Brexit confronts the EU with the challenge of losing its third largest Member State, one of its most vibrant economies, a substantial net contributor to the EU budget and also to the EU’s defense and security capabilities. With Brexit, a strategic player exits the EU.
In its role as the ‘awkward partner’, the UK has proven to be an effective counterweight to the Franco-German ambition to accompany economic liberalization with parallel economic integration. The UK has been an important political ally for the Member States in the Central Eastern European (CEE) region. The CEEs have traditionally considered Germany as their main partner in the EU due to the long-standing and close economic, political and cultural ties. The UK has, nevertheless, been an important ally for the countries in the region in terms of promoting regional security, Single Market liberalization and most importantly, political subsidiarity.
The CEE countries generally are more open toward the deepening of political integration in individual policy areas than the UK, which has become ever more skeptical of the pooling of sovereignty. Overall, the British insistence on subsidiarity as part of the concept of a Europe of nation states has nevertheless been attractive to most countries in the region. This is particularly noticeable in the V-4, where all countries are firmly positioned in the group of the ‘sovereignists’. These ‘sovereignists’ have become increasingly at odds with semi-hegemonial Germany over the political solutions the Merkel government developed in response to the eurozone and the migration crisis. The standard bearer for the sovereignist movement has been Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, whose electoral fortunes have been built on his self-declared role as defender of national sovereignty against what he labels as the Brussels diktat.
The growing tendency towards illiberalism and democratic backsliding
Orbán has received increasing support in the V-4 for this stance, particularly amongst the Polish government. Both governments have led the opposition towards the German approach to the migration crisis. The ongoing dispute over the issue was a turning point in the formerly close relations between Berlin and the V-4. Both sides are now clearly at odds over which value system the EU should represent. From the perspective of the V-4, especially for Hungary and Poland, the EU should abandon its insistence on Western liberal values. Orbán contrasts this approach with his own brand of ‘illiberalism’, which promotes traditional Christian values, emphasizes national interests, cultural heritage, and also rejects the notion that Europe should turn into a region with a unified culture and open borders. The illiberal approach emphasis the ability to maintain full national control over national borders and immigration as ‘the most important principle of national sovereignty’. These sentiments have met increasingly fertile electoral ground in the Visegrád countries and are not only shared by Orbán, Kaczynski and the Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki. They were also echoed by former prime minister Robert Fico in Slovakia. Most of all, they brought a change of government in the Czech Republic at the 2017 national elections, where the political outsider and businessman Andrej Babiš successfully ousted the liberal and pro-European Social Democratic government with a Trump-style election campaign. From the Western European and especially from the German perspective, the Visegrád Group therefore has increasingly lived up to the expectation of symbolizing the growing tendency towards illiberalism and democratic backsliding in the region.
The increasing cleavage between Western and CEE perspectives on the future of the EU is particularly noticeable in the diverging German and Polish perspectives. Poland is uniquely positioned to adopt a strategic role in the essential recalibration of the EU’s leadership constellation after Brexit, both as the regional leader in the Visegrád Group and a member of the Weimar Triangle alongside France and Germany. In this respect the dilemma for Poland’s leaders lies in the strategic question as to what extent they can combine both positions. Under the PiS administration, Poland has substantially neglected engagement in the Weimar Triangle, and instead concentrated on engagement in the Visegrád Group. The German government facilitated the Polish withdrawal towards regional engagement by targeting Poland as one of the countries that would not follow the ‘moral imperative’ of solidarity over the distribution of migrants across the EU. Berlin also supported infringement proceedings against the Polish government because of the domestic controversial changes that Warsaw implemented.
After a bruising six months of almost failing coalition talks, Merkel initiated her fourth term as Chancellor in a renewed coalition with the SPD by emphasizing the need to revive relations with Poland and to strengthen the Weimar Triangle. In a June speech on the future of the EU, the new SPD Foreign Minister Heiko Maas re-emphasized the importance of rebuilding the partnership with Central-Eastern Europe as part of a new European ‘Ostpolitik’, which abandons the ‘moral superior attitude’ that had characterized the German approach towards the migration crisis. This could potentially offer a historic opportunity for Warsaw to determine a leading Polish role in the EU and to advocate for the interests of the Central-Eastern European region effectively within a revived Weimar Triangle.
For the sake of echoing the Polish president to concentrate on avoiding ‘further Brexits’ and ultimately the widening disintegration of the EU, the government in Warsaw needs to use this prospect to reach out to Berlin and Paris and engage in rebooting the European project and reinstilling purpose into the post-Brexit EU-27.