Stefan Auer is an associate professor at the University of Hong Kong and author of “European disunity.” He tweets at @stefanauer_hku.
If it were necessary to recall that the European project is under tension, it would suffice to follow recent developments in the current capital of the European Union, Prague.
The Czech Presidency of the Council of the EU provided German Chancellor Olaf Scholz with a favorable context to reflect on the future of Europe. And what better institution than Charles University to remind its listeners of Europe’s troubled history, “so rich in shadow and light”.
While the speech was intended to chart the direction of the bloc for years to come, it became largely outdated just days after it was delivered. Not because Europe has no future, but because it’s very unlikely to look like what the German Chancellor proposed – and that might not be such a bad thing. , especially from a Central European perspective.
Flattering his Czech hosts, Scholz referred to author Milan Kundera’s “Tragedy of Central Europe”, describing Prague as representing “the essence of Europe: the greatest diversity possible in a very cramped space”. . This tragedy in which the region was taken from the West, Scholz stressed, must not be repeated in Ukraine. Ukrainians, like Central Europeans in the past, must not be allowed to wake up “to find that they [are] now in the East,” he said.
But the core of the Chancellor’s vision for the future of the EU – namely, his call to abolish the unanimity requirement in EU foreign and security policy – goes very much to against the spirit of Kundera’s views.
For many in Central Europe, Scholz’s call sounds like a plea for a more “German” Europe. So while “A stronger, more sovereign and geopolitical European Union” might appeal to French President Emmanuel Macron, the same is not true for the leaders of Central and Eastern Europe.
Tellingly, Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala did not even attend the speech. And he was too diplomatic to repeat what he, as a political scientist, argued over a decade ago when he warned that further European integration would lead to the erosion of democracy.
Fiala’s perspective might, in fact, be closer to that of Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, who was much more outspoken in his criticism of such a proposal. Seeing in the principle of unanimity a safety valve against the fall of the EU 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 strongest and greatest dominate the weakest and smallest”. .”
Whether we like it or not, when the Poles talk about domination, they fear not only Russia but also Germany, especially when Germany is perceived as being too close to Russia. And the distance between Germany and Poland appears to be widening, with Warsaw demanding 1.3 trillion euros in wartime reparations from Berlin, just days after Scholz’s visit to Prague.
This brings us to another aspect of Kundera’s famous essay that bears pondering here: that Russia – and not just the Soviet Union – is an antithesis to Europe.
For Kundera, if Central Europe, “an uncertain zone of small nations between Russia and Germany”, is astonishing because it represents “the greatest variety in the smallest space”, Russia was “founded on the opposite principle: the smallest variety in the largest space. »
In fact, Kundera was widely accused of cultural racism, as he asserted that Russia was fundamentally different – even its literature was chilling.
As Kundera puts it, Russia knew “another (greater) dimension of disaster, another image of space (a space so immense that entire nations are engulfed in it), another notion of time (slow and patient) , another way to laugh, to live , and to die. Politically too, Russia represented the imperial mentality hostile to the democratic aspirations of the small European nations.
Western European politicians – especially in Germany – find this type of “anti-Russian sentiment” in Central Europe suspect. And, as such, they consistently dismissed Russia’s fears as irrational.
The Ukrainian people now bear the main consequences of this error of judgement.