Nationalism in heart of Europe needles EU

Hungary border fence, Dec 2017 Image copyright AFP Image caption Hungary has built a formidable southern border fence to keep migrants out

Grinning cheerfully as he swipes his mop neatly across the glass front of an optician’s shop, Sandor the window cleaner tells me he doesn’t think much of Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party.

“They may say the economy’s thriving but we don’t feel it,” he says. “The one thing they do right is to keep the migrants out.”

Not far away, at Hungary’s southern border, the wind whips across the steppe, flattens the grass and whistles right up against the vast metal intricacy of Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s border fence.

Few try to cross it these days. Even so a security patrol crawls, rather menacingly, along its barbed perimeter.

What is, for some, all about internal security, also represents this country’s decision to prioritise national interest above that of the EU. It’s a symbol of defiance.

Image copyright Getty Images Image caption The 2015 migrant crisis created a deep split between EU neighbours

In spring 2015 the wave of refugees and migrants entering Central Europe via Hungary came as a kind of heavenly gift to Mr Orban and many other politicians in the region. They could exaggerate the potential immigration threats and then appear as saviours.

Hungary, of course, wasn’t alone in its opposition. It decided, along with Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, to reject EU migrant quotas, angering Brussels and earning the so-called Visegrad Four (V4) a reputation as the union’s troublemakers.

Image copyright EPA Image caption The Visegrad Four are defying an EU agreement on migrant quotas

But their resistance has shone a light on a profound and dangerous division within the club. Not so much a stand-off between East and West but between the older, established member states and the former communist countries which joined in 2004.

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Resentment in Slovakia

In the eerie, blue flashing light of a grimy factory in southern Slovakia, welders in overalls bend over huge chunks of metal. One lifts his protective mask to reveal a lined face.

During the socialist era, journalist Tibor Macak says, there was more security, more certainty.

And now? “Living standards aren’t the same as those in other member states. In Germany they earn four times what we get. If we’re talking about the European Union, it should be equal.”

There is resentment, a sense of injustice here – although Slovakia represents the very least of Brussels’s problems.

Its leader Robert Fico stands shoulder-to-shoulder with his Visegrad counterparts and declares: “I belong to a union of prime ministers who do not wish to see Muslim communities being created in our countries”. But that’s about as far as his anti-EU rhetoric goes.

Conscious perhaps of the relative prosperity that EU membership has brought (French and German car manufacturers are among the foreign investors here), Slovakia is, officially at least, open to closer EU integration. Slovakia is the only member of the V4 in the eurozone.

Image copyright AFP Image caption The Slovak national radio building in Bratislava

Inside the peculiar upside-down, concrete pyramid that houses Slovakia’s national radio station, Tibor Macak says: “Now is the big question: what happens if (German Chancellor) Angela Merkel and (French President) Emmanuel Macron put reform on the table? Slovakia in the majority supports that – it’s very clear.”

Not so its Visegrad neighbours Hungary and Poland. There, further EU integration is viewed with suspicion and resistance.

Polish patriots

In Poland’s rural east, the women of Zambrow gather every week to practise the old village songs. Boots tap, long skirts sway.

Jolanta shrugs back her flowered shawl and says: “The most important thing is to prioritise the interests of our fatherland, to support the interest of the Polish people.”

She recently became a local councillor for the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS). “Most importantly it was patriotism that drove me towards PiS, the patriotism I inherited from my grandparents and parents,” she says.

PiS, endorsed (in part) by the powerful Catholic Church, has won popular support thanks to generous child benefits and a decision to lower the retirement age. As one mum told me: “All the other parties make promises but they don’t deliver. PiS kept their promises.”

But PiS have enraged the EU and left their country horribly divided.

Image copyright EPA Image caption Law and Justice (PiS) leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski espouses traditional conservative values

The party’s attacks on press freedom, on access to abortion, its decision to continue logging in the ancient Bialowieza forest, in breach of EU law, horrify many Poles.

But it was the government’s shake-up of the Polish judiciary which brought people out onto the streets in protest and stirred the European Commission into action, triggering Article Seven against a member state for the very first time. The article deals with adherence to the EU’s rule of law values.

Renate Kim, a journalist based in Warsaw, said “I went to the United States for the elections and when I listened to people, how they believed in what Trump promised them, it was exactly the same as here – ‘we’ll make Poland strong again, we’ll make Poland great again’.”

“People hear ‘we’ll be a big country with lots of pride, we won’t listen to Brussels and the leftist Brussels politicians’ and they like that, because they feel proud of their country again.”

No wonder, perhaps, PiS MP Dominik Tarcynski said last week that the Polish government would not back down over the reforms, which the EU Commission and independent experts argue flout the rule of law.

Brussels is unlikely to withdraw the country’s voting rights – it needs unanimous the approval of all member states and Hungary has signalled support for its neighbour.

Viktor Orban’s increasingly authoritarian rule, his shift towards a self-styled “illiberal state”, also flies in the face of EU values.

There are voices within the EU which hint at hitting both Poland and Hungary where it hurts most – by reducing their EU funding.

This week Ms Merkel issued a veiled threat with regard to the next EU budget.

“In the next distribution of structural funds,” she said, “we need to redefine the allocation criteria to reflect the preparedness of regions and authorities to receive and integrate migrants.”

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