25 years on from the fall of communism, the Wall Street Journal recently told its readers, Central and Eastern Europe is still playing catch-up. The reasons are mainly economic and infrastructural. Too little growth by the standards of the Asian tigers. Too few high speed rail links. Not enough motorways. Viktor Orbán bossing it over Hungary in an ever more worrying project of illiberal transformation. A bad subsidy habit fed by an indulgent EU. A Middle Income Development Trap waiting to be sprung. And –when did this ever happen before? – progress that “ has fallen short of what many of its citizens had hoped”.
But we shouldn’t be too harsh. The WSJ is not particularly well known for the quality of its CEE reporting. And this occasion it’s absolutely right: Central and Eastern Europe is playing catch-up. The politics of catch-up, rather than geography or culture or post-communism, are probably what define the region best. If it wasn’t catching up, it wouldn’t be Central and Eastern Europe. Historians of East Central Europe such as Andrew C. Janos or Ivan Berend have long been preoccupied by the region’s long-term efforts to push its levels of socioeconomic– and political – development into line Europe’s core West European states – although they have sometimes bluntly simply spoken of “backwardness”.
The post-1989 project of European integration and enlargement, although more usually referred to in terms of ‘convergence’ or ‘Return to Europe’ is also all about one catch-up – and a very ambitious form of catch-up: overcoming deeply rooted east-west divide, which as Janos and others have noted, predates the Cold War division of Europe. Enlargement and integration – and liberal reform in CEE generally –been sold politically on the basis that the poor, historically peripheral societies of CEE will (and after a painful process of adjustment) reap the full benefits of prosperity, social welfare, democracy and freedom enjoyed by core West European societies that had the good luck to stay out of of the Soviet zone of influence after WWII.
If, in the long term, integration fails to deliver, there may be significant consequences both for the EU and for the fate of democracy and liberal institutions in Central and East European countries themselves. As recent developments in Hungary show, liberal and democratic reforms are not irreversible or consolidated as once thought or hoped. If the European project fails to deliver catch-up – or the Western model CEE was busy catching up on with proves exhausted and unattractive – it will exacerbate both centrifugal pressures in the EU and erosion of democracy in some or all of CEE. There is the uncomfortable possibility that in his nationalistic rejection of liberalism, Viktor Orbán may be a leader rather than a laggard as far as the future direction of the region is concerned – the Central European vanguard of the revolt against a broken Western model that Pankaj Mishra sees rippling out from Asia. Read More…