Public opinion began to harden against Merkel’s open-door policy that fall—a trend no doubt accelerated on November 13 by the terrorist attacks in Paris and Saint-Denis. With multiple suicide bombings and mass shootings that killed 130 people and wounded 413, it was the deadliest outbreak of violence in France since World War II. By Christmas 2015, EU leaders were discussing how to strengthen external borders—as the V4 countries had originally urged. By March 2016, despite earlier proclamations to the contrary, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Norway, Slovenia, Sweden and Germany restored internal EU border passport checks and patrols. The EU and Turkey also agreed that month that Ankara would keep migrants that attempted to pass through, or take them back, slowing the flow to Greece, in exchange for about $3.4 billion in aid.
Hungary and Slovakia sued the EU over its compulsory relocation quotas, but their arguments were rejected in September 2017 by the European Court of Justice. The EU followed up with legal proceedings against Czechia, Hungary and Poland for refusing to accept migrants according to the quota system. While Slovakia was spared this fate because it agreed to take in a small number of migrants, it made clear its opposition to Brussel’s policy.
Still, the V4 flipped the focus from unquestioningly welcoming migrants to stemming the tide. Under a 2018 compromise agreement—reached at a European Council summit that some insiders dubbed “Saving Private Merkel”—migrants are to be sent to United Nations centers in North Africa or an EU country-of-entry, as per the Dublin Regulation. Detainees can make asylum claims, but member countries are not required to accept migrants with approved claims, nor to host detention centers. About $570 million was pledged for African countries to manage migration, and to bolster security at the eu’s external borders. “These days,” The Economist wrote, “Mrs. Merkel talks more about controlling Europe’s outer borders than about managing the burden of refugees who cross them—the V4’s order of priorities.”
Despite this, the EU sued Hungary in the European Court of Justice for violating rules on the treatment of asylum-seekers, and the EU Parliament in September 2018 opened disciplinary proceedings against Budapest, exacerbating the East-West divide.
Like Merkel, French president Macron wagered Europe’s future on grandiose plans. Macron created a new political party, En Marche!, in 2016, ran for president in 2017 and won a triple-digit majority in parliament that May, becoming France’s youngest leader since Napoleon Bonaparte. He immediately became the only EU national leader to dare advocate for greater EU integration and a stronger euro.
To launch this effort, Macron scheduled a much-touted speech 120 days into his presidency. Unveiling a sweeping agenda for the EU at the Sorbonne on September 26, 2017, Macron conceded the “ambition” of his plans—a word he used thirty-six times. He was careful to say he would need to partner with Merkel’s Germany to enact his plans.
Macron was less careful in his choice of a date for this speech. German elections were already scheduled for September 24. That day, Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and allied Christian Social Union lost sixty-five seats in the Bundestag, while her coalition partner, the Social Democratic Party, lost another forty seats. In their place, Alternative fur Deutschland, a party opposed to mass migration and founded less than five years earlier, picked up its first ninety-four seats. Deprived of a parliamentary majority, Merkel clung to power, ending talks about a stronger EU. Given that similar electoral eruptions were already sweeping the continent, might Macron have held off on such grand announcements?
Local elections on October 29, 2018, saw Merkel’s coalition suffer a third defeat. The next day, Merkel announced she would surrender leadership of her party in December 2018 and step down as chancellor in 2021. These rebukes were reinforced in the May 2019 elections to the European Parliament, which saw a significant increase in the size of the “Euro-skeptic” bloc.
NOTHING BETTER illustrates the eu’s East-West divide than the May 5, 2018, celebration of the two-hundredth anniversary of the birth of Karl Marx in Trier, his western German birthplace.
Had Marx been born in eastern Germany, it is unlikely his birthplace would throw him a party. Yet Trier celebrated with three exhibits at four museums, the unveiling of a huge statue of Marx (18 feet tall and weighing 2.3 tons), conferences, workshops and musical performances—three hundred separate events in all. Why? The statue was a gift from China, which is waging a campaign to breathe life back into the corpse of Marxist ideology.
In the East, such behavior is shocking and offensive. “To come from a country that experienced Marxism in practice—as I do, being from Slovakia—is to shudder over such fawning,” said Miriam Lexmann, a former Slovak parliamentary representative to the EU. EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who hails from Luxembourg in the West, sees it very differently. He not only joined the celebrations in Trier but strongly defended Marx—in remarks delivered in a church—absolving him of any responsibility for the actions of his adherents. “Marx isn’t responsible for all the atrocity his alleged heirs have to answer for,” he said. Maybe so, but Marx-inspired communism has an ongoing global homicidal record of about 100 million and counting, including the family members and loved ones of eastern Europeans who are EU citizens.
In such ways are doubts cast on EU sermons about the sanctity of shared EU values. “What does it mean, or portend,” asked Lexmann, “when Juncker honors an architect of collectivist tyranny and oppression at a time when many democracies are struggling?”
HOPE FOR change will have to rest with Washington.
This is why the Trump administration pivoted to Central Europe. A. Wess Mitchell, former assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs; Jakub Grygiel, former senior advisor to the secretary of state; and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo all focused on building better relations with the V4 countries, in part to wean them away from Russia and China, particularly Hungary, which does business with both.
But countering the influence of Russia and China will take time and effort, as well as a carrot-and-stick approach that will of necessity have its ups and downs.
The V4’s most anti-Russian country received the first carrots. In only his second overseas trip, Trump visited Poland in July 2017, and met with President Andrzej Duda, who was hosted at the White House in September 2018 and June 2019. Hungarian foreign minister Péter Szijjártó met Pompeo in Washington in May 2018, then Pompeo visited Hungary, Poland and Slovakia in February 2019—the first time a secretary of state has visited Slovakia alone in twenty years. Pompeo said, “It has been too long since America has been deeply engaged here.” The White House then hosted Czech prime minister Andrej Babiš, Slovak prime minister Peter Pellegrini, and Hungary’s Orbán this past spring.
Then Orbán was hit with a very public stick. The day after he visited the White House on May 13, where Trump flattered him repeatedly in a joint news conference, an official leak indicated the United States had prepared anti-corruption sanctions to be directed at Orbán’s closest associates—unless Orbán adopts friendlier policies already urged upon him.
More could be done: recruit the infrastructure sector to bid against Chinese and Russian firms on Central Europe’s projects, perhaps with government support; require U.S. officials to have standing meetings with their counterparts in Central Europe; launch public diplomacy initiatives that drive home messages about our common values and interests. It also would not hurt to speak up—as Trump did in his speech to the UN General Assembly in September 2017—for the rights of all peoples to live their domestic lives as they wish, as long as minority rights, just laws and democratic values are protected.
Kevin J. McNamara is an Associate Scholar of the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He is the author of Dreams of a Great Small Nation: The Mutinous Army that Threatened a Revolution, Destroyed an Empire, Founded a Republic, and Remade the Map of Europe (New York: Public Affairs, 2016), a history of the dramatic role of the Czecho-Slovak Legion in World War I, the Russian Revolution and the founding of Czecho-Slovakia in 1918.