Stefan Auer is associate professor at the University of Hong Kong and author of “European Disunion.” He tweets at @stefanauer_hku.
If any reminder were needed that the European project is under stress, watching recent developments in the European Union’s current capital, Prague, would be enough.
The Czech EU Council presidency offered a suitable backdrop for German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to reflect on the future of Europe. And what better institution than Charles University from which to remind his listeners of Europe’s troubled history, “so rich in light and shadow.”
While the speech was meant to chart the bloc’s direction of travel for years to come, however, it became largely obsolete only a few days after its delivery. Not because Europe has no future, but because it is highly unlikely to be anything like what the German chancellor proposed — and that might not be such a bad thing, particularly from a Central European point of view.
Flattering his Czech hosts, Scholz referenced author Milan Kundera’s “Tragedy of Central Europe,” as he described Prague as representing “the essence of Europe: the greatest possible diversity in a very cramped space.” This tragedy in which the region was kidnapped from the West, stressed Scholz, mustn’t be repeated in Ukraine. We mustn’t allow Ukrainians, like Central Europeans in the past, to wake up “to discover that they [are] now in the East,” he said.
But the core of the chancellor’s vision for the EU’s future — namely, his call to abolish the unanimity requirement in the EU’s foreign and security policy — goes very much against the spirit of Kundera’s views.
For many in Central Europe, Scholz’s call sounds like advocacy for a more “German” Europe. Thus, while “A stronger, more sovereign and geopolitical European Union” might appeal to French President Emmanuel Macron, the same doesn’t hold for leaders in Central and Eastern Europe.
Revealingly, Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala, didn’t even attend the speech. And he was too diplomatic to repeat what he, as a political scientist, argued more than a decade ago, when warning that further European integration would lead to the erosion of democracy.
Fiala’s perspective might, in fact, be closer to Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, who was far more outspoken in his criticism of just such a proposal. Seeing in the principle of unanimity a safety valve against the EU descending into “the tyranny of the majority,” Morawiecki argued that “Moving away from the principle of unanimity brings us closer to a model in which the stronger and bigger dominate the weaker and smaller.”
Whether we like it or not, when Poles talk about domination, they fear not merely Russia but Germany too, particularly when Germany is seen as being too close to Russia. And the distance between Germany and Poland seems to be growing ever further, with Warsaw demanding €1.3 trillion in wartime reparations from Berlin, just a couple of days after Scholz’s visit to Prague.
This brings us to another aspect of Kundera’s famous essay that’s worth pondering here: that Russia — not just the Soviet Union — is an antithesis of Europe.
In Kundera’s view, while Central Europe, “an uncertain zone of small nations between Russia and Germany,” is amazing because it represents “the greatest variety within the smallest space,” Russia was “founded on the opposite principle: the smallest variety within the greatest space.”
In fact, Kundera was widely accused of cultural racism, as he claimed that Russia was fundamentally different — even its literature was scary.
As Kundera put it, Russia knew “another (greater) dimension of disaster, another image of space (a space so immense entire nations are swallowed up in it), another sense of time (slow and patient), another way of laughing, living, and dying.” Politically too, Russia represented the imperial mindset inimical to the democratic aspirations of Europe’s small nations.
Western European politicians — especially in Germany — find this kind of “anti-Russian sentiment” in Central Europe suspect. And, as such, they consistently brushed away fears of Russia as irrational.
The people of Ukraine now bear the main consequences of this misjudgment.