This commentary on liberalism and the responses to the refugee crisis in East Central Europe was co-authored with James Dawson.
Images from Hungary showing security forces turning tear gas and water cannon on refugees from behind a newly fortified border will come as little surprise to many observers of East Central Europe. The government of Victor Orbán has systematically exploited the refugee crisis to ramp up a long-standing rhetoric of nationalist intolerance and consolidate its grip on power by passing a raft of emergency powers, further eroding Hungary’s once robust legal checks and balances. Such actions have drawn a storm of international opprobrium – including harsh criticism from the governments of Austria, Croatia and Serbia, all of which have taken a more humane and pragmatic approach to managing the influx of refugees.
Few criticisms of Hungary’s actions have come from neighbouring EU states in East Central Europe still widely seen as front runners in liberal political and economic reform. Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic initially opted to close ranks with Orbán to head off the European Commission’s proposals for compulsory quotas. Wrong-footed and exasperated by the sudden re-discovery of liberal compassion on the part on Germany and other West European governments, leaders ranging from Slovakia’s social democratic prime minister Robert Fico to Poland’s newly elected conservative president Andrzej Duda provoked astonishment in Western European capitals by conceding that they might take a handful of those fleeing the war in Syria hand-picked on the basis of their religion. Poland has lately broken ranks by responding to pressure from Berlin, Paris and Brussels to sign up to quotas, yet even the deal’s supporters doubt it will ever be implemented against a backdrop of consistently hostile public attitudes towards refugees in the region. As one social media visualisation graphically showed, widespread use of #refugeeswelcome stopped abruptly at the old Iron Curtain. Such stances have been widely lambasted as hypocritical, ungenerous, lacking in compassion, and contradicting the long-term interests of East Central European states themselves.
Yet just a decade ago these same former Eastern bloc countries acceded smoothly to the EU on the basis that they had fulfilled the Copenhagen Criteria as ‘functioning liberal democracies’. Why has liberalism, once a rallying cry for pro-European leaders from Warsaw to Sofia and a condition built into the EU’s demanding pre-accession acquis, suddenly gone missing when it is needed most? Read More…
Most interesting, however, is the political divisions that the debate opened up, which tended to reverse the left-right splits more commonly seen in Western Europe: the Czech left, in the form of the main opposition Czech Social Democrats, is opposed not on the usual grounds of maintaining wages and labour standards, but also on the somewhat populist (not to say racist) grounds that non-European migrants will bring crime, disease and social disorder. Controversial ex-Health Minister (and doctor) David Rath evoked a nightmare scenario of rising unemployment (among Czechs) and hospital wards full of AIDS and TB ridden immigrants. “Do we want to focus recruitment on regions where AIDS rates are around 50-60% of the active population?” he asked in a perhaps less than subtle headline-grabbing attempt to warn Czechs that migrants might be black Africans. Always a bête noire for the right, Rath was then lambasted by the centre-right deputies as Czech Jean- Marie Le Pen in the making or a reincarnation of the former Republican leader Dr Miroslav Sládek whose far-right party crashed out of the Czech parliament in 1998.
There is perhaps a rational argument somewhere below the surface here: there would be social and policy consequences of migration in a small rather mono-ethnic society, which would a strategy and some serious public policy thinking. But what is striking is the Social Democrats’ immediate instinctive – and politically acute – response tuning in to chauvinist and populist positions which will play well with much of their electorate. Will this, I wonder, in the longer term open the door to the far-right, whose main preoccupation is still fulminating about the Roma minority? A distinct possibility as the Communist party sinks for demographic reasons into slow decline – especially the Social Democrats eventually emerge as the stronger of the two main parties and hold office for 2-3 terms.
Rath, I should perhaps add, is probably best known for fisticuffs it with equally controversial dentist-turned-politician Miroslav Macek, who walked up to him thumped him at health conference for suggesting that Macek had married his second wife for her money – click on picture above for the incident – but this display of cojones (“You’re a coward Dr Macek – why didn’t you face up to me like a man?”) probably did him no harm in eyes of the voters. Rath for my money is a shrewd and effective politician, who came to prominence – in somewhat more centrist political persona – in the 1990s as leader of junior doctor’s trade union and later headed up the Czech Medical Association.
It will be interesting to see what stance President Klaus takes on the Green Cards issue. His previous statements about multi-culturalism would suggest that – as on some other issues – his view may overlap in key respects with those of the left.
The shortages seem to be for semi-skilled labour predictably, in the construction, manufacturing, garment and agricultural fields. Despite the nationalist colouration of much Slovak politics, the potential growth in Ukrainian migration seems to be received with equanimity by most of the political spectrum with the key obstacle seemingly how quickly Ukrainian and Slovak officials can re-negotiate the technicalities of the existing bilateral agreement dating from 1994 (not very, is the answer there). The most revealing and interesting remark, however, is the comment attributed to Alexander Duleba of the liberal-leaning Slovak Foreign Policy Association thinktank that ‘It is in our interests to have Ukrainians here rather than people from non-European countries, who will pose a problem of integration in terms of culture and customs’. The subtext seemingly being that Slovakia should hoover up the limited supplies of suitably qualified, culturally assimilable migrants before other competitor countries in the CEE region do. However, as Ukraine itself has an ageing population and labour shortages of its own emerging in fields like the construction industry, I doubt whether even the most liberal open door policy to post-Soviet neighbours will avert the need for migration from points further East (and South).
The second piece I saw by Věra Roubalová Kostlánová – whose name, although I’ve only just noticed the fact, suggests she may be married to Kostlán – appeared in Lidové noviny and criticized the new Aliens Act in the Czech Republic – and the broader philosophy of restricting and discouraging (non-EU) migration that underlies it. Such restriction she argues are based on a grossly exaggerated view of the amount of crime committed by non-Czechs and tends to reinforce the very phenomenon it seeks to control, by criminalizing migrants and pushing towards reliance on mafias and criminal groups. Increasing the discretionary power of the Czech Immigration Service (cizinecká police) she suggests simply increases opportunities and openings for official corruption. A new two year restriction on access to social benefits for foreign (non-EU) spouses of Czech citizens and their children as a measure against bogus marriage, she argues, is pointless as it will target the group of foreign citizens most likely to integrate into Czech society.
Noting that renewed economic growth and a shortage of skilled professionals has at last led Germany to open its doors to well qualified citizens of the new member states in CEE, Palata notes that the Czech Republic has ‘conquered another bastion’ in its struggle to win acceptance as a normal Western country. The sting in the tail is that the Germans may be creaming off the very skilled people the CR badly needs for its own economic modernization. The knock on effect he thinks will be to create economic pressure to recruit migrants into the CR. But, he warns, the country needs a small quantity of high quality, high skilled migrants not a general opening up or a policy of promoting immigration. Here, he thinks, the CR should learn from the Germans.
Reading this, I couldn’t help wondering if this was actually not simply another reflection of Czech fears of large scale future immigration disguised as an argument about economic modernization. After all Germany is rarely cited as a model of anything in Czech right-wing liberal circles and the Czech Republic already has precisely such a programme to allow skilled non-EU migrants to settle in the country, but bureaucracy and the limited attraction of the CR in terms of living standards and broad opportunities have seen only a trickle of such highly skilled migrants..
Some of Palata’s more usual journalism on CEE is now coming out in English translation in Transitions Online and English summaries and links to Czech (and occasionally Slovak and Polish) originals can be found on the Eurotopics website here.