why it is crucial to look back at these events and see their background, consequences and influence. In addition, the text also covers the importance and uniqueness of Central Europe and the postmodern challenges which this region now has to face.
The transitions of 1989 in Central Europe led by the Solidarity in Poland, by the Charta ’77 in Czechoslovakia and by many underground democratic movements in Hungary, which later formed parties, all had a common aim, to defeat communism. Between the period of 1948 and 1989 these states had a similar status in the world as they were members of the Eastern Bloc. Not only the similar natural resources and the almost same-size economies, population and territory do make these states really Central European, but is due to the mainly common historical heritage. Among the similarities we have to recognize that the regime changes were different in these countries. One major difference is that while in Poland and in Hungary peaceful roundtable discussions and elections started, in Czechoslovakia the so-called Velvet revolution took place with mass demonstration. In Czechoslovakia the process only started in November, while in Poland and in Hungary it had happened already in the summer. After the dissolution of Czechoslovakia in 1993, two new states the Czech Republic and Slovakia were born.
Among the economic and political aspects, the transitions have a cultural-symbolic layer as well. Some major figures played key roles in the movements such as Lech Wałęsa in Poland, Václav Havel in Czechoslovakia and e.g. Viktor Orbán and Tamás Gáspár Miklós in Hungary. The democratic revolutions of 1989 all mean the same for a 21st century-born student in Prague, Budapest, Warsaw and in Bratislava. Freedom, human rights, equality, democratic values, free travel, globalization, studying abroad. These are the most common values which first come up when we start thinking about the achievements of these events.
Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia are now parts of a cooperation called the Visegrad Group. This organization is a special entity within the EU which roots back to the Visegrad Treaty from 1335. During the past couple of years, this historical tradition was rediscovered by Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán. The other member states warmly welcomed the idea and the cooperation is now flourishing.
Following the world economic crisis in 2008 and even more significantly after the 2015 migration crisis, political consequences occurred. The political spectrum has moved to the edges not only in European countries, but also in the US. The rise of the right and the far right was visible through politicians (Trump, Orbán, Salvini and Le Pen) and parties (AFD in Germany, Jobbik in Hungary etc.) What is more, on the left wing, political actors also started to move to the edges such as the democrat Bernie Sanders with his social-liberal views which, according to some political analysts, is an extreme case in the US. These current political changes can all be seen especially in these four Central European states, which strongly fought for the values of liberal democracy in 1989. Some of these political changes are the rule of law challenges in Poland and in Hungary, Euroscepticism, nationalism and corruption.
Central Europe has always been an extraordinary part of Europe based on historical facts and experience, so the current political happenings are not that surprising. Some scholars labelled the region “In Between Europe” or in German “Zwischeneuropa”. These phrases refer to the geopolitical situation that the defensive Central Europe has always been between the expansive German or Russian Empires. However, there have been several plans and attempts to unite the region. Hungarian kings like Charles Robert and Louis the Great in the 14th century were about to realize it, not to mention the Jagellonian attempt. Lajos Kossuth’s idea with the Danubian Confederation is also worth mentioning. The Habsburg Empire could finally unite this region.
Furthermore, we can find some other aspects which create this region so unique. The extremely high level of ethnic religious and linguistic diversity makes this territory a mirror of Europe. Latin Christianity has also a strong cultural and political influence here since the concept of liberty roots back to the separation of state and church, religious liberty and the separation of power based on the concept of the Holy Trinity. That is why the region rather belongs to the West than to the Eastern, Orthodox world. This is the concept confirmed by the transitions of 1989. As Churchill once forecast, someday Central Europe is not going to be part of the Soviet Union anymore, that is going to be the cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Churchill was right, but can ever Central Europe really be compatible with the West? Notwithstanding the fact that it is part of the EU and the NATO with strong western economic relations, authoritarian challenges and, in case of Hungary, strong Russian relations somehow question this statement.
In my opinion, Central European integration to the EU is a successful project, even though there are tensions and debates between some Western European countries and Hungary or Poland for example on rule of law questions. The EU really needs a strong Central Europe since it faces real challenges as Russian and Chinese economic influence is on the agenda. The US had recognized this tendency earlier, in consequence American-Central European relations were on the rise last year. After Brexit and the migration and political crisis in the EU the organization cannot lose other important alliances. Although Euroscepticism is quiet on a high level in Central European countries, the majority of the population is in favour of the EU. Furthermore, Central Europe depends on the single market and European financial support, so the Visegrad countries cannot let themselves escalate the tension, otherwise they would have to deal with a huge economic and political crisis.
Finally, I can claim that the values of the democratic revolutions in 1989 and of the EU still exist. There is a more vital need for them than ever before, since inner conflicts and global political and economic challenges could weaken the Central European democracies and the European project. By learning from the great brave achievements of 1989, I hope we can deal with any postmodern challenge.