A Europe of regions will be essential for the union’s future

A map showing the European Union with Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Austria marked
The Visegrad association is a natural fit for Austria, which is close to the V4 geographically, economically and culturally (source: macpixxel for GIS)

A summit in Italy’s capital was held recently to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, which gave birth to what is now the European Union. This idea, followed by a long process of implementation, proved to be the key to a prosperous and peaceful Europe.

Unfortunately, the resolution approved this time by the heads of European states and governments shows an astounding lack of vision. The text is flat, somewhat arrogant and bureaucratic to the bone. It reflects the signatories’ poor leadership and limited vision, which is probably the root cause of the EU’s problems today.

Undergird of strength

Europe’s strength lies in its diversity – of population, tradition, language, local histories and geography. However, Europe also has a strong common heritage, which it owes mainly to Christianity, but also to Roman law and, to a certain extent, to Greek philosophy.

For centuries, nationality didn’t exist as a central political concept; it began to gain importance at the time of the French Revolution. Gradually, nation-states became very powerful. During the 19th and 20th centuries, the bond of language was increasingly deemed central to national cohesion, much to the detriment of minorities and smaller states. Eventually, this nationalistic thinking led Europe into the madness of two world wars.

During the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Austro-Hungarian empire was home to several smaller European nations (and a dozen or more of language groups) that dwelled between Russia and Germany. Three of the four countries that belong today to the Visegrad Group were wholly incorporated into this empire. A portion of Poland belonged to it, too.

Austria-Hungary’s collapse created a geopolitical vacuum in East-Central Europe and was one of the factors that led to World War II. After that tragedy, the EU arose to provide a peaceful framework to a multitude of the European states.

Brexit resulted from the narrow-minded, inflexible application of rules that are supposed to be necessary for maintaining the EU’s internal market

The union’s strength, however, continues to stem from its diversity. Friendly competition between states and regions has been immensely important. In this context, two parallel developments emerged that are undermining the EU’s cohesion. One is ‘harmonization,’ which is wiping out regional competition. The other is attempts by larger EU member states to dominate the smaller ones.

Excessive harmonization already has caused problems. Standards that work in Germany do not necessarily work in Greece. Brexit resulted from the narrow-minded, inflexible application of rules that are supposed to be necessary for maintaining the EU’s internal market.

The idea of such a market is wonderful, but someone has forgotten that markets happen to thrive on competition. Too much regulation undercuts competition and gives rise to unhealthy oligopolies. In response to this concentration, Brussels cranks out new regulations to fight it.

The cohesion of the EU member states is also faltering. This process is caused by insufficient respect for local and regional circumstances in the union’s centralized institutions, and, paradoxically, a growing number of member states. The doctrine of an ever-closer union blinded policy makers to regional differences and to the importance of competition.

Another telling signal from the Rome summit, not lost on smaller members of the union, has been that it was prepared exclusively by leaders of Germany, France, Italy and Spain. These are the EU’s largest nations now that the United Kingdom is on the way out.

Local cooperation

It is a normal fact of politics – which will not change – that powerful states will take advantage of their strength in the long run. Hence, it is important for smaller countries to form issue-driven alliances and local groups in pursuit of their joint interests, while still adhering to the EU framework.

Today, such partnerships can be observed among the Nordics, Benelux and Visegrad Group countries. Cooperation strengthens their influence on union-level decision-making.

The Nordic countries in the EU consist of Sweden, Denmark and Finland. The Visegrad Group (also known as Visegrad Four or V4), comprises the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia. This association could also be an ideal platform for Austria, which geographically and culturally is a natural fit for the group. It seems, however, that the long-term dynastic vision of the Habsburgs and statesmanship and skills of Prince Metternich (1773-1859) are lost on today’s leaders in Vienna. They only operate from the same premises as the Habsburgs and Metternich did.

Austria is very dependent on trade with the V4, but its government has conceived a plan to limit access to its labor market for citizens of other EU countries. Specifically, it wants to introduce a financial incentive (a so-called “employment bonus”) to companies creating jobs for Austrians – but excluding those hiring migrant workers. The scheme may not be legal under EU rules, and it is certainly detrimental to the long-term interests of Austria and its Visegrad neighbors.

This is one of the shocking examples of countries that are ready to isolate themselves from regional cooperation, alienating their economic partners and potential allies, for a short-term, populist gain in domestic politics.

Back to the main issue: the EU can regain strength by building on its diversity, through regional cooperation and amicable competition. The Visegrad Group, which is evolving in that direction, would be bolstered if Austria joined it. Very close cooperation is also possible between the Baltic states and the Nordics. Spain and Portugal could pool their strengths as well – enriching Europe’s ties to parts of Africa and Latin America.

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