During a three-month period in 2015, August until October, one could not have opened a newspaper, turned on a television or visited a news website without being subject to reports on the mounting wave of refugees coming to the European Union from countries such as Syria, Iraq or Libya.
The majority of reports in the media covered the responses of EU countries such as Germany or France. A number of reports debated the state of Greece and its handling of the refugee influx. A higher number of reports were devoted to the refugees’ struggles and treatment they have encountered on the Balkan Route.
When Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel, announced her “open door policy” and the EU Commission announced that incoming refugees fleeing war in Syria, Iraq and Libya would be relocated to EU countries based on a “quota system,” the news was flooded with reports on the major players in the EU.
However, somewhere along the way, a small number of reports on mounting resistance to the quota system and xenophobic backlash towards the acceptance of refugees began surfacing. The reports were concerned with a group of countries in particular – Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic and Slovakia – also known as the Visegrad Group (V4).
Here I aim at historicizing the current backlash against refugees and the dictate of the European Union in the V4. This article sheds light on the political and societal mood in the V4 and argues that historical trauma of the V4, coupled with higher emigration and xenophobic leadership are at the core of the issue. So, V4, what is your problem?
One of the major issues the V4 countries, Czech Republic and Slovakia especially, has with the influx of refugees and the politics of the European Union is the fear of losing sovereignty over the country’s own decision making. Considering the history of the Czech Republic and Slovakia, which between 1918 and 1993 formed one country (Czechoslovakia), the opposition towards the dictate of “Unions” is understandable.
Remember your high school history lessons and recall the Munich Agreement of 1938. France, Mussolini’s Italy, Chamberlain’s UK and Hitler’s Germany came to an agreement that legitimized Germany’s annexation of Czechoslovakia’s border territories. A significant number of Germans lived in these territories, also known as the Sudetenland.
In hopes of appeasing Hitler, the UK and France budged and let Germany annex the Sudetenland territories. Poland and Hungary ended up profiting from the agreement and occupied the rest of the border areas of Czechoslovakia until 1939 when Hitler annexed the country completely and established a puppet government in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, as the country became known. For much of the century, the Munich Agreement was referred to as the “Munich Betrayal” by the Czechoslovakians.
History has a bad habit of repeating itself. Three decades later, in 1968, Alexander Dubček, the leader of Czechoslovakia at the time, attempted to reform the ruling communist regime, favoring a politically progressive agenda.
Dubček’s attempt at political liberalization became known as the Prague Spring. His agenda was to ensure the freedom of media, speech, travel; the decentralization of government and democratization. Dubček’s aspiration towards a socialist democracy were crushed by the invasion of the Warsaw Pact countries – Soviet Union, Bulgaria, Poland, East Germany and Hungary – on August 21, 1968. The communist regime prevailed until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. A common phrase in the Czech Republic and Slovakia is that “thanks to the communists, [they] are 20 years behind the curve.” In 1993, Czechoslovakia peacefully split in two.
In 2005, all countries of the V4 ascended to the European Union. However, it was never a strong union. The Czechs have always had a problem with the EU. While they do enjoy the benefits of the Schengen agreement, they abhor many EU regulations. You get an impression for the general mood of a country when a higher entity (EU Court of Justice) tries to tell you that you cannot use the word “butter” in your popular butter spread because its milk-fat content is lower than the 80% butter must have according to European law. I have spent 20 years of my life in the Czech Republic. After the EU handed down its verdict, it was pandemonium.
In 2015, it looked as though the V4 learned its lesson from history. With the mounting influx of refugees, the opposition to the EU’s proposed quota system signaled that the V4 will not have the EU dictate its terms. Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic rejected the proposed quota system. Poland accepted, although the rise of the right wing government in the country and the mood after the Paris attacks in November 2015 put the acceptance of refugees in doubt. Poland was labeled as a “traitor” by the other members of the V4, once again recalling the turbulent history of these countries.
It is the fear of history repeating itself that for the most part governs the hearts and minds of V4 politicians and the citizenry. Witnessing the hard stance of the V4 countries on the influx of refugees, Western media is quick to point out the V4’s historical amnesia, meaning that parts of the population from these countries was welcome in the West after fleeing the Nazi or communist regimes. With that argument in mind, the image of the V4 is essentially of a hypocritical and selfish nature.
There are inherent problems in this line of argumentation. First, the critique of the V4 countries comes from journalists, intellectuals and politicians from the Western world that was enriched by the influx of political and war refugees from the Eastern Bloc.
Czechoslovakians and Poles have integrated into their host countries be it the United States, Canada, France or Germany. Even though they have established “a little piece of home” in cities such as Chicago, they came to be regarded as a contributing entity in their host countries.
The problem is that the V4 countries lived through massive emigration, rather than substantive immigration. Consequently, in many people’s minds, immigration equals invasion. My nationality is Slovakian. I was born in Czechoslovakia, lived in Slovakia for a few years and then moved to the Czech Republic.
Personally, I would imagine that there would be no antipathy in the Czech Republic towards someone who is essentially your compatriot. Yet, with 150 000 Slovakians in a country of 10 million, one is still regarded as an alien, being told that “your people should go back to where they came from,” that “you’re nothing but would-be Hungarians.” “You know how Slovakians came to be? A bunch of Hungarians crossed the Danube.” Hilarious.
Without substantive immigration, you are left with a predominantly heterogeneous society. The wonders of the world, the otherness of the world and the experiences of encountering various cultures are mysteries for many in the V4. Add to it a history of invasions and a degrading loyalty to a currently authoritative European Union, it is no wonder that a society as heterogeneous as the V4 fights to preserve their pessimistic, xenophobic and fear-ridden community.
Now, add the specter of the Muslim, Arab refugee to the mix and you are left with:
- In the case of the Czech Republic, 90% of the population who fear refugees and Islam
- Slovakia, Hungary suing the European Union for forcing the quota system on the V4
- A rise of right wing extremist parties in Poland
- Slovakia only accepting Christian refugees
Effectively, the V4 is in direct opposition to the European Union’s values and threatens the integration of the EU.
Václav Havel, elected president of Czechoslovakia in 1989, stated that the Communists in power had developed in Czechs “a profound distrust of all generalizations, ideological platitudes, clichés, slogans, intellectual stereotypes… [they] are now largely immune to all hypnotic enticements, even of the traditionally persuasive national or nationalistic variety.”
Havel’s promise was undone in the course of the next two presidencies in the Czech Republic. With Václav Klaus, the country had a euroskeptic, a climate change denier and president who regarded multiculturalism as a dangerous ideology. His successor, Miloš Zeman currently capitalizes on the fear in Czech society, as does Slovakia’s prime minister Fico and Hungary’s Orban.
Zeman went as far as to hold a speech meant to convey gratitude to those who participated in the student protests against communist rule on November 17, 1989, at an event with the leading xenophobic voice in the country, university professor Martin Konvička. In doing so, Zeman disgracefully pandered to a fear-ridden majority of the population and was predominantly praised for it.
Ultimately, the Visegrad Group’s resistance to the European Union and the influx of refugees can be attributed to historical trauma of the region. It is about the disproportionate numbers of emigrants compared to the number of immigrants.
Moreover, it is the simple mindedness, the unwillingness to be informed, and societally and culturally enriched. In the case of the Czech Republic, it is also about the apathy towards religion. In the mind of the Czechs, every Muslim refugee adhering to Islam means the country’s doom.
According to the 2011 census, 34.2% of the Czechs stated they had no religion, while 45% are undeclared. 10% of the population are Roman Catholic and 3% adhere to other religions, among which is also “jediism,” to which 15 000 people adhere. But we do not live “in a galaxy far, far away.”
The V4 poses a danger to the whole European Union. It is fascinating, as well as disconcerting, that countries such as the Czech Republic and Slovakia, who have gained much from their membership in the EU and have been enjoying continuous growth and prosperity, endanger the integration and basic freedoms of the EU, and themselves.
By the way, the number of refugees that the Visegrad group was meant to take in over a two-year period are:
- Czech Republic: 4300
- Slovakia: 2300
- Hungary: 830
- Poland: 12000
It is truly an invasion.