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“Europe” Then and Now

May 2, 2013 - Kelly Hignett - Articles and Commentary

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On 18th April I attended “Europe” Then and Now, the second annual Central Europe Symposium hosted by UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES), and organised in conjunction with the Austrian, Czech, Slovakian, Slovenian, Polish and Hungarian UK Embassies. The symposium consisted of three panel discussions covering a range of issues broadly related to “The Question of Europe”, “Economics and the Moral Society” and “Culture and the Public Sphere”. These panels were comprised of presentations from a range of distinguished speakers including Professor László Csaba from Central European University; former Czech Presidential candidate and Columbia University Professor Jan Švejnar; Deutsche Bank Director Nataša Williams, and editor-in-chief of Polish academic quarterly Res Publica Nowa, Wojciech Przybylski. A full list of speakers is available here.

From the outset, some timely but challenging questions were posed: what have the countries of Central Europe contributed to the European project? Are there lessons that West Europeans can learn from Central Europe? What is the true impact of the current financial crisis? What is the likely future for European integration? Each panel presentation was followed by lively discussion and debate, and a number of central themes emerged over the course of the day.

What/Where is “Central Europe”?

Writing in 1984, Milan Kundera famously located Central Europe “culturally in the West and politically in the East”. To what extent does this definition apply today, at a time when many are still adjusting to the geopolitical “reimagining” of post-Cold War Europe and the spatial shift following the fall of the “iron curtain” and subsequent EU enlargement? The phrase “Central” – as opposed to the Cold War-era “Eastern” – Europe has become increasingly popular during the last two decades, but should contemporary “Central Europe” be defined by geography, history or culture? Erhard Busek’s opening keynote speech addressed some of the difficulties involved in determining where “Central Europe” begins and ends, before suggesting that perhaps the new Central/Eastern divide has been defined by EU enlargement into the region. Balazs Mezei highlighted his preference for the term “East Central Europe” when referring to the region under discussion (deliberately excluding Germany and Austria), while Michal Vašečka argued that despite its popularity today, the term “Central Europe” remains problematic for some, having negative connotations with the German concept of “Mitteleuropa”.

Several of the presenters highlighted regional diversity and multiculturalism as positive aspects of “Central European” identity, while Mezei argued that the idea of “Central Europe” is fundamentally underpinned by regional history, in particular the shared experience of suffering under the “dual traumas” of the Holocaust and Communist oppression, events which occurred within living memory for many of their populations. However, as the subsequent discussion acknowledged, we must recognise the existence of competing historical narratives around these traumas, which have provoked emotive questions about the extent which the “small nations” of central Europe should be regarded as victims or perpetrators.

Reflections on Post-Socialism

Almost twenty five years ago, the central European states enthusiastically embarked upon an arduous process of restructuring and reform, driven by a desire to emulate and “catch up” with their West European neighbours. After two decades of “post-socialism” however, there has been a noticeable shift in perspectives, something that has been exacerbated by the recent financial downturn. As Central Europeans have experienced the reality of western-style capitalism and liberal democracy, enthusiasm for certain elements of the “western model” have faded. Divergent cultural attitudes towards democracy persist, and there are concerns about rising support for populist and right-wing extremism in central and south eastern Europe, something that Erhard Busek sought to explain as a form of protest against the perceived lack of “strong leadership” during the current economic crisis.

The application of capitalist economics has also had some negative socio-economic consequences in central Europe, fostering rising inequality, social dislocation, low levels of economic growth and increased national debt across the region. It is no coincidence that recent reports about the persistence of nostalgia for socialism across the former east bloc often cite lower levels of social security as a contributory factor. During the panel discussion about “Economics and the Moral Society” Nataša Williams delivered an excellent presentation, questioning whether central Europeans had realistic expectations and aspirations about western style capitalism when they embarked on this transition, and highlighting the dichotomy between what is legal and what is considered socially just and fair in contemporary central European society, before concluding by asking whether, two decades after the collapse of communism, “Slavic hearts” can really accept capitalist values.

European Integration

Europe” Then and Now also highlighted the noticeable shift in attitudes towards European integration that have taken place on both sides of the former “iron curtain”. During the turbulent early years of transition in central Europe, the European Union provided something of an anchor. EU accession was a clearly defined goal for the states of central Europe, with membership perceived as confirmation of their new, post-communist, “European” identity. Deputy Director of SSEES Slavo Radošević highlighted the general tendency to view EU membership as the “end of the post-socialist story”, but emphasised that of course the story continued after accession. Today, the states of central Europe remain committed to the European Union, with Prime Minister Donald Tusk recently raising the possibility of Poland joining the euro, even in the face of the current financial crisis. However, uncertainty about the future place of central Europe within the EU continues. Andraz Zidar suggested the possibility of the region capitalising on their geopolitical advantage by acting as a “bridge” between western and eastern Europe, while Balazs Mezei suggested that central Europe could foster even broader Eurasian cooperation, playing a key role in mediating future relations between Russia and the EU.

Meanwhile, in many west European states, early enthusiasm for eastward expansion of the EU has been replaced by fear and negativity, with contemporary narratives emphasising the potential dangers, rather than potential benefits, of any further European integration. This has been highlighted by the current debate about immigration from former east bloc countries here in the UK, an issue that featured prominently in Andraz Zidar’s presentation, where he discussed many of the “myths” about east European migrants that have come to dominate western perceptions.

The Eurozone Crisis and the “New Europe”

Naturally, much of the symposium focused on discussing the current financial crisis, an event which arguably poses the biggest challenge to the European Union since the collapse of communism, triggering debates about the desirability of any further widening or deepening of European integration and fostering something of a European “identity crisis”, with recent reports suggesting that levels of Euroscepticism are increasing across the continent and European Commission President José Manuel Barroso claiming that “a sort of European fatigue” is setting in. Wojciech Przybylski questioned whether the European project has “lost its compass”, as the financial crisis threatens to create new divisions in Europe – between the core “Eurozone” group and those who remain on the periphery, between those inside the EU and those outside and between northern “creditors” and southern “debtors”, in light of recent bailouts in Greece, Cyprus, Spain, Portugal (and Ireland).

Erhard Busek emphasised the need for greater empathy and compassion, cooperation rather than fragmentation and open dialogue for Europeans to overcome the current crisis. Balazs Mezei argued that the Eurozone crisis has demonstrated that the economic foundations of “Europe” are fragile and the bureaucratic structures in need of urgent reorganisation, while László Csaba urged even further change, seizing the opportunity provided by the crisis to go beyond re-structuring the architecture of the EU to rethink the very idea of “Europe” and “European identity”. Finally, Michal Vasecka highlighted the traditional role played by “engaged intellectuals” in central Europe, deconstructing the old (communism) and reconstructing the new, by cultivating the public sphere, shaping liberal democracy and building civil society during the last two decades, before questioning whether they could play a similar role during the current crisis.

Europe” Then and Now served as an excellent forum for sharing ideas and stimulating discussion. The symposium provided participants with the opportunity to reflect upon the experience of the last two decades, a time of far reaching change both within the central European region and within “Europe” as whole, and to analyse and debate contemporary developments in today’s “New Europe”.

Kelly Hignett is a historian and lecturer at Leeds Metropolitan University in the United Kingdom. She specialises in crime and social deviance in the Central and East European region and the former USSR. She also writes a popular blog, The View East.

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