The refugee crisis and immigration has opened up old divisions and created new ones between “the West” and “the East” within the European Union. How can this be understood beyond superficial media-ascribed labels?
My argument is twofold; it can be explained on both a systemic and a local level. I argue that we are facing a crisis of the transformation model, which has been amplified by the 2008 crisis. This has caused internal political contradictions and deep structural inequalities within the specific geopolitics of the EU.
The accession of “Eastern Europe” to the EU has never been an even and symmetrical process. In fact, the countries that have formed part of this Europeanisation, whose relationship with the West has been similar to that between student and teacher, have continued to maintain their status as semi-periphery countries. They have also been opened up to unlimited economic, political and cultural globalisation. There has always been a strong element of imitation in the accession process that is typical of semi-periphery countries.
The 2008 crisis was met with an ongoing logic and the inevitable exhaustion of the transformative narrative of Czech and, to a certain extent, Central European politics. This narrative related to the idea of a "return to Europe", a powerful discourse that predominated between 1989 and 2004. The asymmetrical nature of accession made any genuine dialogue about the meaning of Europe across this diverse continent impossible.
The transformative/modernisation model was based on an inherent Central European neoliberalism. The Market was celebrated as the backbone of a new, democratic society made up of free and competitive individuals, in which solidarity is viewed as an outdated relic of Communism. The darker side of transformation – rising social inequalities, unemployment and poverty – was not addressed, or it was addressed using a language that criminalised poverty and individualised systemic problems (such as unemployment). This silence, based in ideology, has had its own consequences which have come to the surface in very unpleasant but inevitable ways.
The 2008 crisis turned out to be a strong indicator of the ideological crisis of Western hegemony. Hegemonic models always begin to crumble from the outside in. For example, the recent Czech debate on immigration and EU quota policies, which has taken a rather gloomy view on these issues, embodies a fascinating mixture of imitation and emancipation which has gone largely unnoticed by its numerous critics.
First of all, the Czech debate on immigration is very much dependent on inauthentic experiences imported from Western countries, many of which were former imperial metropolitan powers. To put it bluntly, Czech society is still a white society in 2015. A predominantly imitative approach has been taken regarding xenophobia and islamophobia, which is colonising the Czech peripheral imagination. But clearly, the West is no longer a model to be followed – the Western model of immigration and integration has become a negative example. Czechs are viewing the Western European experience with a growing criticism. This attitude is being further exploited by national populism with its Eurosceptic arguments and the rediscovered language of national sovereignty and identity. Its alliance with a politically superficial populism has doomed any kind of emancipation to failure.
The dark side of transformation is surfacing through a mixture of political alienation, distrust and egotistical individualism, an ideology that has had a strong presence in the last 26 years, not only in Czech society but also in those of other countries. What has remained are a few signs of group solidarity related to a local version of integral nationalism that has attempted to transcend the discontinuities of Czech history. This brand of nationalism has formed local national identities and has been largely based on the ideal of harmony between the state and an ethnically homogenous nation. And, as in other countries, here too nationalism is clashing with the EU’s supranational project.
In short, regional differences do matter. Any effort to redefine them simplistically as a matter of values is only making the problem worse. Central Europe does not need to be patronisingly preached to by the West. Rather, it needs to face its own demons and find an innovative and positive vision for the future. Indeed, this problem does not just apply to the Czech Republic or Central Europe; it is a pan-European issue. So far, it seems that the battlefield of this “war” over the future is being defined in terms of a cultural war and through political populism. This is certainly not good news for anybody in Europe.
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