On Where to Draw the Borders: a response to Sławomir Sierakowski

In a recent article published by Project Syndicate, Sławomir Sierakowski argued that eastern Europe is different in character from western Europe and that its citizens may soon decide they do not wish to be aligned with the EU. Here, Dahrendorf Forum Post-Doctoral Fellow Alexandru Filip argues the countries in each half of Europe are not so different after all.

Over the past several decades, eastern and western Europe have converged in terms of culture, politics, and institutional structure. The remaining differences are superficial rather than culturally intrinsic. Nevertheless, Sławomir Sierakowski of the Institute for Advanced Study in Warsaw suggests the EU’s borders may be politically and culturally overextended and that central and eastern Europe (CEE) belong not with the West, but with Russia. Using the cases of Hungary and Poland, Sierakowski advances his argument based on political culture and voter mentality. Both lines of argument can be questioned, however, in light of the historical and political reality of the western world.

With regard to political cultures across Europe, Sierakowski argues that eastern Europeans lack the systems of checks and balances or strong democratic traditions that have long safeguarded western European democracy. But this argument omits the history of many countries we now consider part of the West, where those traditions and institutions took time to develop over the 20th century. To claim that eastern European countries cannot do the same is mere speculation. Democracy requires hard work, time, and patience. To pass verdicts after only a decade of CEE EU membership is premature.

The CEE cultural space refers not only to Poland and Hungary, but also to the Baltic States and former Habsburg domains such as Slovenia, Croatia, and the former Czechoslovakia. Central European countries with long histories of autocracy, such as Austria and Germany also belong to this domain, but few would argue today that Germany or Austria belong more with Russia than with ‘liberal’ Europe.

Continuing his political culture line of reasoning, Sierakowski argued that populist candidates routinely win elections only in post-Communist countries. This analysis disregards the fact that even if we ignore interwar Germany and Italy, the West has had its flirtations with populists and ‘strong men’, from De Gaulle to Berlusconi. Spain, Portugal, and Greece—which have now benefitted from decades of Western ‘socialisation’—had populist tendencies until the 70’s and 80’s. Recent elections in Spain, Greece, and Italy (not to mention Brexit or the US elections) have arguably shown more of a populist trend than the Polish and Hungarian cases Sierakowski cites.

Sierakowski’s second broad line of argumentation is that the electorate is somehow fundamentally different in CEE from the electorate in the rest of Europe. He argues that unlike western Europe, CEE has not managed to move from a materialist to a post-materialist culture, but he fails to account for the fact that CEE countries are still far poorer than their western European counterparts. One could venture to say that if Austria (also a Catholic, historically autocratic central European country) had been a Warsaw Pact country or if the German Democratic Republic had not reunited with the West, we might be having similar discussions about them. Or maybe such discussions would be absent, just as they are about Ljubljana, Tallinn, and Prague. To dismiss Warsaw or Budapest as culturally closer to Russia than to the rest of Europe, but omit Dresden, Ljubljana, Tallinn from the same discussion is intellectually insincere.

Moreover, Sierakowski also makes the point that eastern European politics are populated by traits not found in the West. He argues that in Poland, for example, populist voting is not driven by ‘hard’ economic factors, but softer, ideational ones in which populist leaders create a narrative of positive and negative experiences for the voters (even those satisfied with their lives), and that that makes populism in CEE distinct. In his words, “The success of the PiS, therefore, is rooted not in frustrated voters’ economic interests. For the working class, the desire for a sense of community is the major consideration. For their middle-class counterparts, it is the satisfaction that arises not from material wealth, but from pointing to someone who is perceived as inferior, from refugees to depraved elites to cliquish judges.”

But these forces are not unique to eastern Europe. In the 1960s, then US Senator Lyndon Johnson described American Politics in the 60’s: “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.” The same logic contributed to the election of Donald Trump more than half a century later. The forces that motivate voters in the United States are not so different from those that motivate voters in eastern Europe—and western Europeans are not immune to them either.

Sierakowski’s conclusions also carry dangerous implications for security and foreign policy, and pander to those arguing in realpolitik terms about the need to respect and understand Russia’s sphere of influence in eastern Europe, will of eastern European peoples be damned, to those claiming the CEEs are something different, that belong not in the EU but perhaps in something like a Eurasian Union.

Just as civil society, an important ingredient in liberal democracy, was asphyxiated behind the Iron Curtain, certain aspects of present day politics in eastern Europe can be explained by the five decades of oppression that marred the region between 1940 and 1990. But that period (and its effects) should not be allowed to define the political future of Central Europe.

Alexandru Filip is a Dahrendorf Forum Post-Doctoral Fellow based at the Hertie School of Governance.

Photo by Tim Green via Creative Commons 2.0 License

The opinions expressed in this blog contribution are entirely those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Dahrendorf Forum or its hosts Hertie School and London School of Economics or its funder Stiftung Mercator.