A selection of experts answer a new question from Judy Dempsey on the foreign and security policy challenges shaping Europe’s role in the world.


Károly BanaiIndependent foreign and security policy analyst

Central Europe had until recently confined itself to making the EU more efficient, a formula that anchored the countries of the region into an ever-closer union. The mishandling of the refugee crisis, however, was too attractive for some politicians, who started to exploit it relentlessly for their own benefit. A cultural counterrevolution unfolded and created divisions between those who kept solidarity at the center of their policies and those who believed solidarity is a one-way street.

Although this new approach has borne its first fruits, solidarity will survive national egoism. A more efficient EU policy that is acceptable for all could and will easily reverse current developments.

What is more, there are other voices in Central European countries besides those of governments. NGOs, civil society groups, and opposition politicians try to deviate the positions of their respective governments, though with very limited success so far.

Even the position of the Visegrád Group of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia, which is not as unified as it first looks, did not bring Europe closer to solving the apparently shared problem of managing refugees. The Visegrád position has already changed and will need to change further.

Finally, the result of the Hungarian referendum on October 2, when voters rejected the EU’s migrant relocation quotas but failed to turn out in sufficient numbers for the vote to count, shows the limits of the new strategy.


Vladimír BartovicDirector of the EUROPEUM Institute for European Policy

No—as you cannot destroy something that does not exist.

Central European states are without doubt the winners of European integration. Since their accession to the European Union in 2004, they have witnessed strong economic growth driven mainly by foreign direct investment from other EU member states. Moreover, investment from EU funds has enabled quick development of Central Europe’s poor infrastructure. As a result, the region’s citizens have never had it so good. A huge part of this success was achieved thanks to the solidarity of other EU states.

Twelve years after their accession to the EU, the question of Central European states’ solidarity with the rest of the EU has arisen for the first time. The countries of the region have been asked to share the burden of the migration crisis through relocation quotas, and they have refused. But this does not mean these countries are destroying EU solidarity, because there was no such solidarity in the first place. EU member states in the past never helped those under similar migration pressures such as Spain.

Moreover, solidarity does not mean only relocation quotas; there are many other ways in which Central European states could contribute to dealing with the migration crisis, and the EU should focus on solutions that are acceptable for them as well.


Federiga BindiSenior fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and director of the Foreign Policy Initiative at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research

Yes, indeed, and not only that.

Relations between Central European countries and the EU have always been complex. As the region’s Communist regimes crumbled, the states of Central Europe looked West and applied for EU membership. However, hurried NATO membership in the early 1990s, on the one hand, and slow negotiations for EU membership, on the other, cooled the region’s enthusiasm toward Brussels, an enthusiasm that never really came back.

The EU’s lack of solidarity on immigrants hides a much bigger question: the problem many Central European countries still have with giving away national sovereignty to the EU, because of the legacy of their Communist regimes.

The time has come for some Central European countries to make up their minds: if they are not willing to share sovereignty, then they should follow the UK out of the EU. The union cannot afford this continuous challenge to its very essence. As for solidarity on immigrants, Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s reminder should suffice: “If I close my eyes and replace ‘Syrians’ with ‘Eastern Europeans,’ what I hear about refugees is like hearing [French National Front Leader Marine] Le Pen or [the Italian right-wing party] Lega Nord on Eastern Europeans.”


Neil BuckleyEastern Europe editor at the Financial Times

The anti-immigrant rhetoric being used by the likes of Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Czech President Miloš Zeman is distasteful and racist. Orbán’s October 2 referendum on EU migrant quotas is an open challenge to Brussels. But it is wrong to charge Central European countries with destroying EU unity, for three reasons.

First, there is no unity to destroy. Deep divisions have emerged over the EU’s future shape, particularly since the Brexit vote on June 23. The positions of Central European leaders are not dissimilar to those of Sweden, Denmark, or even the Netherlands in opposing greater integration or moves toward federalism.

Second, while there is some discontent with how their post-Communist transitions and EU membership played out, opinion polls show citizens of Central European countries remain the most pro-EU. There is little chance an exit referendum could succeed in any of these states. Migrant quotas are unpopular because the region has little experience of mass immigration from outside Europe. Western leaders should have been more sensitive to this.

Third, Orbán’s referendum failed to meet the required turnout threshold, suggesting he mobilized few voters beyond his Fidesz party supporters and those of the radical right-wing Jobbik. Most Hungarians chose not to back his challenge to Brussels.


Martin EhlJournalist at the Czech daily Hospodářské noviny

No, as there was almost no feeling of EU solidarity in Central Europe to start with. The Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland have to a great extent adopted a transactional relationship with the EU, seeing the transfer of EU funds as part of the West’s redemption for leaving Central Europe under Stalin’s influence after World War II.

Unlike the United States, the EU since 1990 has presented itself in Central Europe more as a cash machine than as a source of ideas and inspiration for the institutions of the free market and liberal democracy. Western EU members have not shown serious interest in understanding the histories, societies, or cultures of the new members, while presenting themselves as the only role models. And Eastern members have fulfilled the conditions for EU membership mostly on paper, as the region’s judicial systems continue to be dysfunctional, for example.

Central Europe’s institutional weaknesses and cultural distance from the West—exacerbated by the 2008–2009 financial crisis and austerity measures—have disappointed voters, who have sought out more simplistic solutions to their problems. While in the Baltic states Western institutions, values, and ideas matter more, the citizens of Central Europe are looking for alternatives. It will be even more difficult to defend the idea of EU solidarity when the Czech Republic and Hungary become net contributors to the EU budget.


Agata Gostyńska-JakubowskaResearch fellow at the Center for European Reform

Central Europe’s defiant approach toward the refugee crisis has undermined EU unity, but it has not triggered its erosion. EU solidarity was put to the test before, when Athens was forced to accept more austerity than it could digest in return for bailout funds.

But Central Europe’s chauvinism is particularly worrying. Anti-immigration rhetoric is no longer reserved for fringe parties but has become part of mainstream politics. Islamophobic comments by the Slovak prime minister or Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s decision to hold a referendum on whether Hungary should accept an EU quota of refugees made some member states question the EU’s 2004 big bang enlargement. Brussels is also worried about Warsaw’s attempts to backtrack on the rule of law.

To be fair, the European Commission has not always been helpful. Experts on the region have argued that Brussels should have kept in mind the ethnic makeup of each country when designing its resettlement and relocation policies. But the commission’s proposal to fine member states that refuse to accept refugees has boosted resentment toward the EU without increasing the number of places for refugees.

The commission is drawing lessons from its mistakes, and so should Central Europe. In his State of Union address on September 14, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker admitted that solidarity should be voluntary, not compulsory. This shift in thinking offers Central Europe an opportunity to play an active role in shaping a coherent response to the refugee crisis and reviving EU solidarity.


István GyarmatiPresident of the International Center for Democratic Transition

No, Central Europe is not destroying EU solidarity. Several Central European countries have different opinions from their Western European counterparts on several issues. For many in Western Europe, this looks like a lack of solidarity. But observers should be a little more sophisticated.

The current so-called EU position on the migration crisis was formed unilaterally by some countries. As usually happens. In the case of migration, it was even worse: several countries formulated different positions, and there are now several EU positions.

One might disagree with the viewpoints of some Central European countries, but the main problem is that there are two different schools of thought in the European Union. One is what one might call the united states of Europe, the other the Europe of nation-states.

A substantive dialogue is necessary to bridge the gap. Not through declarations, not through the press, not through slogans, but through official channels and based on substance. This means the EU should seriously discuss what the union’s powers are and what the member states’ powers are. That has not been done, either in general terms or on the migration problem in particular. If this does not happen pretty soon, Europeans will destroy not only EU solidarity but also the EU itself.


Bruno MaçãesNonresident associate at Carnegie Europe

It is not a question of solidarity, but of different worldviews. Observers knew that when the countries of Central Europe became EU members they would bring a different perspective to the EU, based on their different historical experience. For Central European states, joining the EU was not a reaction against the excesses of nationalism, for example.

The problem is that the EU has over time become less able to reconcile different worldviews at a higher level of political reflection. This can be seen in the case of Brexit. It is also seen in increasingly difficult relations with Central European countries. Arguably, this will be a greater challenge and threat to the EU even than Brexit.


Mariann ŐryHead of the foreign desk at the Hungarian conservative daily Magyar Hirlap

The countries of the Visegrád Group—the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia—proposed the idea of flexible solidarity at an informal EU summit in Bratislava on September 16. By saying that Central and Eastern European countries are destroying solidarity, Western European politicians mean that these countries don’t want to participate in the European Commission’s relocation scheme for migrants. But, Visegrád leaders argue, member states should help deal with the refugee crisis according to their experience and capacity, and participating in the relocation scheme is not the only way.

The Central European position reflects not a lack of solidarity but a refusal to accept a dangerous idea. By redistributing refugees according to quotas, the EU sends an invitation to the masses who are heading toward Europe. Furthermore, the system mostly works only in theory. Just look at the example of Latvia: of the 23 refugees relocated to the country under the scheme, almost every single person has already moved to Germany.

The most up-front statements regarding migration come from Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who emphasizes the importance of securing the EU’s external border. Orbán wants to stop immigration, while the European Commission wants only to organize it. The fundamental difference between the proposed solutions comes from that contradiction. Threatening Central and Eastern European states with the suspension of EU funds and treating them as second-class members doesn’t help unity either.


Jiří PeheDirector of New York University in Prague

The four Visegrád countries—the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia—have increasingly displayed an appalling lack of solidarity with the rest of the EU. In the refugee crisis, they have openly challenged the democratic mechanism for approving quotas of resettled migrants, which is based on the EU’s Lisbon Treaty. At the same time, these states have shown almost no willingness to accept refugees on a voluntary basis or to help the countries most affected by the refugee influx.

The Visegrád countries also increasingly undermine the EU by violating at home some of the basic principles of the rule of law and liberal democracy on which the EU is built. They are abusing the fact that there is no mechanism in the EU treaties for expelling an unruly country from the union and that suspending a country’s voting rights in the EU’s Council of Ministers is very difficult.

Deeply rooted in a post-Communist mentality, the Visegrád Group has become an unholy alliance whose continuous violation of EU rules and utilitarian approach to EU solidarity (“we are entitled to EU structural funds, but please don’t ask us to give anything back”) is a real threat to the EU.


Marc PieriniVisiting scholar at Carnegie Europe

The behavior of Central European countries on some of the EU’s most politically sensitive issues is both unexpected and troubling. More importantly, while illustrative of the current wave of populism across Europe, it could result in a rash of exceptionalism on a number of EU policies and values, thus hurting the very spirit of the European Union.

Concerning refugees and asylum, Central Europeans want to both protect the Christian nature of their societies and refuse any solidarity with other EU members. The October 2 referendum in Hungary, in which voters rejected the EU’s refugee relocation scheme, is significant in this respect: although legally void because the vote didn’t reach the 50 percent turnout threshold, the result is being used by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán as a political victory and a tool against more European integration. Similar attitudes can be found in the Czech Republic, Poland, and Slovakia.

What is looming is a temptation in several Central European countries to invoke the same principle of exceptionalism used by British politicians during the Brexit campaign: “We are different!” At the end of that road, the EU’s cohesion—if not its very existence—will be in jeopardy.


Gianni RiottaMember of the Council on Foreign Relations

Many critics blame former European Commission president Romano Prodi and German chancellor Helmut Kohl for a too-generous race to open up the EU’s borders to former Soviet bloc countries at the end of the Cold War. In the 1990s, the euro was still a political project, as then German Green leader Joschka Fischer used to say, not a troubled currency. Central and Eastern European countries were lining up to join the EU, and populism and Brexit were science fiction.

Twenty years later, after the 2008 global financial crisis and waves of immigration, the climate has soured. The former Warsaw Pact nations have very little patience for the Brussels circus. Long-forgotten poisonous strains of anti-Semitism, racism, and xenophobia have emerged again, notably in Hungary.

However, Europe will not be doomed on the Central and Eastern front alone. Europe is slowly, painfully, being suffocated in too many different areas: the euro, populism, the economy, a lack of leaders and values, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s impotence in leading both Germans and Europeans, a lack of defense, an ancestral fear of Russia and its president, and a growing diffidence about the United States after President Barack Obama. All these cuts are bleeding Europe white. The East will be just one of them.


Pierre VimontSenior associate at Carnegie Europe

The Central European EU member states have undoubtedly adopted an approach that is undermining solidarity. Their uncompromising opposition to the union’s relocation scheme for refugees, without any proposed alternative, reveals a free-rider syndrome: the plan, designed as a burden-sharing exercise, epitomized the whole spirit of solidarity. This attitude can only lead to fragmentation. Hungary’s October 2 referendum decision to reject the relocation scheme, even though the vote did not reach the necessary turnout threshold to be valid, remains a worrisome message of hostility toward the EU and what it represents.

There is a real urgency to try to understand this attitude, which combines many factors: historical differences in the way societies in Central Europe have grown in the last sixty years, frustration with an EU that has shown little consideration for the concerns of the small and medium-sized countries of the region, some lack of experience from these relative newcomers on how to deal with deeply divisive issues in the union, and a lack of political will to confront the populist wave across the EU.

The EU needs to bridge the gap—by agreeing to allow a cooling-off period and avoid provocative public statements, by working informally and quietly on possible compromises, and by promoting flexible solutions that take account of Central European specificities. What is desperately needed today is a rekindled spirit of solidarity, which is after all the guiding principle of the whole European enterprise.


Nicolai von OndarzaDeputy head of the EU and Europe Research Division at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP)

No, but some Central European governments are contributing to the erosion of solidarity in the EU.

Solidarity has always been a vague political concept. In essence, it describes a sense of community that expresses itself through common values and reciprocal help in times of need. Both the eurozone crisis and the refugee crisis have put this principle of reciprocal help under severe strain. EU member states were much quicker to blame failings on individual governments than to offer support and willingness to address structural deficiencies in the system. The refusal of some Central and Eastern European countries to take in refugees is just one example of this lack of solidarity in the EU.

In this sense, the proposal of flexible solidarity is a big step forward, if Central European states pledge tangible support such as border protection or assistance to third countries. This could strengthen EU solidarity with help freely given rather than with support forced out of an unwilling partner.

More worrying than this interpretation of solidarity, however, is the refusal to implement binding EU decisions on the relocation of small numbers of refugees to individual countries. Above all, the EU is a community of law. If member states continue to purposefully and explicitly ignore EU decisions, the real foundation of the union is under threat.


Jakub WiśniewskiVice president and director of the Globsec Policy Institute

Several Central European countries are cutting the branch they sit on. It is morally wrong for any member state to dissociate itself from common EU initiatives on migration. But it is more than that: to quote nineteenth-century French diplomat Talleyrand, “it is more than a crime; it is a political fault.” This policy will come back to haunt some Central European governments when EU structural funds are distributed in months and years to come and, more seriously, when new forums of multispeed cooperation emerge.

However, I do not remember debates about Britain destroying European solidarity when the British government questioned the free movement of people, one of the four freedoms of the single market. Nor do I recollect discussions about the end of solidarity when Germany took a favorable position toward the Nord Stream pipeline that brings gas from Russia. These countries’ policies were criticized, but their impact was never so fundamental as to destroy European solidarity. Yet if anyone can do that, it is one of the big member states, given their political heft.

Moreover, the Benelux or Scandinavian countries are not bundled together conceptually if one of them does something unworthy of the spirit of European solidarity. Central Europe is not only Hungary but also Slovenia, Austria, Croatia, and others.


Marcin ZaborowskiExecutive vice president of the Center for European Policy Analysis

There are problems with solidarity in the EU across the board, but Central European member states are certainly guilty of undermining the emphasis on cohesion that they have preached since joining the EU in 2004.

It’s true that no state should be forced to accept refugees against its will; but equally, not accepting any migrants gives Central Europe a label of selfishness. In the long run, there is no doubt that the current anti-immigration policy of Central European governments will prove counterproductive. Central Europe’s use of the solidarity argument risks being discarded in the future.

Moreover, as of now, Central European states are net contributors of migration in other, wealthier member states, which makes their rhetoric sound rather hypocritical.

However, it is also important to understand that mostly ethnically homogeneous small nations with no colonial past have little experience of multiculturalism, in particular of the non-European variety. It’s fair to expect them to show more solidarity in dealing with the refugee crisis—but solidarity should never be forced on them.