Central Europe facing risks: reinventing solidarity?

Report of the round-table discussion
“Central Europe facing risks: reinventing solidarity?”
Nuit des Idées 2021, CEFRES, IFP,  January 28, 2021

by Jeanne Besse-Corfa, student at l’ESSEC, intern at CEFRES

On January 28, 2021, CEFRES, in collaboration with the French institute in Prague, held a conference in the presence of the French ambassador to the Czech Republic, Alexis Dutertre, at the occasion of the annual event called Nuit des Idées 2021. This year, the theme was “Close”. The subject of the debate, “Central Europe facing risks: reinventing solidarity?” brought together Thomas Serrier, historian, professor at the University of Lille, co-author (with Etienne François) of Europa. Notre histoire, published by Editions des Arènes in 2017, Michał Kozłowski, philosopher, associate professor at the University of Warsaw, contributor to the Polish edition of the French magazine Le Monde diplomatique and Saša Uhlová, freelance journalist based in Prague. This conference, moderated by Jérôme Heurtaux, director of CEFRES, aimed to identify the challenges facing European countries, particularly in Central Europe, and to think together about ways of confronting and overcoming them by reflecting on renewed, ambitious and inclusive forms of solidarity. In fact, these are multiple: global warming, migratory pressure due to war, poverty and environmental changes, resurgence of nationalism, terrorist phenomenon. While some of them are long-term, others are striking by their novelty: this is the case of the current pandemic and its social, economic and psychological effects. The countries of Europe have always been confronted with crises, but today, for the first time since 1945, there is a sense of accumulation and entanglement.

Thomas Serrier: geographical and memorial challenges

Co-editor and co-author of a book dedicated to European memory issues; Thomas Serrier opened this debate by recalling that at the heart of the reflection on solidarity in Europe are the issues of European memories as well as the geography of the continent. According to him, the European memory, if not simply untraceable, is at least plural. As a result, in Europe, as in reunified Germany in the 1990s, there is a tension between “a desire for history, a need to listen, a wish of empathy” and “a difficulty in understanding the other”, when one has not experienced the same experience in one’s own flesh. In order to understand the role of memories in the construction of Europe, it is necessary to dwell on “the experience of living” to avoid giving the illusion of a “unitary history of Europe” that does not exist, any more than a “unitary memory” exists. Any reading that proposes a harmonious vision of history generally seems to provoke “cacophony”.

In addition to that, the history of Europe should be seen more as an articulation between “a common matrix” and “a reserved, subsidiary part” of histories and political cultures. Here lies the possibility of showing and respecting Europe’s extreme diversity while at the same time highlighting what Luisa Passerini, an Italian researcher in history, called “shared memories”. He concluded: “the history of Europeans should be told to them from the others”.

Using Paul Valéry’s words, “a small cape on the Asian continent”, Thomas Serrier recalled that Europe is “a tiny space on a global scale, and yet one of the most streaked with borders”. European countries are indeed “close”, and their “experience of proximity to the neighborhood” is fundamental because it seems to be the origin of the need to tell their stories and to understand each other. But Europe is above all a “variable geographical entity”. These “geographical variations should be taken into account as being still relevant”, so as not to attempt to “reconstruct, to reunite historical groups which have a value in a given context or debate”, but which, as they are “not fixed for eternity”, no longer have any value at all. Central Europe, for its part, is an ensemble “which resurfaces in a regular, recurrent and sometimes even performative way”.

Michał Kozłowski: a diachronic explanation of the refugee crisis

For Michał Kozłowski, it is relevant today to talk about solidarity “from Central Europe”. To do so, he took as his starting point the 2015 presidential elections in Poland, which have lastingly changed the character of the Polish political system. In order to explain this change, Michał Kozłowski set out two types of explanations used in the social sciences: firstly, synchronic explanations, derived from current power relations, situations and dynamics, and secondly, diachronic, genealogical explanations, which make it much more difficult to identify causal links.

After recalling the context in which the outgoing center-right president, having authorized the reception of a few thousand refugees on Polish soil, lost the support of the population in favor of an extreme right-wing candidate, Michał Kozłowski described the formula of exclusive and conditional solidarity that has been asserted in Poland. Solidarity within the country, encouraged, involves a radical exclusion of others and of everything foreigner. While this phenomenon, sometimes with a lesser incidence, has also played a role in other Central European countries, the explanation cannot be “solely or mainly synchronic. It seems to be also in the past, it is genealogical. For example, Germany, by opening its borders, has reinvented its past and thus opened itself up to a different future. According to Michał Kozłowski, this is not just a decision taken in relation to a contemporary situation.

Mentioning the historical trajectory taken by Central Europe after the First Word War, Michal Kozłowski stated that Europe “from Thessaloniki to Tallinn is characterized by the logic of establishing nationalist political camps, through exclusion, ethnic cleansing, and sometimes extermination”. However, the history of Central Europe is not at all homogeneous. Before the First World War, a significant part of the populations of Central Europe “sought another modernity” through the rejection of exclusive nationalism, the “nation-building process” and “its harmful logic”. Although the dynamic lost momentum and hope with the Second World War until it was completely erased from history, Michał Kozłowski insisted on the need to keep alive the memory of the Poles, Jews, Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks and Romanians who contributed to it.

In conclusion, it is solidarity at the price of exclusion that seems to have been chosen in Poland. Yet climate change, the current pandemic, the crises of global capitalism morally and rationally demand other types of solidarity than that based on the nation state. Michał Kozłowski confirmed that this is also the first challenge of solidarity in Central Europe.

Saša Uhlová: the responsibility of Czech political representatives in the perception of solidarity

Following on from Michał Kozłowski, Saša Uhlová also wondered why the Czechs seem to show so little solidarity today. Stressing that no social fact can be explained without complex reflection, she recalled how the joint action of various elements influences the course of events and decisions. However, she hypothesized that it is the way in which the word ‘solidarity’ has been used by politicians and trade unions in official speeches that has influenced the way in which the Czech population perceives its implications.

Saša Uhlová worked for several years on various media reports in factories where Czech employees, paid at the minimum wage, were working alongside foreign workers. According to her observations, racism, fear or hatred of refugees or foreigners, which one might have thought to be ingrained in the minds of this working class, are in fact not so deeply rooted. Rather, she believes that public political discourse, heard and repeated without any critical spirit due to the lack of education, can give rise to hateful or racist remarks. Despite of the fact, she has met tolerant people inclined to solidarity. In her eyes, this is a proof that solidarity is indeed present and that the problem lies in the mismanagement and discourse of elites, politicians and political parties. This discourse, which consists of reassuring a population that might be afraid of a massive influx of refugees, or of the capture of wealth by immigrant populations, masks the advantages related to the opening of borders. Saša Uhlová is convinced that Czech politicians and intellectuals’ communication should be reviewed. She believes that if they were underlined, the impulses of solidarity which truly exist but are almost hidden, could finally be exposed and enhanced

If the European memory is untraceable and does not offer a support on which to base a policy, if those in power deny the principle of European solidarity and if the forms of solidarity in Central Europe are based on the exclusion of the other, how can new ones be perceived?

Inequalities between member countries

The French ambassador Alexis Dutertre regretted the fluctuant importance given to solidarity depending on the context and insisting on the increasingly incomprehensible nature of the lack of solidarity within the European Union. He affirmed that solidarity is essential among Europeans, but that it is also necessary to bring all the Central European partners to measure the stakes of it.

Saša Uhlová reacted to the ambassador’s remarks by stressing that the economic situation of the Czechs is not favorable to (unconditional) adherence to the idea of Europe. If they do not really feel part of it and if they do not express solidarity, it is partly because of the conviction that leaving the European Union today would not threaten their stability. This could be explained by the geographic situation, as the state is protected by the European countries surrounding it and shares no border with a non-member country. She also blamed, as she did initially, the official discourse of Czech politicians who held Europe responsible for their economic difficulties, such as inequalities in purchasing power between the Czech Republic and Germany. She thus reminded that, with more than two million of people in a precarious economic situation, suffering from over-indebtedness, a large part of the Czech population depends on social solidarity mechanisms, to which it does not always have access.  Therefore, according to Saša Uhlová, a French or German discourse on European solidarity is badly received by a population that does not feel considered or helped by this Europe it is asked to defend.

Michał Kozłowski provided a relevant clarification about the populist or Eurosceptic discourse which assumes that the absence of Europe would automatically increase Czech salaries, or lower those of rich countries. In reality, what Saša Uhlová described can be connected in some aspects to the situation of the American states where, although the country is currently divided, the legitimacy of the federal state is few questioned. For him, the fundamental problem is that the European Union is a “historically bizarre” project because, on the one hand, it looks like an empire which, in a process of transactional expansion, expands by offering the same status to the inhabitants of different countries; but on the other hand, this institution lacks legitimacy because of its technocratic and not imperial and sovereign posture. This is what explains for him the difficulty European Union has in holding its position.

Michał Kozłowski also completed Saša Uhlová‘s remarks, stressing that these major inequalities are not only economic but also geographical. This is confirmed by the comment made by a spectator in Athens, who reminded that in order to join the project and take an interest in the future of Europe, one must be able to feel European. And this is not the case of young Greeks, for example, who feel too far geographically from what they consider to be Europe, i.e. Western Europe.

Ambassador Alexis Dutertre also shared his point of view on this issue, pointing out a crucial obstacle to solidarity: the feeling of no longer being a stakeholder. Indeed, within states themselves, this feeling is excluding the population from the national project, but it is true also between states, by maintaining the idea that the feeling of belonging to Europe is not shared but reserved for some. It is a hostile force to solidarity that must be fought against, particularly by recalling that the myth of a technocratic and disembodied Brussels must not take precedence over reality, i.e. that what is done in Brussels, at the European table, is done for those who are in Prague, Athens or elsewhere on the continent.

The European level versus the rest of the world

ronted to major crises such as “the challenges of global warming, digital sovereignty, cyberspace and maritime spaces”, European States have the highest interest for raising a European voice, a solidary one, in front of a world that does not always share their rules. “Only the European level is relevant” to face these global issues, insisted Alexis Dutertre. The question today is whether Europe is capable of “making its own choices for itself”, with “strategic autonomy”, in a spirit of solidarity in a hostile world. This is a direction that we must take thanks to our European identity, and not in an imposed manner.

Thomas Serrier, following this speech, underlined the importance of the image that Europeans have of themselves in the face of the rest of the world. He pointed out the relevance of this image to explain the internal divisions between Europeans themselves. The fact that the discussion had quickly focused on the 2015 refugee crisis was not insignificant in his view : it has often been “the relationship with the big neighbors” that has created a form of “matrix of solidarity or dispersion, each one choosing his own interest”..

Jérôme Heurtaux noted, for example, that when Covid-19 vaccines were purchased from pharmaceutical companies, Europe was criticized for giving the impression that it was trying to monopolize the vaccines and thus acted as a block, an integrated space of solidarity, because of an apparent lack of solidarity with areas outside Europe. According to Alexis Dutertre, it is perhaps this confrontation with the outside world that will make it possible to feel more European.

This is especially true given that, as Thomas Serrier explained, this crisis is singular from the point of view of its narrativity. Previous crises (the euro crisis, the refugee crisis) had revealed a distribution of roles between European states based on stereotypes, emphasizing “the unbearable side of each other”, even when attempts were made to alleviate it through intergovernmental cooperation mechanisms. The novelty of the 2020 crisis lies in the fact that it did not lead to this “reflexive and schematic return of roles”. The relatively similar experiences of the States did not lead to any “fault or responsibility of Europeans towards other Europeans”, which put things in perspective.

Regaining optimism: changing scale

After sometimes pessimistic discussions and strong criticism of nation states, Jérôme Heurtaux recalled that they (the nation states) had emerged, historically, as a result of the institutionalization of interdependent links between individuals on the same territory (taxation, development of industry, national press, transport infrastructure, etc.), on the basis of which a welfare state and therefore solidarity mechanisms had been able to be deployed.

It seems that an immediate way to regain optimism is to change one’s point of view. According to Saša Uhlová, solidarity exists in Europe and within nation states, as it does in the Czech Republic and in France, as Jérôme Heurtaux pointed out. We have sometimes seen regulations that penalized aid to refugees and yet, in the villages, the implementation of very solidarity-based initiatives.

Thomas Serrier shared this need to shift our gaze, not to remain fixed on official and national positions. Indeed, he also observed that a part of civil society has expressed its disappointment at this existing situation. At the level of nation states, the logic of national egoism is sometimes inevitable for the leader who, because he is subject to comparison and must show that his priority is the interest of his country and his fellow citizens. This does not erase local solidarity and initiatives.

To open perspectives, Michał Kozłowski proposed to see solidarity as a measure. The ability to show solidarity when necessary should be a ‘symptom’ and not as a principle of government, contrary to the justice on which societies should be based.