The Visegrad Challenge to Brussels and Washington

Daniel Olah/Budapest, Hungary

For those studying the challenges faced by the current international order, the post-Soviet sphere has been on the radar for a number of years. Most assumed that the region would integrate into Europe and embrace a Western-style liberal future. Instead, the past decade has seen a marked shift in an altogether different direction. A number of countries in the region have pursued systematic ideological and institutional shifts in an explicitly illiberal direction. Most prominent in this shift have been the countries of the Visegrad Group: Czechia, Slovakia, Poland, and Hungary. The latter two are especially high-profile because of their size and strategic importance. Another larger sphere of cooperation is the Three Seas Initiative, which includes the Visegrad group plus a number of other countries between the Adriatic, Baltic, and Black seas. Austria is the only member of the twelve-member Three Seas group without a Soviet-sphere background.

Rather than an overarching force for unity, Brussels has seen its role in the region become one of opposition; the eastern bloc increasingly views Brussels as favoring particular interests like market integration and open borders at the expense of cultural distinction and state sovereignty. On the other hand, the Visegrad countries see Washington under the Trump administration as an ally to counterbalance European pressure. This is mirrored to the east as well. The bloc is divided on Russia—Hungary being friendlier, Poland adamantly opposed—but Chinese partnership is increasingly visible and able to counterbalance Moscow. While the media tends to focus on immediate disputes, the rise of this bloc at a time of mounting pressure on liberal political institutions and Western European capitals may force the western bloc to rethink its ideological commitments and inflexible diplomatic approach.

In order to keep the “illiberal” bloc within the Western partnership, the “liberal” bloc will have to resort to treatment previously saved for allies like Ukraine or Saudi Arabia. Specifically, we can expect that the liberal bloc will be forced to actively develop principled and/or pragmatic ideological exceptions for the European east. Both American and European precedents allow for at least some ideologically consistent exceptions to be made. However, the explicitly Christian and sovereigntist politics being embraced by Visegrad could force much greater concessions, though at the cost of more bitter fights, as both Brussels and the U.S. State Department view themselves as having a sense of ownership over Visegrad countries that they do not feel for recalcitrant, ideologically distinct countries like Saudi Arabia. Whether this results in a long-term ideological shift in the West will depend on several factors, particularly on the ability of liberal factions to regain control of the White House and maintain or expand their political power across Western Europe.

The political project of Visegrad and the Three Seas Initiative is not yet clearly defined in any single charter, aside from some joint statements and communiques. However, detailed statements exist in the forms of statements and speeches from many prominent figures, particularly Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. One good example was a 2018 speech at the Bálványos Summer Open University and Student Camp. Orban outlined his government’s vision of  “a new constitutional order based on national and Christian foundations.” Having viewed the 2010 and 2014 victories as a mandate to establish and “consolidate” this system, the 2018 two-thirds victory was described as “nothing short of a mandate to build a new era.” He re-affirmed that this political order is of an “illiberal” nature and outlined sovereignty, defense of the family, state control of strategic sectors, national culture and representation of all nations in the European project as among its core aims. He later outlined the meaning of the term “Christian democracy,” which he places in opposition to “liberal democracy.”

Our duty is not to defend the articles of faith, but the forms of being that have grown from them. These include human dignity, the family and the nation – because Christianity does not seek to attain universality through the abolition of nations, but through the preservation of nations.

The content of these statements isn’t new. Nationalisms across Eastern Europe are informed by Christian heritage and maintain a suspicion of foreign influence from their eras of resistance against both German National Socialism and Soviet Communism. However, a particularly interesting theme appeared when Orban discussed the ability of that vision to drive economic life and development via a vision of cooperation between Hungary and Romania, as well as other countries, in the building up of the Carpathian basin, a region covering much of Central-Eastern Europe. Specific projects included investment in high-speed rail and road between countries, coordinated military and defense policies and increased cross-national investment. More broadly, Orban envisioned this as a stepping stone to the development of central Europe as a whole. Putting this vision behind projects like Three Seas will both increase the incentive of aligned governments to invest and reduce the leverage of the Western European establishment.

Visegrad governments have already overseen two important kinds of growth: economic and demographic. The OECD tracks Poland’s real GDP growth at over 4% for 2017 and 2018 and Hungary’s only slightly lower for the same period. While this is to be expected for less developed economies, such growth will translate into economic clout. Orban’s speech reveals a focus on the improving opportunities for Hungarians and stability for family life, even citing statistics on entertainment spending. While Orban cites an increased birth rate now at 1.5 children per woman, the government’s plan is to reach 2.1, which is needed for a stable, rather than declining population, by 2030. This highlights the demographic element of Visegrad member state ideology.

Poland’s government has invoked Catholic social teaching to expand benefits to large families. While the country suffered decreasing births after the Soviet collapse, economic growth has spurred some recovery. A First Things analysis of the government’s “500+” program noted a rise from 1.29 children to 1.42 since 2015, though prior economic growth likely played the major role in that growth. While these numbers are below the replacement rate, the natalist tendencies of these governments are something to watch, as many Western European societies are even further below replacement, with no sign of improving, while also facing increasing political pressure to restrict immigration. If the Eastern bloc is able to offer alternative labor pools for Western European governments, then in the event that the west enacts more restrictionist policies, Eastern European countries would not only gain economically, but also be able to project cultural and political influence via increased diasporas. Current cosmopolitan tendencies leave Western European countries quite open to such diasporas exerting influence on political institutions.

The European project as envisioned by Brussels is one of comprehensive integration rather than one of cooperation between politically and culturally distinct states. The populist wave in the West has already created domestic challenges to that vision. But even if the Eastern challenge is on the periphery, it is also stronger because there it has achieved power at the state level. Orban’s vision for the region would have the effect of increasing its economic might. This undermines the political carrots of development and increased living standards which Brussels has used to counterbalance the sticks of harmonization and integration.

Scholarship has existed for some years on the differences between these visions and what drives them. Stefan Auer of the University of Hong Kong describes in a 2010 paper from the Journal of Common Market Studies how the post-national ideas of the German establishment were challenged not only by the European project but even by the reunification of the German nation-state.

The outlook of the Bonn Republic was meant to be post-national and European, rather than German. The new challenge that followed after unification was to redefine the relationship between the Federal Republic and its people…The prospect of the re-emergence of Germany as a nation-state dismayed leading public intellectuals in both East and West Germany.

Auer recounts the development of a “constitutional patriotism” which was popularized by thinkers like the German sociologist Jürgen Habermas. This patriotism was intended to replace specific cultural loyalties with democratic values and was intended to become a European vision to orient the continent’s integration. However, this project was itself based on the specific histories and experience of the major Western European nations. For Eastern European countries which had struggled for their independence since before World War II, the sacrifice of sovereignty and distinctiveness for integration and harmonization was by no means obvious. However, Western elites saw this deviation not as the result of legitimate debates, but as merely the result of unfinished political development. Auer sees the matter differently, concluding that the Eastern position is intended to counter the Western one:

Cosmopolitan elites in Europe tend to overlook social problems in their societies because they have developed the ‘class consciousness of frequent travellers’ (Calhoun, 2002). Populism and ethnocentric nationalism have emerged in Europe not despite the cosmopolitan agendas of its elites, but, to a large extent, in response to them.

If the Brussels establishment still holds firm to “constitutional patriotism,” the events of Brexit, Trump, and other populist victories have shaken its confidence in Inevitable Europe. Confronted with so many challenges, the question is whether it will prioritize Europe’s values or its structures. Put differently, the choice facing Brussels is whether to engage in the ideological renegotiation necessary to guarantee cooperation from Europe’s newer members, or face escalating conflict, unless it manages to reduce the leverage of the Eastern bloc by getting a handle on Brexit and the migration crisis. The staying power of the Trump administration will also be a key factor in play.

However, the details of this ideological negotiation aren’t certain. One possibility is for Brussels to simply grant a pragmatic exception to Visegrad countries in return for cooperation on the level of policy. This would mean scaling back criticisms and condemnations of the sort which have been given in the past. There is also the alternative of a more far-reaching adjustment: a principled exception. Such an exception requires an actual negotiation and restructuring of the European ideology which takes the competing visions of Eastern Europe into account. Unlike the rhetoric of Brexit, the Visegrad bloc—as well as populist movements in Germany, Italy and Austria—have not taken a blanket anti-EU stance.

A settlement of principled exceptions may be possible by distinguishing the project’s federalism versus its liberalism. If what matters is a cooperative and more-or-less united Europe, then the “class consciousness of frequent travellers” may find itself in retreat, along with the types of liberalism which emphasize individualism and internationalism over concrete polities. Significantly, French President Emmanuel Macron has pushed for such talks and even won support from the Polish government. His proposal consists of national-level dialogues followed by a European-level restructuring aimed at the next 10-15 years of European governance. In fact, Macron himself has not shied away from embracing notions of culture and even religious life as part of political life. In a controversial 2018 speech to clerical officials, Macron—who received baptism at age 12 by his own request—called for a renewed role for the church in French politics. Noting that ardent secularism had created a schism between France’s Catholic heritage and its political life, Macron stated that “the time has come for us, both you and me, to mend it.”

Does this mean that a long-term European order which has moved on from late-20th century ideas could occur? While not impossible, this depends on a number of factors. First, those interests which prize European cooperation more than Brussels liberalism would need incentives to cooperate with the Visegrad bloc, and vice-versa. The nature of Visegrad means that this requires several governments to work in alignment. Further populist growth in Western Europe could incentivize this cooperation, particularly if the Italian coalition has staying power and if Germany’s AfD (aided by its sympathizers in establishment parties like the CDU and CSU) increases its clout. A successful alliance between a new generation of Western leaders and a developing Eastern bloc may achieve a threshold of institutional momentum which could anchor Europe in a post-liberal political vision. Such a vision would better reflect what unites the diverse continent and would thus anchor itself more in its shared interests and heritage. If Macron proves able to give his approach continuity, France may begin to displace Germany as the major national power behind the European project.

The most powerful challenge to such an alliance would undoubtedly be the return of a committed neoliberal government in the United States. This would occur if either establishment Democrats or anti-Trump Republicans recaptured control of the executive and legislative branches. Currently, the Visegrad bloc has sought to court the Trump administration as a way to balance a much less sympathetic Brussels. Some successes have come, in particular to Hungary: the Obama policy of rejecting bilateral contacts ended with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s meeting with his Hungarian counterpart. A planned funding grant viewed as U.S. backing of anti-Orban media did not go through. However, Poland suffered a recent blow when the U.S. administration rebuffed its new law criminalizing accusations of Polish complicity in Nazi war crimes. Still, the country has continued to make diplomatic moves toward its ultimate goal of a permanently stationed U.S. Army armored division on Polish soil. In this, its hopes seem to be in the sentiments of Trump’s 2017 speech in Warsaw, which praised the Three Seas Initiative and declared Poland “an example for others who seek freedom and who wish to summon the courage and the will to defend our civilization.”

The key factor making this diplomacy possible has been the Trump administration’s focus on bilateral relationships rather than multilateral institutions. On an international scale, the United States is unquestionably the center of the Western liberal coalition. However, long-time allies such as Germany, Japan, and the United Kingdom have had far more influence in establishing its norms in contrast to newer ones in Eastern Europe. Bypassing multilateral institutions and agreements to shape deals directly with the American center allows these newer members to exercise more direct influence. This is a game of playing the far against the near. If America sees the Eastern bloc’s economic and military development as being priorities above its ideological liberalization, then this will exert further pressure on the European establishment to cooperate.

Like Brussels, the American establishment will be faced with questions of how to deal with the Visegrad project ideologically. In this case, however, a history of pragmatic exceptions already exists. Illiberal and even undemocratic states have been able to maintain relationships with the United States in return for cooperating within its alliance. Saudi Arabia is a modern example, but the list includes pre-revolutionary Iran, Park Chung-hee’s South Korea, and others. However, the pragmatic nature of this exception also leaves the door open to strained or broken relationships if rival factions within the U.S. establishment attempt to build legitimacy through a more principled approach to the alliance. Shake-ups have thrown several former alliances and treaties into disarray, leading to the overthrow of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, as well as the undermining of deals like the Obama administration’s nuclear deal on Iran. Unless the Trump administration’s focus on bilateral realpolitik over institutional conservatism and liberal democratic ideology becomes a deeply ingrained component of U.S. diplomacy overall, it is much less likely that formal American liberalism will be open to the sort of shifts that Europe may undergo.

Still, things are uncertain. Even if the Trump administration becomes an eight-year affair, there is the question of what happens after. For this reason, the Chinese role in Eastern Europe will also be a major factor in the region’s future. Chinese involvement somewhat mirrors the Visegrad relationship with Washington and Brussels in its far-near dynamic. Although Orban has established a tone of moderation and diplomacy towards Russia, this is by no means universal. Poland remains strongly anti-Russian, as do the Baltic states. The relationship with the Ukrainian government in Kiev is also a factor.

By establishing stronger ties with China, the Eastern bloc not only balances Moscow’s influence but can also pursue a more unified trade policy to its east. These eastern ties will help to give it clout against the possible post-Trump return of a powerful neoliberal establishment. For China’s part, Eastern Europe is a key piece in plans such as the Belt and Road Initiative. In 2018, Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang personally visited Bulgaria for the seventh 16+1 summit, a forum for Chinese and regional business interests. Although China’s stance is that such investments are not intended to undermine European integration, the development plans of leaders such as Orban are clearly linked to the political vision of Visegrad.

What will be the ultimate impact of this vision? In both its organization and geopolitical clout, Visegrad and broader projects in Eastern Europe will continue to contest what European liberalism once considered inevitable. With the momentum achieved by Hungary, Poland, and other governments, pro-European leaders will be forced to parley with their newest partners in the continental project. While we may continue to see particular disputes or condemnations, the collective pressures on Brussels and its allies do not allow for total disintegration. Fortunately, we’ve seen that the ideological structures of the European idea have potential for transformation. In any dispute between international liberalism and European cooperation, there is much interest in seeing the latter prevail.

Nevertheless, the coming years in the United States will also impact what is possible for the Eastern bloc. As long as the Trump administration pursues the bilateral approach to international relations, Visegrad and company will be able to balance out pressures from Brussels. But if that power center shifts, it will find itself under increased pressure to capitulate to Brussels’ demands. The increased engagement with China and other eastern neighbors can be viewed as one form of preparation by increasing economic power and political clout. Should the worst happen from the Visegrad perspective, it isn’t unreasonable to predict that China’s influence could increase further. Bellicose rhetoric from Russia will only reinforce the desire for a strategy of playing far against near. In either scenario, European and American liberalism will be forced to respond.

For these reasons, Visegrad represents a significant challenge to global liberalism. Both principled and pragmatic exceptions to accommodate Eastern Europe open the door to ideological evolution. Ideology and culture have historically changed as a result of shifts in power: countries, classes, religions and other interests express their influence in competing visions for the future. If political ability and fortune align, the Christian and sovereigntist challenge may ultimately open one door to a post-liberal future in the West.

Ash Milton is Contributing Editor at Palladium Magazine. You can follow him at @miltonwrites.