Central Europe's 'revolt of the deprived' adding to disintegration talk

British PM David Cameron is not the only European leader chafing at the EU. Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary have all swung significantly rightward and are challenging the current orthodoxy, particularly on refugees, Don Murray reports.

Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary all breaking with EU, Germany's lead

Hungarian border police marshall migrants at the transit camp on the Macedonia-Greece border near Gevgelija last month. Hungary wants to build a wall along the Serbian border to keep Syrian and other asylum seekers at bay. (Ognen Teofilovski/Reuters)

It was an anniversary and the happy group was marking a quarter century together. There was even a cake, with a big chocolate 25 embedded in vanilla icing.

And the group made a wish — for a new fence. To keep the dangerous intruders out.

The group is the Visegrad gang, the V4, as they like to call themselves now. Four countries in central Europe: Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary. Four unhappy members of the European Union.

The dangerous intruders in this case are refugees, Syrians for the most part, but also Iraqis and Afghans as well as handfuls of Pakistanis and Africans. They are overwhelmingly Muslim.

That, in the eyes of the V4 leaders, is what makes them dangerous. Not just dangerous, almost poisonous.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the strongman of the new right-wing Polish government, has called these refugees carriers of cholera and dysentery, as well as of "various parasites and protozoa."

Milos Zeman, the Czech president, says "they arrive with dish towels on their heads and bombs in their pockets."

Robert Fico, the Slovak prime minister, says allowing hundreds of thousands of Muslim refugees into Europe is "ritual suicide."

And Viktor Orban, the Hungarian prime minister, denounces the current, welcoming EU response to the refugees as "weak," and proclaims that the fence he ordered built to stop the newcomers at the Serbian border "protects our country and has fended off terrorist attacks."

'Revolt of the deprived'

The apocalyptic rhetoric works. Kaczynski's party won an election in Poland in October using it.

And the other three leaders have seen their popularity rise with their violent words and their outright refusal to accept the German-led plan for country-by-country quotas for refugees.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been one of the leading opponents the German-led EU plan to absorb more refugees from the Syrian conflict. (Darren Staple/Reuters)

As for the new fence, the V4 wants it built between Bulgaria (another EU member) and Macedonia. The Bulgarians, backed by Germany, have so far blocked the idea.

The V4 are undeterred. The three small countries and the one quite big one, Poland, feel they've been pushed around and taken for granted long enough by the EU, and by the Germans in particular.

Now they're pushing back. Central European commentators are calling it the "revolt of the deprived."

For good measure, at their anniversary meeting, these "deprived" leaders made it clear they were furious about the proposal by British Prime Minister David Cameron to limit welfare and child benefits for the two million or so migrant workers from their countries and others in Eastern Europe who have moved to Britain to work.

Nothing quite like a little Central European bitterness to spice up an EU summit.

Unhappy Germany

Cameron is currently on the cusp of a referendum to determine whether the U.K. stays in the EU, and the Germans are desperate to keep Britain inside the European tent.

The V4 isn't making things easier, and the Germans are getting publicly annoyed.

British Prime Minister David Cameron arrives for the second day of a European Union leaders summit on Friday. Britain is seeking some special exemptions if it is to stay in the EU. (Yves Herman/Reuters)

"The atmosphere is getting poisonous," wrote the German ambassador to the Czech republic, Arndt Freytag, in an article for a Czech newspaper.

He complained of "xenophobia" in Central Europe and a growing split between the continent's west and east.

Oh no, the Czechs answered, we're not xenophobic. We'll welcome many newcomers — from Ukraine. Fellow Slavs and fellow Christians in other words.

Just as poisonous as xenophobia may be what's been called the new "paranoid style" of governing in countries such as Poland and Hungary.

In both countries, the right-wing governments have rammed through laws emasculating the courts and handing control of publicly-funded media, including national television channels, to government loyalists.

Hungary's Orban has also said he will pass vague anti-terror laws, which critics say would sweep up almost any adversary in their nets.

Meanwhile, the new Polish government seems in thrall to conspiracy theories. The biggest of these concerns the plane crash in 2010 that killed the country's president and most of the country's senior military officers.

The government plane was carrying them to an official commemoration, organized by the Russian government, to honour the memory of thousands of Polish officers who were massacred in the Katyn forest by Stalin's secret police in Second World War.

The plane crashed in heavy fog, and investigators concluded the cause was pilot error.

But the Polish president killed in that incident was Lech Kaczynski, the twin brother of Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the current head of the governing Law and Justice party.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski, leader of the ruling Law and Justice Party, attends a remembrance ceremony earlier this month for the 2010 plane crash that killed his twin brother, Poland's president at the time, Lech Kaczynski and 95 others. (Kacper Pempel/Reuters)

And Kaczynski suspects the crash had more to it and wants charges brought against the former Polish prime minister, Donald Tusk, currently head of a key EU institution.

So a Polish government attack on him can be seen as an attack on the EU itself.

No problem with Russia

If that isn't enough to roil Europe's more powerful leaders, Czech president Zeman, along with Hungary's Orban, refuses to toe the EU line on Vladimir Putin and Russia.

Zeman broke ranks to fly to Moscow for Putin's Victory Day celebration last year.

He calls the conflict in eastern Ukraine a "civil war," where there are no Russian soldiers. Neither he nor Orban think sanctions against Russia are a good idea.

All of which leave the Germans and other Western Europeans wondering if they made a mistake in enlarging the EU to the east.

A bitter irony here is that the Visegrad group was formed under the leadership of former dissidents from Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, led by Vaclav Havel, then the new leader of Czechoslovakia.

Its avowed goal was to strengthen democratic institutions in the member countries and to bring them closer to Western Europe.

Today, despite the angry words of their leaders, opinion polls still show a majority in the Visegrad countries want to remain in Europe.

They like the European largesse, the hundreds of millions of euros that have helped overhaul their crumbling roads, hospitals, schools and museums.

But their leaders continue to foment the "revolt of the deprived." With the EU tottering on so many fronts, the anger of the deprived will hardly help.


Don Murray

Eye on Europe

A well-travelled former CBC reporter and documentary maker, Don Murray is a freelance writer and translator based in London and Paris.


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