Referring to Afghanistan, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell (2021) argued for comprehending the situation on the ground. Incomprehension is a feature also of our dealings with new member states.
Rest assured, this is no defence of ’Orbàn & co’. However, instead of casting them all-too-often as targets of our enlightened messages, we need to appreciate their specific experiences and outlooks. But no, this is not the born Hungarian in me speaking. Totally immersed in what for brevity’s sake I call the West, my forays into Central and Eastern Europe stem from an interest in European planning coupled with my attempts to appreciate their history. Central and Eastern Europeans reconnect first and foremost with their struggles for independence before, during and after a World War One that, for them at least, lasted from the Balkan Wars to the settlements of the early 1920s. (Borodziej and Górny (2018) These settlements were, of course, soon to be replaced with their being absorbed into the post-war Soviet sphere of influence.
No more history from this point onwards. According to Estonian expert Maria Mälksoo (2019) we see Central Europeans as cunning schemers and nationalists because they threaten our conception of self, cast doubt on our order and are imagined as ‘liminal’: coming in from a dark where we loose our bearings. But we need to understand that ’…apologists of illiberal democracy do not negate Europe, they much rather posit a distinct vision emphasising “organic” national communities, the Christian tradition and national or popular sovereignty.’ (Ibid, 370) Furedi (2018) casts this in terms of ‘culture wars’ raging between the Brussels liberal empire and defenders of popular sovereignty, in his particular case Hungary.
Point is, ‘…transgression of well-articulated democratic norms and … standards of behaviour in the EU … has exposed an internal vulnerability…’ (Mälksoo 374) The reluctance of burden sharing during the refugee crisis, for instance, has thus not been a ‘lack of solidarity’ but a clash of competing solidarities. Reluctant to face their own murderous past fuelled by nationalism, Eastern Europeans persist in believing in a ‘…Europe of territorially exclusive sovereign nation-states [endangering – AF] …the EU’s progressive self-narrative as an efficient democratic promoter and the main guarantor of peace and security on the continent.’ (Ibid 375) Rather than ‘barbarians at the gate’, the trope is one of ‘barbarians within‘: ‘[T]he Eastern Europeans’ rejection of the Holocaust as the main negative foundational myth of the EU in the 2000s constituted a distinct defiance of Western-centric frames…’ (Ibid 377) Instead, the ‘…Eastern European states sought to foreground the criminal legacy of communism…’ (Ibid) Mälksoo points out that the challenge is about: a ‘…perpetual struggle over power to define what Europe is, and what it should be.’ (Ibid 378) Which is why ‘…attempting to make sense of the normative threats in questions is a more prudent and productive strategy than resorting to reflexive condemnation of the illiberal “other” ….’ (Ibid 379)
Writing mostly, much like Mälksoo, in English and more often than not sharing our commitments, many a Central and Eastern European can be of great assistance in attaining a better understanding of the situation. So, we had better listen.
Borrel J. (2021) EU should prepare for the next crises. Available at: https://www.euractiv.com/section/global-europe/news/borrell-eu-should-prepare-for-the-next-crises-iraq-sahel/?utm_source=piano&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=9707&pnespid=0uJo9OJUWlaNxiTsJVHnZuS5MJ49OQO7uA8Dj13YBw
Borodziej, W., Górny, M. (2018) Der vergessene Weltkrieg: Imperien 1912–1916, wgb (Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft), Darmstadt. (Aus dem polnischen von Bernhard Hartmann).
Furedi, F. (2018) Populism and the European Culture Wars, Routledge, London.
Mälksoo, M. (2019) ‘The normative threat of subtle subversion: The return of “Eastern Europe” as an ontological security Thorpe’, Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 32(3), 265-383.