The Trap of Being New Europe

Tr@nsit Online

Recent years have seen a resurgence in commentary that distinguishes between 'Old' and 'New' Europe. Magdalena Nowicka-Franczak discusses the contradictions and dissonances inherent in being labeled a part of New Europe for countries and communities who always considered themselves an essential part of the European entity and whose return to Europe was only ever metaphorical.

The Trap of Being New Europe

In the face of the migration crisis and populist shift within the EU, the outmoded and stale division between New and Old Europe is coming back into favor in European public debate. The concept of ‘New Europe’ can easily serve to explain and at the same time to normalize, in a politically correct way, a qualitative difference between Western Europe and its Eastern neighbors. From a Central and Eastern European perspective, however, the term ‘New Europe’ seems essentially contradictory, since being a part of Europe in its cultural and political dimensions always was and still is an undebatable assumption, an axiom. For this reason, the discursive construction of a Central, Eastern or South-Eastern European Other as a younger, immature member of the family is one of the sources of the increasing dissonance of Europe’s self-perception as a coherent entity.

There are two major ways of confronting this intra-European ‘othering’ – both of which go awry. One approach is to behave like a diligent student of the processes of democratization and try to prove that there is not actually a deep divide between New and Old Europe. This strategy has been applied by left-liberal elites in Central and Eastern Europe. Only recently, in light of the rise of Eurosceptic politics in the region, this image of the diligent student has started to be questioned by its most zealous promoters. In his letter of January 31st addressed to the 27 EU heads of state or government in advance of the Malta summit, Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council and the former Polish Prime Minister, not only writes that “national egoism is (…) becoming an attractive alternative to integration,” but also emphasizes another threat to European unity: “the state of mind of the pro-European elites (…) a decline of faith in political integration, submission to populist arguments as well as doubt in the fundamental values of liberal democracy.

The other approach is to celebrate the ascribed difference in a subversive way and introduce a strategic counter-othering of Western Europeans, with the aim of re-negotiating the hierarchical order of European societies. This re-negotiation, however, which is mainly called for by right-wing populism and leftist anarchism, too willingly gives way to nationalistic, xenophobic discourse and leads to unintended consequences. Namely, the more independently and self-sufficiently a society wants to conduct itself in a world that is based on interdependence and multitude, the more parochial, bizarre or exotic a self-image it produces.

The tension between the Centre and the Periphery that is embedded in the European public sphere has led to a gradually growing skepticism in so-called New Europe towards particular aspects of European integration considered in their broader historical context. It is no coincidence that it is Central and Eastern Europe where postcolonial theory has been studied and developed energetically for two decades, with the goal of revealing the relations of subjection between Europe’s West and East, as well as the colonizing experience between societies in the region, such as Poles and Ukrainians or Hungarians and Slovaks. Moreover, postcolonial critique is also used extensively – in a strictly instrumental manner – by right-wing Central and Eastern European politicians as a justification for their Eurosceptic and nationalist discourse. Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of Law and Justice, the ruling party in Poland, and the éminence grise among Polish authorities, delights in calling EU bureaucracy “a post-colonial system” of oppression aimed at national states and in ascribing a “post-colonial mentality” to the pro-European opposition in Poland.

The post-colonial dictionary is, however, only one of a few crucial symbolic and discursive sources of mistrust or even hostility between European governments and societies. Firstly, ‘Old Europe’s’ growing disillusionment with the (relatively) new members of the EU is linked to the exhaustion of the post-Kantian rhetoric of immaturity directed at so-called New Europe by Western elites and left-liberal domestic elites. Boris Buden calls this rhetorical and argumentative tactic the “repressive infantilization” of nations, who, despite having proven their political maturity in their non-violent divorce from communism, are supposed to learn the democratic modus operandi from scratch and liberate themselves from their alleged communist mentality. In this narrative, the communist period is regarded as non-history, and it is only 1989 that marks the political birth of the Eastern part of Europe.

This rhetoric has accompanied the democratic transition from the beginning and was accepted uncritically by the vast majority of the leaders of democratic change. For instance, Bronisław Geremek, a Polish historian, liberal politician, and one of the architects of the transition in Poland – and the patron of a fellowship program at the IWM – once articulated a phrase very symptomatic of the rhetoric of immaturity. In 1990, after the first round of the presidential elections in Poland when Stan Tymiński, an unknown outsider with a populist program, came second, Geremek said: “The Poles aren’t grown-up enough for democracy.” Today, however, 25 years after the advent of democracy, the rhetoric of immaturity, which was hardly questioned in Poland and other countries of the region in the 1990s, leads directly to communicational and political suicide, since a growing number of Central and Eastern Europeans no longer want to be taught how to create democracy, and patronizing, elitist argumentation serves as nothing but fuel for the radicals. Though populist discourse and illiberal tendencies in Central and Eastern Europe are becoming more and more performative, we should acknowledge that the strategy of shaming the authorities has become counter-productive. Nonetheless, the rhetoric of immaturity is very resistant to critique, since it functions as a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more ‘New Europe’ rejects the role of the inexperienced cousin, the more immature it appears to external protagonists.

Secondly, growing social disenchantment with post-industrial capitalism results in the symbolic ‘bankruptcy’ of the neoliberal narrative and the dismissal of a pro-Western scenario of imitative democratic transition in post-socialist Europe. Without a doubt, conservative parties, like Fidesz or Law and Justice, profited immensely from publicly exploiting the weaknesses and contradictions of neoliberalism, but they have proved to be incapable of offering any alternative narrative that the vast majority of people would find acceptable. The one who has come closest to hitting this target is probably Victor Orbán, but despite stable support for his rule among Hungarians, his deliberately staged faith in what he calls “a non-liberal state, based on freedom in a universe of national symbolism, cannot win over his fervent opponents. As long as the EU was operating smoothly, the lack of such an integrating collective discourse did not pose any serious problems, but this is now a thing of the past. Przemysław Czapliński, the Polish literary scholar and public intellectual, stresses in his latest book that “no adequate and up-to-date narrative about the presence of Poland in Europe exists today, in the face of the cumulative troubles experienced by Poland and Europe. This Polish example seems not to be an isolated case and can be compared to the other countries of the region, where a widespread critique of neoliberalism was not followed by the introduction of any sort of constructive self-identification into the public debate.

Thirdly, from the perspective of public discourse in Central and Eastern Europe, democratic transition is not a fait accompli, but the subject of constant dispute. But the debate over the transition and its outcomes reveals more differences than parallels between the Polish, Czech, Slovak and Hungarian public understandings of Europe. For instance, the pragmatic and secular orientation in Hungarian, Czech, and, to some extent, Slovak political discourse usually translates into evaluating the transition in economic terms and constructing a sharp social division between the ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ of capitalism. From this point of view, the non-secular political discourse in Poland, in which economic inequalities are moralized on the basis of carefully chosen aspects of the Catholic worldview that are allegedly threatened by EU policy, may seem completely misguided and bizarre. Another demarcation line lies between the Czech public debate, which is focused on the present-day political struggle waged within a “show-must-go-on” framework that celebrates politics’ “bad boys”, and Polish or Hungarian political discourse, whose crucial dimension is the re-invention of the nation’s glorious past. While the Czech media seems to be constantly preoccupied with utterances from the politically incorrect Miloš Zeman and the scandalous career of Andrej Babiš (thanks to which he gained the nickname Babisconi, referring to the alleged misuse of his financial assets and media ownership to improve his political position), in Hungary and Poland it is playing with the imaginary past that rules the present. Treating history in this way usually requires sacrificing any attachment to Europe as such. As Orbán announced just after Donald Trump’s presidential victory, “We are living in the days where what we call liberal non-democracy – in which we lived for the past 20 years – ends, and we can return to real democracy. An imagined true democracy within the EU but beyond its core values – which do not have any precedent in Hungarian history.

This historical bias in Polish and Hungarian public debate may result from not having had any sort of ceremonial closure to the communist era, the lack of “a dramatically staged rite de passage” and unfinished processes of de-communization. This uncertainty as to whether a fully democratic transition did happen results in the impossibility of what Jan Kubik and Amy Linch call “mnemonic reconciliation”, that is, the collective negotiation and ultimate establishment of “a minimal set of common mnemonic fundamentals” related to national history and the national ethos, which not only make the idea of collective memory feasible but also enable democratic consolidation around the state and the symbolic pillars of the new regime. The essence of mnemonic reconciliation does not consist in the exclusion of certain narratives but in forging a framework (including a founding myth, heroes and a set of crucial events in the past) acceptable to most groups in a given society. The lack of such a mnemonic reconciliation with the dynamics and final form of the democratic transition leads to the de-legitimization of the liberal democratic order by particular social groups, though not by post-socialist societies as a whole, often though wrongly represented in the Western media as static, monolithic entities. In fact, the ongoing settling of accounts with the post-socialist transition gives rise to a divergence of opinion and values, and measuring the strength of European identity may serve as the litmus test for this deep social divide.

Despite its fixed image as a periphery, the ‘New European’ public sphere is a laboratory of postmodern modes of communication. Let us look more closely at Poland, until recently perceived as a leader in democratization and economic change in the region, but today probably seen as the greatest disappointment in the eyes of its Western partners. In 2015, both the presidential and parliamentary elections in Poland were won by Law and Justice, then the largest opposition party, with a conservative ideological program, a national perspective on European politics and a populist approach to economics. To put it concisely, it is a party of a new hybrid type that goes beyond the traditional division between Right and Left and that articulates radical slogans when beneficial to the party. When it comes to its hierarchical structure and clumsy use of social media, Law and Justice appears to be an anachronistic coterie, but it has attracted people with a highly hybrid notion of power, partially embedded in parochial modes of political thinking, partially in the promise of national-oriented or even ethnocentric foreign policy, but above all tied to the collective desire not to be patronized anymore. The first victims of this desire were migrants from the Middle East, not only stigmatized as barbarians and suspected terrorists, but also associated with the EU’s attempt at moral blackmail. Besides stressing the reputational weaknesses of the former center-liberal government, Law and Justice tipped the scales in its favor thanks to a mixture of islamophobia and the fantasy of punishing Western Europe for its unwanted orders.

You cannot exploit one single fantasy all the time, however: you need many tactics to play with. Thus, the ruling party in Poland is manufacturing an exemplary postmodern political discourse, which combines the technocratic demand for modernization and growth, premodern religious symbolism, conspiracy theories, and simulacra representing post-factual narratives. Interestingly, quite a few authors from Central and Eastern Europe argue that the notion of ‘post-truth’ or ‘post-fact’, introduced in the American context by Ralph Keyes and by Peter Pomerantsev in the Russian one, finds its best expressions on the Vltava, Middle and Lower Danube or Vistula River. Compare, for example, Donald Trump and Miloš Zeman. Both “are populists who declare strong pro-Russian views, both love the use of fear mongering and xenophobia to garner popularity and both possess a relationship with facts that can be described as tenuous at best. They also both employ PR specialists whose job descriptions include publicly ignoring reality,” claims Michal Chmela, editor of “Political Critique”. The diagnosis of post-factual politics does not entirely suit the Polish case, however, since Law and Justice seeks to legitimize its political discourse as indisputable moral truth, as well as the logical consequence of conservative cultural hegemony based on select aspects of Catholic social teaching upheld by the Polish Right. To this point, on November 19th, 2016 the Catholic Church, in the presence of President Andrzej Duda, proclaimed Jesus Christ as Lord and King in Poland – even God is being converted into a Law and Justice voter, sanctifying the party’s policies.

To what extent, then, is ‘New Europe’ different from the Old version? As for the current dynamics of political change in the democratic world, it would be hypocritical to assert that there is any fundamental qualitative difference between ‘New Europe’ and the rest, especially after Brexit and the recent referendum in Italy. Moreover, claiming that all societies labelled as Central, Eastern or South-Eastern European are drifting in the same direction is an unjustified simplification, taking into consideration, for example, the recent wave of anti-governmental social protest in Romania or the split within the Visegrad Group over Donald Tusk’s re-election as European Council president (27 EU member states supported Tusk, with only the Polish government voting against its former political rival). At the same time, we can point to a ‘substantial particularity’ of ‘New Europe’ that finds expression in a symbolic layer of resentments, the vitality of the concept of the nation as an empty signifier used to integrate the community, and a collective feeling of historical injustice that put the societies of this region in the position of inferior actors who have to, metaphorically speaking, “return to Europe” after the communist period, even though they always considered themselves an essential part of the European entity. If we want to take a further step towards utopian pan-European communication, we should acknowledge these historical and conceptual differences without rendering them in any way absolute.

An earlier version of this paper was presented at the International Conference “Has Europe Reached Its Limits?”, organized by the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies and the IWM in December 2016 in Geneva.

Magdalena Nowicka-Franczak is Assistant Professor of Sociology in the Department of Research on Social Communication, University of Łódź, she was Bronislaw Geremek Junior Visiting Fellow at the IWM (2014–2015).

© Author / Transit Online

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