A spectre has been haunting Europe. Though nameless it has many definitions: populism, sovereignism, illiberal democracy. This particular political ghoul seems to be lurking in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, which have seen the ascent to power of parties that are in various ways in conflict with Brussels. From the heart of the old continent they appear to challenge the values that we consider European; but is this really the case?

Viktor Orban’s predictable victory in the April elections in Hungary confirmed the fears of those who detect in Budapest – but also in Prague, Warsaw and Bratislava – a threat to European stability at a particularly difficult time for the Union. With European elections less than one year away, the Brexit issue far from resolved, a shaky France-Germany axis, and an uncertain scenario in Italy, the last thing Europe needs is these “Bad boys” from the east, as Orban himself has described them, questioning the strength and direction of the European project.

Nevertheless it is necessary to take a close look at the logic behind the success of these forms of populism. The victory of Orban’s Fidesz party in Hungary cannot be credited solely to a questionable legislation that redrew the electoral boundaries in such a way as to make it virtually impossible for Orban’s opponents to win. To quote professor Federico Argentieri, Viktor Orban “has given a meaning to being Hungarian”. He has rewritten the nation’s historical narrative to suit his own ends, even rehabilitating the reputation of Miklós Horthy and comparing the EU to the Soviet Union. And just like with the Soviet Union, Orban has become the champion of a country that presents itself as a bulwark, rebelling in the name of counterrevolution. This is the key word, the only factor shared by all the countries of the Visegrád Group. A term that in this part of Europe, immediately recalls the idea of reaction but in the political language of Central and Eastern Europe the “counterrevolutions” were the Prague Spring, the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, the Velvet Revolution and the rise of Solidarność. Today the counterrevolution promoted by the leaders of those countries is what we call Euroscepticism. They feel that they are the rightful heirs to their national liberation struggles of the last century: it is no coincidence that the Law and Justice Party in Poland was born from the experience of Solidarność, just like Fidesz in Hungary was founded in 1988 by the then 25-year-old Viktor Orbán as a democratic movement to oppose the communist regime.

The fall of communism opened the doors to a “return to Europe”, but while on one hand the countries of Central and Eastern Europe proceeded with their nation building, reconstituting the original states, on the other, their recently acquired sovereignty was being eroded by the process of European integration. This passage was both difficult and painful. European integration was, however, a primary objective, both for geopolitical reasons and in order to access the conspicuous economic aid made available for integration. The short circuit between Budapest, Warsaw, Prague and Brussels is the result of that delicate and unresolved passage of sovereignty. Now that economic conditions have improved and international concerns have been resolved by the umbrella of NATO membership, the chickens have finally come home to roost.

While the turbulent history of Central and Eastern Europe can help us to comprehend the reasons behind today’s populism, Euroscepticism and sovereignism, it should not, however, be used to justify the squeeze that those governments are putting on democracy. If there is a threat to European values, as expressed in article 2 of the Treaty on European Union, it is represented by the Polish state’s erosion of civil rights or Slovakia’s discriminatory policies towards Romani minorities or Hungary’s construction of “anti-migrant” barriers. Concerning these particular issues the EU has legitimately intervened. Nevertheless, as Mark Leonard has written, “there is a growing anxiety outside of the Eurozone, where new member states like Poland fear the rise of a two-speed or multi-speed Europe that will relegate them to a peripheral role.” The fear of being marginalised, plus Brussels’ inability to reassure politicians and citizens, is one of the causes of this loss of faith in the EU. The four Visegrád countries, faced with such concerns, are pushing ahead with their own political agendas without worrying too much about their neighbours. In this sense their potential to determine the future of the EU is extremely limited.

The Visegrád Group, founded in 1991 with the aim of fostering regional cooperation following the collapse of communism, has served more as a diplomatic network than as a political block able to influence the course of European events. Admission to the EU and NATO were the first shared objectives but also the only ones. Once achieved, the countries of the group began to compete with one other for Western investment. In 2015, following the refugee crisis, the four Visegrád countries resuscitated their reciprocal diplomatic relationships to form a block against the European project. But this unity is only skin deep, as has been demonstrated by the tensions relating to the regulations concerning the free movement of workers that some countries, mainly France, are trying to tighten. The governments in Prague and Bratislava have shown a willingness to accept the new rules and fall in with Macron’s proposal, while Budapest and Vienna have refused the plan outright. This division conceals deeper splits because the plan for a multi-speed Europe is driving competition to be part of the faster group. The Visegrád four do not really represent a united block, neither are they capable of expressing a shared view of the future for the EU. On the contrary, regional competition is driving them to pursue different and competing approaches.

“Unfortunately, in Western Europe there is a tendency to group the countries of the East all together in the same pot,” claimed Maroš Šefčovič, Vice-President of the European Commission, in an interview with Politico. “What must be avoided is the creation of a divide between East and West.” A divide, a new Wall, once again of an ideological nature: those who want more Europe and the “bad boys” that want less, the populists, the sovereignists.

In the coming years the EU may well find itself having to face an ideological clash between the supporters of a nationalist, sovereignist vision and those who hope for greater integration. Nevertheless, such a clash will not necessarily align along an East-West axis. Much depends on the internal balances of different countries within the Union: the success of the Eurosceptic parties in Italy, France and Holland could well turn out to be a much greater challenge for Brussels than that posed by four small countries in the Visegrád Group. Believing that the Hungarian Prime Minister could be the catalyst for European dissent is perhaps attributing to him too much importance. If there is to be a genuine threat to Europe’s founding principles it will come from the heart of the old EEC rather than the edges of Central and Eastern Europe.

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