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Jul 04, 2016

Eastern bloc calls for less centralized Europe

Following Brexit, now could be the time for the countries of eastern Europe to have their voices more clearly heard in the EU

Hungary, along with other Eastern bloc countries, have all been investing in the renovation of their countries over recent months as the region continues to boom amidst a troubled European Union.

Following the Brexit vote last month, there is an underlying fear that German and EU leaders will use Brexit to help speed up EU integration, measures opposed by Slovakia, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic out of concern that the changes will marginalize the newer member states.

According to The Guardian newspaper today, now could be the time for these central European countries – members of the Visegrád group – to have their voices more clearly heard in the EU than ever before.

“The genuine concerns of our citizens need to be better reflected,” the group’s four prime ministers said in a joint statement delivered last week, in which they appealed for the EU’s executive to be restrained. “Instead of endless theoretical debates on ‘more Europe’ or ‘less Europe’, we need to focus on ‘better Europe’,” they wrote.

With the exit of the UK, the V4 will have lost their leading EU partner. London was always seen as an invaluable ally in Warsaw, Prague, Bratislava and Budapest because it shared a “common perception of European problems”, as Poland’s foreign minister, Witold Waszczykowski, put it.

Britain was also admired for the decision to open its labor market to the new members immediately – unlike Germany and France, which instituted transitional arrangements. Thanks to that, an estimated 1.2 million people from the V4 live in the UK. But thanks to Brexit, partly prompted by concerns over migration, they, like the EU itself, now face an uncertain future.

Of even greater concern to V4 leaders is the loss of a heavyweight that had until now helped rein in the integrationist instincts of Germany and France. Warsaw in particular had welcomed Britain’s insistence that the EU should concentrate on expanding rather than deepening the EU.

On other points, too, the UK was a valuable friend, supporting the V4 in their desire to keep their age-old enemy, Russia, in check by continuing with sanctions when other EU members wanted to relax them.

Already, there appears to be a stuggle to get central European voices heard in the post-Brexit debate. There was fury among V4 members when, the day after the Brexit result was revealed, only the foreign ministers from the EU’s six founding states were invited to Berlin by the German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, to pledge their support for an “ever closer union”.

Steinmeier and Jean-Marc Ayrault, his French counterpart, ended the meeting with a petition for a political union constructed around the euro.

For countries like Hungary that have not adopted the euro – and which say it makes sense to do so only once their citizens’ incomes are higher – the nightmare scenario is a two-speed Europe in which their interests would be a low priority.

“If Britain had voted to stay in the EU and carved out its own niche with various opt-outs, that would have made an alternative model of EU membership more realistic,” Pawel Swidlicki, a policy analyst at thinktank Open Europe, said. “Now that Britain is leaving, the Visegrád Four have to answer some tough questions.”

The V4’s calls in its truculent statement for more powers to be repatriated to member countries – a dig at those who want more federalism – have partly been triggered by countries’ anger over the obligatory quotas forced on them last year for receiving refugees.

It is in Hungary, under the premiership of Viktor Orbán, and where anti-immigrant sentiment has been most strongly felt, that the EU’s next nailbiting referendum is due to be held.

Orbán’s national conservative government is expected to win the vote, scheduled for September or October, which will ask: “Do you agree that the European Union should have the power to order the forced settlement of non-Hungarians, without Hungary’s national parliament approving it?”

The strength of anti-EU sentiment in Hungary was illustrated by the decision of the speaker of parliament, László Kövér, to replace the EU flag, which had hung from the parliament building next to the Hungarian flag, with the flag of the Szekler, a Romania-based Hungarian minority. The nationalist gesture was popularly received.

In a sign of just how highly he regarded Britain as an EU partner, Orbán placed a whole-page advert in the Daily Mail ahead of the referendum stating his support for remain. At the same time he took the opportunity to heap praise, when speaking to his own people, on Britons’ decision to take back their sovereignty.

The V4 may have lost its closest ally and protector, but in many ways its members have never felt bolder than they do now to call for exactly what they want from the Brussels executive.

Read more here.