Politicians, diplomats, members of leading think tanks, and analysts have been gathering in Prague since June 13 for the third annual Prague European Summit. They faced a perhaps unrivalled list of problems facing the continent and the world to chew over during three days with the widespread impression that past certainties are crumbling amid a raft of new and deepening challenges.
One word, threats, might best sum up the theme of the this year’s Prague European summit with the focus on Central Europe, Europe as a whole, and the global context. Now anchored in the European Union and NATO, but less certain of the guarantees they afford, Central Europe frequently feels at risk from so-called global realignments.
A summit session that perhaps resonated a bit more with the Czech and Central European audience: whether a new order is evolving in the region amid a shake- up of the roles of the United States, China, and Russia. The issue of Russia’s influence and whether a new relationship with China comes at too great a cost has been frequently discussed in the Czech Republic over the past two years.
There is, as one panel participant observed, a commonly quoted recent narrative that the US is easing out of its European commitments with Russia and China moving in to fill the void as the European Union struggles to clarify its own security and defence role. That plot line has obviously had a fillip from US president Donald Trump, China’s moves to get an economic foot in the door in Central Europe, and Russia’s combination of raw military force and subversion on the cyber and information battlefields. But that broad brush scenario about the influence of external players found little favour.
We have got a situation here where China is pretty much economically a minor actor in this area.
Whereas a decade or so ago Central Europe was hardly on Beijing’s radar screen with the European focus overwhelmingly on Germany, France, and Britain, that situation abruptly changed five years ago when it created a somewhat artificial forum for forging political links with a region stretching from the Baltics to the southern Balkans. It was a move which initially sparked surprise and fear at the heart of the European Union in Brussels that this was an attempt to split member states. Agatha Kratz is a China expert and observer at the European Council on Foreign Policy Relations. She says the move has brought some benefits.
ʺThe creation by China in 2012 of this forum 16 Plus 1gave a voice to the CEE countries with China. Once a year, they meet usually with the highest Chinese officials and they get 20 minutes of that time, which otherwise they would not get in any other context. There’s a political recognition at lower levels as well."
But Kratz adds that the impact of China’s discovery of Central and Eastern Europe has often been grossly exaggerated both in terms of the real economic investments that have resulted and the political influence exerted.
"We have got a situation here where China is pretty much economically a minor actor in this area. In the Czech Republic, 0.5 percent of investment comes from China and it’s mostly in real estate. So there is not much to make a fuss about here. Actually, investment from Taiwan is five times higher, just to give a comparison.ʺ
China, she says, often offers seemingly attractive investment packages to countries in the region but the conditions it offers, with all the work undertaken by Chinese firms, are impossible for EU countries to accept due to their strict tender rules. But for some countries waiting for EU entry, such as Serbia, the package is acceptable.
Russia’s presence in the region is a more recent memory for most countries and the annexation of Ukrainian territory and the ongoing conflict in the east of that country has obviously awakened fears elsewhere.
Maria Ordzhonikidze is Secretary General of the EU-Russia Centre. She believes that president Vladimir Putin is playing a very skillfull game with the poor cards he has in his hand and that Russia is currently overextended on many fronts and facing many problems on the domestic front.
It is now obvious that the promise of real convergence with Western Europe in wages and living standards is failing.
ʺThe other weakness that Russia is currently facing is the high cost, the economic and political cost, of the existing conflicts that it has to sustain on the borders of the EU, which is Ukraine and Syria, and Russia is paying a lot of money for that."
She warns though that the Russian threat should be closely monitored and that Central European countries are in an ideal place to fulfil that role.
That broad conclusion is largely shared by Petr Kratochvíl, director of Prague’s Institute of International Relations. He adds though that the perception of external threats varies widely between the Visegrad Four countries, the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, and Slovakia, as well as between the political parties there.
ʺI think if you look at the political spectrum in any of the four countries, you can divide very easily - and I think I am not oversimplifying much - into parties which hate Russia and parties which hate Russia and parties which hate Germany. Or they are afraid of Russia or afraid of Germany. Of course, you have the special case of Poland where have parties that are afraid of both at the same time."
Kratochvíl adds that Russia’s extra efforts in Central Europe are more an expression of its weakness than strength:
ʺIf I should answer the question of whether China’s or Russia’s strategies towards Central Europe can be successful, my answer is definitely no. And here a couple of brief points on China’s and Russia’s influence here. I definitely consider it a myth that Russia's influence in the region is growing. In fact, I think the asymmetric or propagandist warfare of Russia here for me is a sign of weakness and not a sign of strength because they cannot compete with the West in terms of military power, in terms of security guarantees, or in terms of the attractiveness of the social model they offer.
Kratochvíl says Russia’s propaganda campaigns probably get traction with up to one fifth of people in Central Europe, which is not really sufficient to change the political landscape.
In another session, Czech foreign minister Lubomír Zaorálek gave a hard hitting speech about the threats facing Europe with increasingly large sections of the population alienated from the political mantras they are being offered by elites.
What is happening in the Middle East today might be just the beginning of a wider phenomenon ...
"There is a Europe with booming, cosmopolitan cities like Prague and others, Prague is only one of them, and a Europe of former impoverished industrial regions. There is a Europe of immigration with its own threats to social cohesion and downward pressure on wages, immigrants in suburbs and dis-managed [sic] integration. And also the Europe of emigration, causing brain drain and leaving behind deserted villages.
"Such divergences create obvious political implications. There is the Europe of those who embrace the EU’s post-modern identity and institutional framework as a force for peace and democracy and those who feel alienated and excluded from what they see as an illegitimate agent of globalisation madness. And historically the process of European integration had been a powerful force to social cohesion, bridging inequalities within and across Europe with its four freedoms.ʺ
One message that fuelled local enthusiasm for the EU, the prospect that Central European countries would catch up with the West is now playing to a sceptical audience, the Czech foreign minister warned.
"The gains of integration remain skewed in favour of the fortunate minority. Nearly three decades after 1989 and 13 years after EU entry, it is now obvious that the promise of real convergence with Western Europe in wages and living standards is failing.ʺ
Taking a broader global perspective, Zaorálek warned that radicalism stemming and spreading out from the Middle East might just be a taster of more to come. He warned that pent up and unresolved resentments against Europe’s colonial past and the killings and abuses committed in the 19th and 20th centuries could be expressed in action by educated but discontented and resentful young people in these countries.
ʺWhat is happening in the Middle East today might be just the beginning of a wider phenomenon to come out of Africa, Asia, and even of the pre-colonial peoples of the Western hemisphere in the years ahead."