Brexit and the Visigrád challenge
It is going to happen on the 23rd of June: the referendum on Brexit. For all those who think leaving the EU is a good idea; watch how the Brits will be tearing each other up before and especially after a decision to leave the EU, especially as this will not just be about the EU but also about the not-so United Kingdom itself. I am afraid the referendum will bring no resolution but only recrimination. An example can be found in the decision of Boris Johnson not to back his prime minister. His decision makes sense in the light of his own books, but many, including me, will see it as a crude grab for the mantle of power within the Conservative party by a very vain man. Even though Labour is in a total mess, this will leave the Conservatives in tatters. Who will pick up the pieces? Does it matter?
I used to be fiercely against any form of Brexit. In many many contacts with the Conservative party, and also in my writings for their blog Conservative Home, I went out on a limb to show how important it was fort hem to keep on joining the the Netherlands as a partner in Europe. I must say that ever since their stupid desertion of the EPP I have had it up to here with the Conservatives. There is only so much stupidity you can bear (though I will always remain love their country, but that is not for now). I am even beginning to get a bit optimistic about the consequences of Brexit.
Commentators like Arend Jan Boekesteijn fear a Brexit because they see it as a chance for the French bureaucrats to centralise Europe in their bureaucratic way. I am not so worried. Not only do I think the French themselves are falling out of love with their own habits, there is also the fact that most senior posts in Brussels are no longer in the hands of french civil servants. If there is one country that dominates it, it is in fact the Germans. And in a way there lies my hope. Without Britain to keep on frustrating any form of true cooperation or integration, Europe might be able to speed up its decision processes enough to come back into swing. A full Federation it will not become, but anyone who knows how the British prevented Frontex from becoming something useful or Europe having some defense capacity, knows where progress can be made.
So, as impossible it is for me to say I want a Brexit, I will not cry too much for Europe over it if and when it happens. I do will cry for Britain if it happens.
For Europe Brexit might mean another chance. But there are many dangers on the horizon. One of the biggest complication in any renewal of Europe comes from dealing with the Visigrad countries. I do not know if many readers will follow me to the next paragraphs, but it will not be unimportant how they will use a Brexit. I wanted to write about them as a separate blog, but is is useful to do it in combination with a possible Brexit, as they could be swinging the balance.
The Visiwhat ..? The Visegrád group, or V4, is an alliance of four central European countries: Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Tsjech Republic, often joined by Austria. The name derives from an agreement between the countries in the town Visegrád in 1335. Together they now form the group of the richest post-communist countries in the EU. And their influence is increasing. Lately we heard from them on two big matters: the refugee crisis and Brexit. Our Western reaction to their positions and demands is often one of irritation: ‘who do they think they are?’ I do frown at some of the positions the Visigrad countries are taking, but irritation is not the right or smart response. We should start by trying to find a better answer to the question who they are.
There are a number of factors that define the position the Visegrád countries are taking on refugees (closed borders, refusal to accept any refugees) and Brexit (demanding a free access of migrants from their countries in Britain, including regular benefits). It is more than a hard bargaining position, fitting to countries where you do not get very far without playing hard ball. Of course is a meeting of different mind-sets, of cultures that have been built on the show of strength. But why now, why this banding together of countries that ever since they joined the Union in 2004 showed themselves to be more followers than leaders? There are two reasons. One is that they are reacting to the perceived weakness of the Western EU-countries, notably Germany. Second is that compared to the Western countries, they are thinking geopolitics and not geo-economics.
All four have reason to believe they know Russia better than the others do, just as they have good reason believe that Russia only responds to strength. They may have become members of the EU for economic reasons, but in the end it is their geographic position that matters most, just like their NATO membership is even more important than an EU membership. For that reason, they value and respect shows of strength. Having done relatively better than the southern European countries during the crisis, they also have less reason to act modest.
Most clearly this new assertiveness shows itself in their blunt refusal of (Muslim) refugees) and their setting up of borders. More subtly they have done so in the dealing with Brexit. Subtly? Yes, publicly they fought hard to let migrants from their counrties keep their benefits, but in the end not only did they struck a nice bargain, they could also be pleased to have the British precedent when it comes to a stronger national position versus Brussel. Because there can be little doubt that in the end it is a nationalistic agenda the Visigrad partners have in common. Never have they shown to be effective trade partners, even among each other. What seems bind them is their common goals outside their block.
Nothing nice, but nothing terribly dangerous then, you could say. We might even learn from their forcefulness. It is not that simple. All of the Visigrad countries are at heart nationalistic, but they are also very susceptible to the lure of a personalised system of government. With the change in government in Poland, in a way all four have now fallen for that lure. It means that the concept of the ‘Rule of law’ – always shaky at best – now seems to have dessapeared beyond the horizon. That, of course, is not the lesson to learn from Putin. It means that Orban is suddenly no longer alone in his activism and overurning of the law, even that of the constitution. Poland is in a hurry to do the same, The Tsjech Republic now has a Social democratic prime minister with christiandemocratic support, but their hold on power could be better. Meanwhile president Zeman is considered to be islamofoob by the UN, just as his predecessor Klaus was virulent anti-EU. Slovakia is used to its own enigmatic course, especially towards Russie, but it now has big brothers now with whom to team up. It is a strong group, this Visigrád group, but it has the makings of a powerful block.
All this could be considered ‘business as usual’ if not for the fact that Germany seems overburdened with the task of keeping Europe together, with no other country taking the load. If and when the referendum will be a ‘no’, two things will probably happen with regards to the Visigrad group of countries in which they can and will play a powerfull role.
The first thing is that they will realy be wanting to do more to keep the British in. Poland especially has no wish to see their old ally (and biggest European army) go. They just do not want their migrants to pay for it. The logical reaction would be that they would require from Germany and the more European minded countries a new proposal by which more shall be done to offer Britain terms that will ‘revive the nation state’. It will basically turn Brussel into a lame duck.
The second thing is that they will begin a power struggle over the soul of Europe if Brexit is a fact. In a way that will be much more overt than what the Spanish, Italians or French usually do, they will require both committmebts and freedoms that have little to do with the European legal system and all with power gureantees against possible enemies. In short, they will (help to) turn the EU from an economic to a geopolitical entity. Now in itself this can be good and can be bad, but I am proud of a Europe that is steeped in the rule of law and I would warn for any new Europe that does not start from there.