In the hype of allegedly more consequential and newsworthy events, many of us have become blissfully unaware of developments in the region of Central Europe. It is because I do believe that the path to better Europe ultimately leads via a better understanding of one another, I have decided to do my bit and periodically publish a summary of important news that barely makes it onto our screens or into our newspapers here in Brussels. The scope of my efforts will focus on Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Poland and partly Hungary – as the countries of the so called Visegrad Four group. The past month has seen a change of the President in Slovakia, Poland’s commemoration of 25 years after the first partially-free elections in 1989, countries’ economies picking up and even the end of an Olympic dream.
While the rest of the world is firmly fixated onto the TV or computer screen to get a glimpse of the World Cup in Brazil, the news about the withdrawal of an application to host the 2022 winter Olympics in Poland and Slovakia may have escaped your attention. Poland’s Krakow and Slovakia were bidding to organise the event in a joint venture, but a referendum held in Krakow on 25 May thwarted all hopes, as the people gave a resounding “no” to the expensive project (here).
New President sworn-in in Slovakia
Slovakia has a new President. A self-styled entrepreneur-turned-philanthropist Andrej Kiska defeated, in a landslide and in a two-round election back in March, the current Socialist Prime Minister Robert Fico. Kiska was sworn in on Sunday 15 June to replace the rather servile Ivan Gasparovic. Before his last day in office, however, Gasparovic visited the Czech President Milos Zeman, who is renowned for his rather pro-European stance. In a press briefing after the meeting, Zeman expressed his desire for the Czech Republic to at last catch up with Slovakia’s membership of the Eurozone (here).
25 years of freedom: a cross-road between progress and regress
On Monday 16 June Hungary’s capital, Budapest, hosted heads of state from the Visegrad Four and Germany’s President Joachim Gauck. The meeting of the Presidents happened against the backdrop of commemoration of events a quarter of a century ago which ultimately led to a modern and democratic Hungary. In light of the current and recent developments in the country, a reminder of democratic principles can never do any harm (here).
In the same vein, 4 June marked the 25th anniversary of Poland’s first partially free elections which resulted in a resounding victory for the then opposition, led by Lech Walesa. The Solidarność movement won all but one seat in the upper chamber of the Parliament, and all of the possible seats in the Sejm, the lower chamber.
Staying with Poland, the country is currently embroiled in a debate over its abortion law when a woman who was legally entitled to it, was refused a treatment. This reignited a highly controversial issue has prompted the Polish PM Tusk to come out in support of the law. His position, however, is of little consolation to pro-choice advocates, as Poland’s abortion law is one of the most conservative in Europe (here).
On the same day Poland was busy commemorating the day of free elections from 25 years ago, MPs south of its border, in Slovakia, were voting on changes to the country’s constitution. A move which was ignored by mainstream EU news outlets has in the meantime defined marriage as only between one man and one woman, and introduced a clearance system by which eligibility of judges will be assessed (here).
Renewed commitments towards NATO
With three of the Visegrad countries directly bordering Ukraine and with all of them existentially dependent on Russian oil, the promise of escalation of tensions in the region has been a wake-up call for all. But not all countries see the threat in the same way. Poland has recently played a very pro-Ukrainian role and welcomed President Obama’s ambition to extend military presence of American troops in Europe. Both the Czech and Slovak governments have expressed their reservation towards Obama’s initiative though – masking their geopolitical ambitions of becoming mediators between Russia and the West behind claims that presence of foreign troops in both countries is a sensitive issue due to history (i.e. the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 by the Warsaw pact countries). Nevertheless, and after heavy criticism from NATO’s Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, (here) both countries have announced a joint military simulation in central and eastern part of Slovakia scheduled for autumn (here). Moreover, ten years after the introduction of a professional army, the Czech Republic is flirting with the idea of allowing its government to draft soldiers under more lenient conditions (here), while Slovakia is going even further promising an increase in defence spending worth hundreds of millions of Euros (here).
Success of Visegrad Four’s Diplomats
The diplomatic service for countries of Central Europe is going through unprecedented times. Of course, those of you who are closely following the forming of the next Commission must know that the current foreign minister of Poland, Radoslaw Sikorski has been officially supported by his country in his bid to replace Catherine Ashton as EU foreign policy chief. Maybe less known is the fact that the Czech Republic will, for the first time ever, nominate its own advocate general serving at the Court of Justice of the European Union (here). Although the position is being assigned automatically, it is nevertheless a big milestone for the country. Even more significantly, it has been reported (here) that Slovakia is standing a chance of clinching the seat of the United Nations Secretary General which will be up for a vote before it becomes vacant in 2016.
In the period between now and the beginning of the crisis in 2008, Hungary and the Czech Republic have struggled the most to revive their economies (here) but with both being at the helm (along with Ireland) of the EU28 in terms of their industrial output, it seems that the worst is over and their economies are out of the woods concerning the double/triple dip recessions. On a year-on-year basis, Hungary’s industrial production has increased by 10.1% and that of the Czech Republic by 9.2% (here). In terms of the GDP growth, all four countries show higher averages than both the EU and Eurozone figures. For 2014, for example, Poland is expected to grow by almost twice as fast (3.1%) as the EU average (1.6%). It seems that countries of Central Europe are once again on the path for the best way to bridge the gap with the West.