When Central European countries were preparing to join the European Union at the turn of the century, they viewed the European project as a way to realise European values and overcome their Communist regimes’ legacy of economic underdevelopment. They also took a keen interest in the debates at this time on how to make an integrated Europe more democratic. Central Europeans expected that the moment they joined they would become equal partners in shaping the great European story. The disillusionment was cruel. Europe today treats them at best as poor relatives and at worst as whipping boys. Most of all, though, European values and European democracy have turned into the opposite of what they once were, and economic underdevelopment, rather than being overcome with Europe’s help, is instead sustained and institutionalised by Europe.
Inversion of values
Back then, European values tended to be defended by conservatives. Their watchwords were freedom, the nation, reason, Christianity, family and numerous other European accomplishments born of previous generations’ experience. The debate was carried along by a spirit of pride in what Europe had achieved and a clear awareness that the European idea of a good life is different from the customs practised in the Eurasian steppes or the deserts and oases of the Middle East and North Africa, and even from the American way of life. European values were what united Central Europe with Western Europe intellectually and mentally, despite their different regimes. In fact, this commonality of values was the most compelling argument for joining the EU. It was based on the idea that Central Europeans were returning to where they had always belonged.
This is why the subscription to European values did not excite any controversy in Central Europe. In this respect, Central Europeans differed from that section of the European left whose most progressive wing opposed the values of avant-garde social experiments, which, despite their diversity, had a common denominator in their rejection of the European legacy and the dissolution of Europe into the universalist utopia of a world without frontiers. Progressivists initially skirted around discussions on values, but eventually found a more effective strategy: they gave values inverted content and went on the offensive. In this way, they are moulding the current Brussels concept of values, which has become the official mantra of the European elite. These “values” are directed against traditional European nations in favour of non-European migrants, against freedom in favour of political correctness, against the traditional family in favour of alternative models of coexistence. They celebrate behaviour which previous generations rejected (albeit often unjustly and brutally) and which is precisely why they believe it should become a universally binding norm.
This is no longer about the acceptance of “otherness”, which Europe has often painfully and laboriously worked its way towards. It is about deconstruction, inverting the relationship between identity and otherness. Progressivist values are identified fully with otherness, and their standard-bearers today reject traditional notions of values with the same aggressiveness with which that otherness was ridiculed, discriminated against and suppressed in the past.
One of the many strange spectacles of this ongoing value-steeped aggression took place at the European Council in Brussels in June 2021, when Dutch Prime Minister Rutte called on Hungary to either repeal the law banning the promotion of homosexuality among young people or leave the EU. He was speaking from the heart to European progressivists who have long accused the Hungarian and Polish governments of breaching European values. His Luxembourg counterpart, Xavier Bettel, then shared with other European heads of government the trauma of his own mother’s rejection of him as a homosexual. This was unrelated to the Hungarian law, but many were moved by the fact that the prime minister of the EU’s richest country was actually a suffering member of an ostracised minority. Is this something that should be addressed at a meeting of the highest European body? Is promoting homosexuality in schools a European value? Do only Central Europeans ask questions like this?
When the leaders of European tax havens – the Netherlands and Luxembourg – give lectures on values to the leaders of countries they brazenly profit from, it is worth asking how this, too, fits in with European values. European values once referred to solidarity with the economically disadvantaged, a category that, in the 1990s, was quite naturally filled by Central and Eastern Europe. At the cost of great sacrifices, it began to overcome the backwardness caused by the Communist experiment, and hoped that the EU would be a vehicle enabling it to make up lost ground more quickly.
EU accession did not meet these expectations. Compared to Germany, the Czech Republic and Hungary are not much better off today than when they joined the EU. While Poland and Slovakia have improved from a worse starting position vis-à-vis Germany, they, too, have hit a ceiling of prosperity built on foreign investment, cheap labour and assembly plants. Romanians, Bulgarians, Lithuanians, Latvians prefer to emigrate to the West. This disadvantage is likely to last for generations, if only because it suits the elite in the richer part of Europe: they have cheap, skilled and disciplined labour, reliable subcontractors and no real competitors. Any economic policy trying to undo this backwardness will have Brussels to contend with.
In order to maintain this state of affairs, those new European values are coming to the rescue once again, spelling out who is privileged and who is not. An ordinary Czech girl at the cash register in a supermarket owned by a German owner, an ordinary Slovak guy in the assembly plant of a French car maker, or their local managers – are they privileged? Sure, they may be paid three times less than someone in the same job in the West, but they have nothing to complain about because they are better off than under Communism. Convergence with the Germans or Austrians is not on the agenda at the moment anyway, because climate change takes priority. Central Europeans need to get it into their heads that they are indeed privileged and that, in actual fact, they are doing too well considering the prejudices they still live by. Then it will be possible to explain to them that the real victims of our times are migrants – whose inflow is needed by European capital – and Xavier Bettel. He may be the head of a super-rich grand duchy that lives off the tax optimisation of companies from all over the world, including Central Europe, but how does that compare to the sense of discrimination he felt able share at the highest political level in Brussels? If the locals still don’t get it, they need to be shown the door, as the prime minister of the Netherlands, another tax haven that doesn’t reek of Central European money, did.
Turning the debate on democracy on its head
Just as the European ruling elite has successfully redefined European values, it has also managed to turn the content of the debate on European democracy on its head. As recently as the beginning of this century, this debate was structured around the democratic deficit of European institutions: the European Parliament, which has nothing to do with the European tradition of representative democracy; the European Commission, whose apparatus prepares decisions that elected politicians can do little about; and the European Court of Justice, which constantly extends the competences of European institutions, including its own, beyond what has been entrusted to them by the Member States.
This deficit has only ballooned over time. Few things contributed more to its deepening than the accession of Jean-Claude Juncker to the head of the European Commission. Juncker claimed this post as leader of the European People’s Party Group, which won the most votes in the European elections. Considering the nature of the European Parliament elections and European constitutional rules, this was an unreasonable and hardly defensible demand. However, the highest representatives of the member states eventually recognised Juncker’s claim and entrusted him with the leadership of the Commission (let’s not go into why and how right now). Juncker declared his Commission to be political, even though it is supposed to be an impartial body, and at the same time he cast it in the role of a guardian of European values, despite the fact that it is only supposed to watch over the rules agreed on by the member states. The political and value-oriented European Commission has amplified the existing Brussels tendency of double standards at the expense of the new member states and, without a democratic mandate, has set about ostracising them for their values.
Surprisingly, these steps have not triggered a new debate on the deepening democratic deficit of Brussels institutions. It is no longer undemocratic European institutions, but democratic member states, and specifically those in Central Europe, that are considered to be the problem of European democracy. European institutions, whose democratic credentials are doubted even by their own supporters, today absurdly cast themselves in the role of protectors of democracy in Poland or Hungary, regardless of the fact that the governments there have unquestionable democratic legitimacy. Yet by trying to “protect” democracy in Central Europe, European institutions are only increasing their own democratic deficit. They are embarking on something for which they lack legitimacy and, as usual, they are indulging in double standards. The political prisoners in Spain (Catalan autonomists) leave them cold, but they fight tooth and nail for Soros’ NGOs in Hungary.
A Europe of common sense
The progressivist oligarchy that controls public life in the richer parts of Europe has managed to turn Europe on its head over the last twenty years. In doing so, it is shoring up its positions not only against the interests of Central Europe, but also against the interests and beliefs of a growing section of the public in the old member states. When those concerned – whether the yellow vests in France or the traditionalist Catholics in Poland – speak up, there are efforts to either bribe or intimidate them. But with every such move, the oligarchy loses respect and feeds the resistance. Europe cannot continue in this way.
We need to return to common sense. Across Europe, there is growing resistance to Brussels’ interference with national education or justice systems, to the enforcement of the escalating demands of sexual and other minorities, or to the rash push for electric cars, solar arrays and wind farms. On the other hand, European countries still face the enormous task of reconciling the efficiency of the European market with overall social justice and ensuring the survival of European economies and the European way of life, including freedom and democracy, under pressure from competing powers, US corporations, domestic oligarchs, rampant progressivism and migratory pressures. European institutions are there to help countries in this endeavour. They must not usurp a place that does not belong to them, they must not play European states off against each other, and they must certainly not side with the forces that threaten Europe. Rather than having such institutions, it would be preferable to have none.
Europe clearly cannot be guided back to sanity by polite conversation alone. There will be a showdown between those who profit from the current unsustainable state of affairs and those who demand a remedy. Central Europe can play an important role. The elite here is less affected by progressivism than that of the West, whose arrogance shows Central Europeans the ugly side of the European project, while also gaining them allies in the form of protest and populist movements in the old member states. The Central European right is aware of this; Orbán and Kaczyński are already forming a pan-European alliance of like-minded people around the Declaration on the Future of Europe. What is needed now is for the Central European left to follow suit, to be able to move away from imitating the declining Western liberal left, to follow its own populist direction, and to start building a coalition of like-minded people in Europe.