This article was first published on The Commentator
There is one thing the EU is very good at: botching things in the short term for some apparent gain, only to have it bite them in the derrière down the line.
When the EU brought many ex-Communist states into the Union during the ‘big bang’, with the wholly laudable aim of instituting democracy, the rule of law and free markets, the EU also brought into the Union countries with considerably different cultures and histories than those of Western Europe.
These divergent cultures are now making themselves evident, and threaten to destroy the Union’s beloved principle of freedom of movement. These differences may see some states follow Britain out of the door! This creates a rather awkward situation for EU leaders while the Brexit negotiations hum in the background.
The countries at the centre of this issue are Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary. The spectre causing these tensions has become familiar in recent years — immigration. What’s different this time is we are now seeing the culmination of these disagreements between the aforementioned countries and their Western European counterparts.
In September 2015, the EU’s Interior ministers voted to approve a commission proposal in which it was decided Member States would take in refugees based on a quota system. This was intended to relieve pressure on Greece and Italy, who were bearing the brunt of the crisis at the time.
Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic are refusing to comply. The EU launched formal legal proceedings against them on July 11th. If successful, the punishment in this case is only financial, but given they are not the richest of countries, it is hard to see how they will be able to comply.
At the same time, the EU is investigating Poland under its new Rule of Law framework, introduced in 2016. New laws are being introduced to allow the Polish executive to appoint members of the judiciary, and have caused much concern among EU leaders. The ultimate sanction could be the suspension of Polish voting rights.
What we are seeing among these former Eastern Bloc countries is the confidence in themselves to reject the noose of the European Union. All of these countries have rich histories and distinct cultures, but what marks their societal divergence from Western Europe is they have been mired in recent history by invasion and, most importantly sustained, occupation.
To illustrate the point, in 1222 Hungary’s Golden Bull was one of the first documents to place constitutional limits on a European monarch’s power — just 7 years after Magna Carta. In the 15th century Pope Pius II referred to Hungary as “the shield of Christianity and the protector of Western Civilisation”. Hungary is also a cultural treasure trove, known for its tradition of folk and classical music and for having beautiful Renaissance-style architecture.
Poland was one of the key early havens for the Enlightenment in the 16th century. It was a relative hotbed of culture and science. It is no coincidence one of the first printing presses was established in Krakow in 1473. Poland was also almost unique in its policies of religious tolerance at the time. This culture of enlightenment made Poland one of the major European powers in the late medieval and Renaissance period.
The History of the Czech Republic is somewhat more complex, being known as the Kingdom of Bohemia for a long period, and being part of multiple European empires, including the Holy Roman Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. What remains, however, is its deep sense of nationhood, going back over a millennium, and its participation in the European Enlightenment, both culturally and industrially.
What unites these countries is a strong independent sense of their national identity and a very recent memory of an overarching power oppressing their nationhood and inflicting serious physical and economic harm upon their citizens.
When the Soviet Union fell in 1989, joining the European Union was almost an inevitability. Leaving the yoke of totalitarianism, which had devastated their economies, in favour of an institution designed to promote economic prosperity and protect individual freedom, was irresistible — especially given the development funds offered by the EU.
However, all three of these countries — especially Poland — have experienced significant economic growth since their liberation from Soviet influence and it has given them a renewed sense of self-confidence.
This new self-confidence, combined with a strong sense of national identity and the very recent memory of being pushed around by a supra-national power, provides a potent mix to resist the EU when it makes demands. They are now rebelling against the imposition of migrant quotas, especially when the migration crisis is largely the result of other EU’s leaders ineptitude.
Angela Merkel attracted many more migrants with her open door policy, leaving countries like Italy and Greece to fend for themselves, as migrants turned up on their shores, most trying to make their way to Germany, or across other EU countries to try and get to Britain.
With nowhere near the resources to properly vet the incoming migrants, it’s no wonder Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic don’t feel it’s their responsibility to house them.
As it stands, Poland looks adamant in its resistance against the EU’s one-month ultimatum calling for it to change its proposed judicial reforms. Hungary and the Czech Republic don’t look likely to concede much ground on migrant quotas either.
Other EU countries are not making adequate provisions for migrants. It’s all well and good taking them in, but unless permanent homes are provided, along with proper work avoiding the cost of social benefits to the host nation, the countries and communities will collapse under the pressure.
Once we Get Britain Out of the European Union Poland, Hungary or the Czech Republic could well follow.
Jayne Adye is Director of cross-party grassroots campaign Get Britain Out