Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has uncovered serious shortcomings when it comes to a broader understanding of security among most Central European countries and their governments. Almost a year after the war began, it becomes increasingly visible that the membership in NATO cannot remain the sole fundament of the region’s well-being in the world of increasing geopolitical tensions, recomposing security environment and growing soft-security threats, such as climate change and data processing and disruption of global supply chains.
Mesmerised by the West
Ever since 2004/2005, when many Central European (CE) politicians stood side by side with protesters in Kyiv during the Orange Revolution, the understanding of a need for a cohesive European security space from the Oder to the Dniper rivers and beyond has been slowly growing. Yet back then the regional decisionmakers struggled with different challenges the prioritised: CE was still in the process of finalising the integration with the Western structures.
When most Central European countries joined NATO, there was a feeling of celebration and relief. The region was meant to be finally secure and free from Russian military threat. As new members of the club, CE decisionmakers felt not ready to put forward more ambitious demands, perhaps except for Poland’s president Lech Kaczyński, to keep expanding the institutional framework further east. That is why Ukraine was not invited to join NATO at the Bucharest Summit. This approach did not change decisively even after 2014’s annexation of Crimea and war in Donbas.
At the same time, the whole region remained focused on building horizontal ties, prioritising highways leading west and attracting major investments of companies from the so-called old EU. The Common Market made it easy and contributed to the illusion that key to securing Warsaw’s, Prague’s or Vilnius’ comprehensive well-being lies solely in close cooperation with Berlin, Paris, London or Rome.
The price of horizontal integration
True, such a perspective has allowed for a giant economic leap. Thanks to benefits stemming from membership in the European Union, Poland’s GDP is 31% higher.[i] In other words, without the Union, in 2021 it would have reached the level achieved already in 2014. Yet this semi-extensive growth model is running out. 54% of Slovakia’s industry output comes from automotive sector (compared to 33% in Hungary and 31% in Czechia).[ii] Although the region still enjoys a comparative advantage thanks to low labour costs, it needs to start looking for more high value-added products and services if it wants to close the gap with Western Europe.
Some CE governments have come to this realisation and started pursuing new initiatives such as Trimarium. They focus on building vertical road and energy connections spanning across Central Europe from Tallinn to Sofia and Zagreb. Their importance lies in invigorating regional trade cooperation that seeks to diminish the imbalance created since the 1989/1991 political and economic transition.
At the same time, other regional formats have been largely inactive. The Visegrad Group is almost inexistent due to misunderstanding between its members and Hungary’s controversial policy vis-à-vis Ukraine. It is an awful waste of potential meticulously build over last three decades that allowed Czechia, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia for joining the EU and NATO relatively quickly. V4’s hiatus weakens the region’s security in times when it needs it most.
More intraregional cohesion
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has shown economic resilience is as important as hard and institutional security. The Kremlin based his decision to attack its neighbour not only on the well-establish myth about Ukraine being the key to Russia’s imperial power, but also on the conviction that Kyiv would not be able to resist for too long due to the collapse of Ukrainian economy.
Although these calculations proved wrong thanks to Western financial and material support, they provide an important clue for Central European states as to where the key to them avoiding the middle security trap lies. Central Europe is too much dependant on allies and too divided internally to allow itself to pursue more self-standing defence policy. Even in the current tensions between Poland and Germany over reparations and EU-related issues, Polish government could not have rejected Berlin’s offer to place a battery of Patriot missiles to Poland.[iii]
At the same time, much more attention need to be paid by Central European decisionmakers to search for ways to overcome current disputes and draw new middle- to long-term scenarios of increasing economic and societal resilience. Such a holistic change of approach is unlikely to happen in Hungary due to the nature of political system created and refined by Viktor Orbán, and in Poland due to the upcoming general election.
It can, however, take place on a smaller scale, by expanding the scope of infrastructural connections spanning across the region. Among others, Via Carpathia[iv] and Via and Rail Baltica[v] need to be finished with no delays, which is possible also thanks to increased EU funding.[vi] They should also provide framework for increasing the level of integration of Ukraine’s transport network with the country’s western neighbours.
Central Europe Plus
The cross-regional angle should include even more linkages to the north and northwest. Central Europe should take advantage of the biggest security policy shift in the region that has taken place over the last year as Denmark shas decided to join the EU defence cooperation, and Finland and Sweden to join NATO. Also in this regard, hard security should be complemented with equally intense soft security actions. More ferry connections, trade possibilities, as well as more intense exchange of views and foreign policy planning coordination will come in handy.
Such actions can gradually lead to the emergence of a new network of connections that would complement hard security framework. Central Europe could finally become a region that takes on a more central, as its name suggests, role on the continent as a meeting point, important trade hub and a competitive economic player with educated workforce and good infrastructure. With reasonable policymakers and a decent degree of coordination, it can grow to become Central Europe Plus with growing ties to the north, east and south.
Central Europe can increase this cohesion also by macroeconomic moves. Because of the current challenges related to inflation, energy supplies and volatile currency exchange rates, Czechia, Hungary and Poland should consider relaunching the debate on adopting the euro. It is time to view the common European currency not as a threat to national identity, but as a natural step on the road to greater economic security of the whole continent. Slovakia adopted it in 2009 – in the peak of the global financial crisis – and has still benefitted from this move.[vii] Croatia, the latest member of the club, will likely follow this path.
Although NATO remains the cornerstone of European and Transatlantic safety, challenges related to and triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have caused an ever-greater need for ensuring comprehensive understanding of security in Central Europe. With the European Union as a rudiment of economic and political well-being, the region needs to intensify efforts to complement it with enhanced regional and cross-regional cooperation in trade, infrastructure, energy and macroeconomic.
Such a turn of events requires both more coordination and quenching some of the fires that have broken out in quite a number of areas, such a rule of law, tolerance towards sexual minorities and nationalistic rhetoric. They weaken the readiness of CE countries and their partners, especially the northern ones, to engage in more projects. After all, the quarrels over interpretation of values and domestic politics cannot hold the existential security interest of the whole region and, ultimately, the rest of the continent.
Such conflicts also need to be promptly resolved because the road of Ukraine towards reconstruction and integration with the West can only lead through Central Europe – geographically, politically and economically. Adopting only a handful of policies outlined in this paper can greatly contribute to achieving this goal and to help the region avoid the middle security trap.
Author: Dr Miłosz J. Cordes, Resident Fellow at the Casimir Pulaski Foundation
[i] Przemysław Szubański, Polski PKB jest wyższy o 31 proc. dzięki członkostwu w Unii Europejskiej, source: https://www.rp.pl/dane-gospodarcze/art37731511-polski-pkb-jest-wyzszy-o-31-proc-dzieki-czlonkostwu-w-unii-europejskiej
[ii] Nolan Theisen, Slavomir Hubatka, Slovakia: An Automotive Industry Perspective, published by AutoFocus Slovakia and GLOBSEC, July 2021, also accessible online: https://www.globsec.org/what-we-do/publications/slovakia-automotive-industry-perspective
[iii] Pawel Florkiewicz (rep.), Christian Schmollinger (ed.), Poland will place German Patriot missiles on its territory, source: https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/poland-will-place-german-patriot-missiles-its-territory-2022-12-07/
[iv] The Three Seas Projects: Via Carpatia, source: https://projects.3seas.eu/projects/via-carpatia-submitted-by-poland
[v] Rail Baltica: new tenders for construction works announced, source: https://www.railbaltica.org/rail-baltica-new-tenders-for-construction-works-announced/
[vi] Rail Baltica project signs over 353 million euro grant agreement with the European Climate, Infrastructure and Environment Executive Agency, source: https://www.railbaltica.org/rail-baltica-project-signs-over-353-million-euro-grant-agreement-with-the-european-climate-infrastructure-and-environment-executive-agency/
[vii] Tibor Lalinskya and Jaanika Meriküll, The Effect of the Single Currency on Exports:
Comparative Firm-Level Evidence, source: https://www.ijcb.org/journal/ijcb21q3a5.pdf
Supported by a grant from the Open Society Initiative for Europe within the Open Society Foundations