Clichés about Central and Eastern Europe are probably as common in the press as jokes in Boris Johnson’s speeches. And although their repertoire might look repetitive to many, their themes actually vary over time. Thus, the image of the Polish plumber invading Western Europe and lowering hard-working westerners’ wages, although still commonplace in much of the French or British population, has given way in the media at least to yet another demeaning stereotype – the Central European nativist populist.
For many readers of the Guardian, El País or the more right-wing Valeurs Actuelles in France, the Central European populist has become a defining feature of coverage of the region, for better or for worse: in center-left newspapers, the Orbán-like populist has become a sort of bogeyman brandished to rally the “progressives” against a common enemy; on the right, the same (and always Central or Eastern European) character has been depicted as a messianic figure coming from the East to save the West. In either case, the result has been catastrophic for the image of emerging Europe, now not only (wrongly) seen as poor and without a future, but also as a home of bigots and/or saints – neither of which exist in the region, as every cynic knows.
There is, of course, some truth in this cliché – as in many stereotypes. True, emerging Europe has produced (or converted) a number of populist leaders over the past 15 years, and they have been rather efficient from an electoral perspective. Without even attempting to go further east by covering Russia under Vladimir Putin, the names of Viktor Orbán and Jarosław Kaczynski often come to mind to the Western pundit, along with those of Andrej Babiš, Milorad Dodik, Liviu Dragnea or Boris Kollár when discussing the region – and are very often associated with either corruption or radical nationalism/conservatism (which in the minds of quite a few “progressives” is one and the same thing). In other words, while Central and Eastern Europe already has to deal with being associated with the colour grey since the fall of the Berlin Wall, it now has to manage a trademark added nuances of brown.
Yet this positioning is wrong, as the experience on both sides of the former Iron Curtain over the past 10 years shows us. First of all, the West has shown over the past few years that it was far from immune from right-wing populism (as the impressive rise of Marine Le Pen, Alternativ für Deutschland or Matteo Salvini’s Lega have shown in the past few years, to take only a few continental examples), with some of its countries having to contend with another left-wing populist variant that is practically absent in the East. Second, putting Jarosław Kaczynski and Marian Kotleba in the same basket does not make sense ideologically: conservatism, even in its more radical format, is completely different from outright fascism. One would not dare this type of ideological parallel between Liviu Dragnea’s Social Democratic Party in Romania and the conservative-populist Fidesz, it would be a mistake to do so with other parties that often have much less in common (including in international politics) than one would think.
Reducing emerging Europe to populism would be equally inaccurate. As the year 2019 has shown, the region is just as capable (if not more) as France, Greece or Spain of producing mainstream leaders capable of redrawing the political map in their countries: the electoral victories of Zuzana Čaputová in Slovakia and Volodymyr Zelensky in Ukraine, or the impressive re-election of Klaus Iohannis as president of Romania this year are all reminders that emerging Europe can move quite fast and elect champions standing against the very characteristics that are associated with populism in central Europe: nationalism, corruption or majority-rule.
The fact is, we should not divide “Western” and “Eastern” European politics in such a definite manner. The reality is not only more complex, but also much more unifying for Europe. For the convulsions and re-drawings of political landscapes that we have lived over the past ten years are not only common to both regions, but are also the result of a more general reorientation of our electorates in the West, the Great Class Shift that I describe in my latest book, published with Routledge. Whether taken from a Western, Central, Southern or Eastern European point of view (or even North American for that matter), the fact is that our public debate has now been redefined by four “dominant” social classes that are now redefining our political fault lines: the urban and liberal creative class (behind the rise of Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron, but also of Progressive Slovakia and the Union to Save Romania), the suburban middle class (whose support has gone to British and American conservatives, but also to SaS and KDH in Slovakia), the New Minority – comprising much of the white working class – behind the electoral strength of the French National Rally but also until recently the Social Democrats in Romania or PiS in Poland, and the Millennials whose emergence in the electorate correspond to the rise of anti-austerity movements in Southern Europe and the socialist revival in the Anglosphere, but also the timid re-awakening of the left in Poland and possibly the rise of Momentum in Hungary.
Of course, supply and demand are two completely different things, and the aspirations of each group (which sometimes differ depending on their geographic location) are expressed in different fashions by politicians, with sometimes very different programs and different results. But the fact is that Central and Eastern European politics are now no longer that dissimilar in their essence to French, British or American politics. This of course should not deviate our attention from the specific issues that the region is facing, but it should encourage us not to look at it any longer as “faraway [countries] of which we know little about”, to use Chamberlain’s infamous description of Czechoslovakia in 1938, but as an indivisible part of what constitutes not only Europe, but the West.