Are Czechia and Slovakia the EU’s New Radical Centre?

Liberal solidarity: Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in Kyiv in March 2022. Image: President of Ukraine / Wikimedia Commons

In their response to the invasion of Ukraine, Czechia and Slovakia are showing a new way forward for Western democracies.

From the fog of war in Ukraine, the contours of a new European politics are emerging. These are not to be found in Germany, mired in self-absorbed indecision and self-serving caution; nor in France, where the contest between the far right and zombie-neoliberals obscures their shared delusions of grandeur, haunted by the spectre of an impossible ‘strategic autonomy’. Rather, it is in the EU’s Central European states that a new hard-edged geopolitical idealism is taking shape.

Front Row, Central Europe

Central and East European (CEE) states, including Czechia and Slovakia, have been in the vanguard of the response to Russia’s assault on Ukraine. Poland has welcomed by far the most refugees – in excess of 2 million – but, like Romania, Hungary and Moldova, Czechia and Slovakia are providing shelter to hundreds of thousands of people who have fled the war. This is a welcome change from the region’s refusal to accept refugees during the 2014–16 migration crisis.

CEE states have also shown the way in supplying Ukraine with the arms it needs to defeat Vladimir Putin’s army. By mid-April, Estonia (population 1.2 million) had contributed a greater amount of weapons than either France or Germany. Yet while military aid is the immediate priority, Central and East Europeans have also been supporting Ukraine’s longer-term needs.

Czechs and Slovaks were among the first group (including all CEE states) to formally support the endorsement of Ukraine’s EU candidacy. It was a Slovak MEP, Michal Simečka, who led the charge to recognise Ukraine’s candidacy in the European Parliament, of which he is Vice President. Candidacy does not guarantee membership, but it gives Ukrainians the hope that a brighter future can be salvaged from their struggle. Yet, providing this perspective is no act of charity. The response of CEE states to Ukraine’s request shows that they understand the EU’s true geopolitical power better than equivocating Western Europeans.

They know that the EU is not a military power; that in all likelihood it never will be; and moreover, that it should not try to become one. As this crisis has shown – and as CEE states are acutely aware – NATO remains the only game in town for their defence and hard security. Yet this does not mean the EU is powerless. On the contrary, it has great potential to transform societies and people’s lives for the better – as the CEE states know from their own experience. An oft-used cliche has a hard kernel of truth: NATO to survive, EU to thrive.

If the EU could revive its historically successful progressive approach to security and creative mode of geopolitics, it would effectively contrast its consensual ‘sphere of integration’ model with Moscow’s attempts to subjugate its neighbours in a sphere of influence. This revival, which is essential for Europe’s strategic security, would, however, require a commensurate rediscovery of belief in the EU’s potential – and in the value of realising it.

As this crisis has shown – and as Central and East European states are acutely aware – NATO remains the only game in town for their defence and hard security

Such belief is scarce in Western Europe, which has largely retreated into depoliticised, technocratic and defensive forms of liberalism which offer only a minimum level of hope or inspiration. For a new politics, Europeans should look instead to their new radical centre.

The New Centrists

Taking liberal or moral inspiration from Central Europe would, in recent years, have seemed like a bad joke. The travails of the ‘Visegrad Four’ (V4) were well documented, and these countries were rightly condemned as the trouble-causing heart of illiberal opposition to the EU mainstream. Hungary is still in dire straits and, despite its exemplary stance on Ukraine – as well as some other positive signs – Poland’s government has a long way to go to be considered ‘liberal’.

For Slovakia and Czechia, however, things look rather different. In Bratislava, Prime Minister Eduard Heger has emerged from inauspicious beginnings – taking over from a scandal-hit party-colleague in April 2021 – to become a surprisingly staunch liberal internationalist. His OL’aNO party started as an anti-corruption, anti-establishment and even anti-political movement with little interest in foreign affairs. Yet Heger’s steady hand helped steer Slovakia through the tumultuous early days of the crisis, ensuring refugees were welcomed and that Slovakia’s defences were bolstered by allies as the country welcomed a NATO Enhanced Forward Presence for the first time.

Warming to the role, Heger, in concert with Defence Minister Jaroslav Nad’ and Foreign Minister Ivan Korčok, moved to step up support to Ukraine. Having ensured that their air defence would be backfilled with Patriot missiles, the Slovak leadership agreed to transfer their S-300 air defence system to Ukraine, thus providing some of the heaviest weaponry sent by a NATO state so far.

Significantly, Heger grounded this move in liberal solidarity, arguing that ‘The Ukrainian nation is bravely defending its sovereignty – and [ours] too. It is our duty to help, not to stay put and be ignorant to the loss of human lives under Russian aggression’. He also travelled to Kyiv and to Bucha, leading a Slovak media outlet to note an unfamiliar feeling: ‘This is how it feels to be proud of your Prime Minister’.

Not to be outdone, Czechia was the first country to send heavy armour – T-72 tanks – to Ukraine, and followed this up with RM-70 Vampire Multiple Launch Rocket Systems and Dana Howitzers. Matching political symbolism with material support, Czech premier Petr Fiala was among the trio who made the first trip to Kyiv by EU and NATO leaders during the war – a much appreciated and bold show of solidarity that belied his conservative reputation.

The prime minister has also strongly faced down claims from his discredited predecessor, oligarch Andrej Babis, that he was forgetting Czechs by helping refugees, and has instead pledged further support to Ukraine and to Ukrainians in Czechia. A full moral renaissance would also mean welcoming non-European refugees. Some may see this as a remote possibility, but Fiala’s government has been encouragingly uncompromising in setting out its liberal stall.

The ‘Zelenskiy effect’ has resonated most strongly in Central Europe, where the principles and stakes of neo-idealism are intuitively understood, and where politicians are already translating them into geopolitical practice

Foreign Minister Jan Lipavsky was scathing about Hungary’s recent election, which gave Viktor Orban a fourth successive supermajority. Breaking with previous closeness, Polish politicians also condemned Orban for his shaky support for Ukraine and accommodation of Putin, but Lipavsky went further and took a different tack, explicitly stating that ‘As a Liberal politician, I’m not satisfied with the election results in Hungary […] Hungary must choose its side, whether [or not] they belong to the EU and NATO’. In this view, it is not one’s sovereignty that counts, but what one does with it.

Nor is Lipavsky’s hardline liberal stance (echoed by Simečka) limited to Europe. He recently gave explicit support to Taiwan: ‘We understand [they] are bullied by China. Part of [our government’s vision] is that democracies in the world should hold together – and Taiwan is a democracy’. This is considerably further than a lot of politicians from larger EU states have been willing to go, and comes on the back of Lithuania’s bold defiance of Beijing, which saw it forsake trade and endure threats from China in order to support Taiwan.

The New Idealism

All of this points to an emerging neo-idealism: an increasingly morally grounded geopolitics in CEE that prioritises all states’ rights to assert their values, which may derive from liberal internationalism but also goes beyond it. Neo-idealism is grounded in the power of values conceived as ideals to strive for– human rights and fundamental freedoms, liberal democracy, collective self-determination for democracies and, above all, the right of their citizens to a hopeful future. Neo-idealism does not focus – as liberal internationalism has come to – on strict adherence to institutional procedures, international rules and the maintenance of an increasingly untenable and in many ways inequitable status quo.

Contrary to neoliberal political economy (which even liberal internationalism’s champions now renounce), it prioritises strong state action for the many rather than merely guaranteeing a market for the few. This is not about neutering markets but better harnessing their power – it makes a virtue of the stronger role forced on governments by the pandemic and seeks to turn it to a more progressive purpose. Neo-idealism also flatly rejects the moral bankruptcy of any kind of ‘realism’ which would have ‘the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must’ – or which, in its Westsplaining view, sees the world as consisting merely of ‘great powers’, with people in other states reduced to mere pawns.

There is, of course, an obvious source of inspiration for CEE neo-idealism. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has leveraged his country’s meagre material resources by drawing on its immense reserves of courage to appeal to the better instincts of democracies across the world. Citing principle after moral principle, he has appealed to parliaments, leaders and peoples across the West to help his country. He has encouraged them to relive the heroic moments of their history and confronted them with examples of where they have failed to live up to their ideals. Most importantly, Zelenskiy and his courageous people have convinced many of us – and, thankfully, many of our leaders – that Ukraine’s fight is our fight too.

This ‘Zelenskiy effect’ has resonated most strongly in Central Europe, where the principles and stakes of neo-idealism are intuitively understood, and where politicians are already translating them into geopolitical practice. Yet others, too, should take note. Without the means to defend itself, including military capabilities, no liberal order can survive. But without a defensible moral core or the hope of progress it cannot thrive. As Central Europeans are showing, neo-idealism can revive the EU’s geopolitical power and, more broadly, can reinvent strategic security and give renewed purpose to liberal ordering in the 21st century.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Dr Benjamin Tallis

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