The University of St Andrews, located in the picturesque old capital of Scotland, thrives on its ‘internationality.’ This bureaucratic term of higher education ranking tables means that the university’s students and staff come from well over a hundred states from all corners of the world. Half of them are from Britain, while the students and scholars from the European Union (EU) (together with those from the United Kingdom) account for two-thirds of the university’s studying and teaching population. The second largest cohort originates from North America. They amount to over a sixth of the university’s scholars and students.
In recognition of these demographic data, for five years I ran a small-scale experiment in my tutorial groups with the first-year students. As part of induction to the tutorial I asked them about how many states are in the United States (US) and in the European Union. The sequence of posing these two questions is crucial. Practically all the students when inquired about the United States, immediately shot back with the correct answer that this federal polity is now composed of 50 states. Their reply was automatic, like a reflex. Such generalized knowledge on the US is a matter of course on both sides of the Atlantic.
In April 2017 the Hungarian government led by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán adopted a legislation tailored with an eye to closing down the English-medium Central European University (CEU). This liberal institution – established in 1991, in the year of the breakup of the Soviet Union and two years after the demise of the Soviet bloc – has been a thorn in the side of Orbán’s program of ‘illiberal democracy.’ The CEU’s founder, the US financier George Soros, comes from Hungary, where he was born to an assimilated family of non-observant Hungarian Jews who, apart from Hungarian and German, after the Great War, chose to speak Esperanto as neutral language of potentially universal communication for a future more peaceful world. This was not to be. The two totalitarianisms of national socialism and Soviet communism steamrolled over Hungary and most of central Europe. Tens of millions died in the Holocaust of Jews and Roma, in the course of World War II, in the wake of the establishment of Moscow’s communist regimes across the region, and in both nazi and communist concentration camps. Furthermore, between 1933 and 1950, about 60 million people were expelled from their homes in central Europe, or a third of region’s entire population. In the 1930s Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin also made sure to incarcerate and kill most of Esperantists both in Germany and the Soviet Union. In the former case they were seen as ‘traitors of the nation’ led by a ‘cabala of international Jewry,’ while in the Soviet Union Esperantists were denounced as ‘rootless cosmopolitans’ that was a code phrase for ‘insufficiently Soviet’ Jews.
Once, Poland was a success story of postcommunist transition. Throughout the 1980s this largest satellite state of the Soviet Union in Europe faced unprecedented privations symbolized by rationing cards, never-ending queues and shortages of absolutely all essentials. The situation eventually delegitimized the communist regime and simultaneously radicalized the population. The only solution to this dilemma (apart from following the option of a bloody civil war with Soviet involvement) was a negotiated change to democracy and a free market economy. That is what followed, despite economic difficulties heaped on the state’s inhabitants (especially in the countryside and in the urban areas with rapidly decommissioned heavy industry) in the course of the systemic transition. In 1999 Poland joined Nato and half a decade later, in 2004, the European Union (EU). The prudence and efficiency of governance in economy was such that after the current economic crisis hit in 2008 Poland was the only EU member state where economic did not plummet and actually continued to grow. In the new eastern half of the EU, the country became the partner of Germany and France in shaping the Union’s future. On the wave of these successes the Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk was elected President of the European Council (that gathers the leaders of all EU member states).
In another splendid fit of absentmindedness, so typical for its history, Britain now left the European Union as a result of the referendum on 23 June 2016. The supporters of brexit rejoice, while the remainers despair. Those who tipped the balancenumber fewer than two per cent of the voters, so in reality neither the option of staying in nor of leaving the EU received a full-hearted and unequivocal mandate. Now, couple of days after, the triumphant brexiters backtrack on their promises of scores of economic and financial benefits that, according to them, were immediately to follow after the exit. In a typically British manner of muddling through, they even caution the public that the freedom of movement of people between Britain and the EU will continue for some indefinite period, while on the other hand the brexiters want Britain to retain full access to the single market. In a way they wish to straddle the fence by simultaneously being in and out. Ironically, it might mean that Britain, will join the ranks of Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway in the European Economic Area (EEA). It is an extension of the single market, but without the right to deciding about its principles for EEA members. They just need to follow the rules as legislated and prescribed by the EU members.
In 1989 communism fell in Europe and the Soviet bloc split. In the same year Francis Fukuyama announced the end of history upon the almost instantaneous adoption of democracy and capitalism in the freshly postcommunist states. Now all in the West – the postcommunist half of Europe included – had seen the light of how to properly organize matters temporal in human societies. But since the mid-1990s populism has begun trumping democracy in Italy under the succession of the cabinets led by Silvio Berlusconi, at times in alliance with the pro-fascist Alleanza Nazionale party. Finally, in the 2013 general elections, the populist Eurosceptic and anti-establishment and Five Star Movement (M5S) won a quarter of the votes in this country. In the 1999 general elections over a quarter of the Austrians voted for the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), which subsequently became a coalition partner in the two Austria governments between 2000 and 2007. In the May 2016 presidential election, the FPÖ candidate lost to the mainstream one by the wafer-thin margin of 0.6 per cent. In France, the radical Front National (FN) successfully fielded a candidate who participated in the runoff of the 2002 presidential election. In 2014 the FN won the elections to the European Parliament and the following year the French regional elections, in each case gaining more than a quarter of all the votes cast. Mainstream parties and politicians began bowing to the growing authoritarian feeling palpable among the electorate. In 2007 Romania joined the European Union, but already the following year a plethora of Italian mayors and politicians vowed to expel from the country over 10,000 Romanian Roma – EU citizens. In 2009-10 the French President Nicolas Sarkozy ordered the first-ever postwar expulsion from a democratic Western state: tens of Roma housing sites were razed and 20,000 Roma – EU citizens, mainly from Romania and Bulgaria, were removed by force to their countries of origin. The European Commission’s harsh criticism of this unprecedented act fell on death ears.
With the turn of the 21st century, mainstream political parties in the new postcommunist EU member states took a good note of this growing populist and authoritarian tendency in Western Europe. In 2000 displeasure with the continuing hold of the former communists-turned-democrats’ hold on power in Romania translated into the great electoral success of the far-right irredentist Greater Romania Party (PRM) that polled almost a quarter of the votes. The PRM became the second largest in the Romanian Parliament. However, in the wake of the generalized disillusionment with corruption in politics, this party’s popularity waned and since 2008 it has not managed to win a single mandate. Uniquely in Central Europe, thus far it has been the end of far-right parties in Romania, though no end of the use of ideological elements from their radical program. On the contrary, this far-right xenophobic radicalism has begun coalescing as a new political norm across the region. Since taking office in 2003 the Czech President Václav Klaus gradually introduced Euroscepticism as an important tenet of Czech politics. His successor Miloš Zeman continues this populist line with the addition of pro-Russian rhetoric. This stance paved the way for the rise of the anti-corruption populist and right-wing ANO 2011 (YES 2011) party as the second political force in the Czech Republic, and allows for the survival of the sole unreformed communist party (Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia, KSČM) in a postcommunist EU member state as the country’s third largest political force. The radicalizing trend found its reflection also in neighboring Slovakia that between 1994 and 1998 had already had an early brush with authoritarianism under Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar. Recently, in 2006-10 the far-right nationalist Slovak National Party (SNP) was a coalition partner in the Slovak government. Another party of the same ilk, with clear references to the wartime fascist Slovakia in its program, People’s Party – Our Slovakia (ĽSNS) gained a tenth of all the votes during the general elections of March 2016.