Central and Eastern Europe
The countries of CEE can be singled out from the rest of Europe given their historical and developmental trajectory. As part of multinational empires these states came into existence in the aftermath of the First World War. Following the Second World War decided by the victorious powers they were consigned into the Soviet sphere of influence. Behind the ‘iron curtain’ they stayed, till the winds of change initiated by Gorbachev in the Soviet Union signaled the unravelling of the socialist system in these countries and ultimately ended with the disintegration of the Soviet Union itself. The countries which form part of this region are widely debated. The geographical limits of the area as one scholar observed is hard to set as the terms ‘Central’ and ‘Eastern’ are used to ‘describe subjective perceptions rather than objective geographical realities.’ Post 1945 ‘Eastern Europe’ referred to all those countries which were under the rubric of Soviet bloc but not part of the Soviet Union – Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Albania, Moldova. The constituent units of former Yugoslavia – Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia referred to as the Balkans are also part of Eastern Europe. The East/West divide is also commonly understood as representing a binary of the developed (West) and the laggard(East). In the post Cold war period of systemic transitions many of these countries like the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia have tried hard to shake off such labels by identifying themselves as Central Europe, Prague after all lies west of Vienna.
For EU integration the end of the Cold War was significant. With the collapse of the socialist system, countries of the region intent on joining the European Union and the NATO embarked on systemic transformation at multiple levels – political, economic and social. The message was clear – the days of old unnatural divisions in Europe was a thing of the past. 2004 was the European Union’s ‘big bang enlargement’ with all four Central European countries becoming members of the EU along with Slovenia. Bulgaria and Romania joined in 2007 and Croatia in 2013. Accession talks with Albania, Moldova, Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia are on but progress has been slow. In the 2019 EU summit President Macron vetoed accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania.
In 1991 Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia came together as the Visegrád Four and are today actively using this platform to coordinate and develop common positions on various developments at the European level. EU membership has benefitted these countries, as they registered steady economic growth to be ranked as high-income countries by the World Bank. Poland has the largest economy among post-socialist EU member states. It has between 1992-2019, had an uninterrupted pace of high growth averaging 4.2% per annum to become the sixth largest economy in the European Union on the purchasing power parity basis and is steadily catching up with Western Europe. The resilience of the Polish economy was demonstrated during the financial crisis of 2008/09 when it was the only EU country, which avoided recession. Together, the V4 would be the 5th largest economy in Europe and the 12th largest in the world, worth over US$1 trillion, which is over one-third of India’s size, and offers a consumer market of 64 million inhabitants, which is 12.5 percent of the EU’s total. These Central European economies are also the fastest growing in the bloc.
What is evident over the last few years is the effect the ‘big bang’ and subsequent enlargements have had on EU’s policy implementation and working. During the refugee crisis of 2015 the V4 became a key site of transit for the refugees moving to countries like Austria, Germany, Sweden. The response of the Visegrad countries much to the surprise of many EU member states was heavy handed and sharply anti-immigrant. Hungary was the first to close borders with other transit countries. Greater securitisation and detention of refugees followed to prohibit their movement and discourage the use of the region as an area of transit. The V4 also opposed the European Union’s response to refugees and especially the welcome policy that countries like Germany adopted. They therefore refused to accept the burden sharing EU quota system of relocation of refugees.
V4 countries like Poland and Hungary are increasingly colliding with the EU on questions of democratic functioning. ‘Democratic backsliding’ is what these countries are said to be experiencing as parties winning elections by substantial majority set out to amend constitutions, initiate judicial reforms and institutional restructuring. Leaders like Orban openly talk of ‘illiberal democracy’ as an alternative to ‘liberal democracy’ that EU membership is based on. It has led the EU to move from criticising countries like Poland and Hungary to initiating action against them. EU’s moves meet resistance as these states stand by each other to counter the EU. One of the important factors that made the Central and East European countries seek EU membership was to distance themselves from Russia. Here again V4 states barring Poland now keenly look at renewing ties with Russia. Orban has been at the forefront of EU’s sanctions against Russia post the Ukrainian crisis of 2014. Given these developments to understand the EU today regional dynamics of Central and Eastern Europe, as members or potential members need careful attention.