Britain's exit from the European Union will deprive Central and Eastern European governments of a key ally when it comes to EU reform
. Like them, the United Kingdom sees the bloc as a trade association among countries not necessarily interested in developing supranational structures. London has been skeptical of proposals to federalize the European Union and has obtained multiple opt-outs from initiatives such as the euro or the passport-free Schengen area. For Poland and Hungary, a United Kingdom that defends these views from within the EU was a much more valuable ally than a country that is on its way out of the bloc and uncertain about its future.
In addition, the impact of the British referendum was so profound that most EU leaders now understand that they cannot remain immobile. In recent months, there has been a plethora of proposals for EU reform. Most are in an embryonic phase, and many will be watered down or shelved. But there is a common narrative that makes Central and Eastern Europe nervous. Most of the plans involve the eurozone, not the European Union as a whole. This makes sense, as the crisis of the past decade focused primarily on the currency union, and its members are particularly driven to solve its pending problems. But underneath this seemingly pragmatic view, there is a deeper message: The European Union is the eurozone, and the countries that do not use the euro are not as relevant as those that do.
This connects directly to the concept of a "multi-speed Europe
," a Continental bloc where some countries deepen their integration while others do not. The European Union already moves at different speeds because, for example, some countries use the euro while others don't, and some countries take part in the Schengen Agreement while others don't. But so far, the official goal of the European Union is that at some point all its member states will reach the same level of integration. If the European Union were to abandon its pledge of an "ever closer union," the political and institutional environment on the Continent would be severely disrupted. It would mean that for first time the bloc is officially acknowledging the existence of first- and second-tier member states.
This is a worrisome prospect for Central and Eastern Europe. The region depends on the European Union for trade, investment, subsidies and, to some extent, security. The Czech Republic and Slovakia are intimately connected to the German economy. Poland and Romania see membership as a part of their security strategy
, which consists of having as many international alliances as possible to deter Russian aggression. Should these countries opt out, or be excluded, from the next stage of Continental reform, some would have to rely on the United States for investment, protection or energy imports. But the White House may not be as interested in subsidizing Polish farmers or paying for Romania's roads as Brussels is.
Since the end of the Cold War, peace and prosperity in Central and Eastern Europe were the result of a combination of close ties with the United States and of membership in the European Union and NATO. If any of these factors is removed from the equation, entire national strategies have to be revised. A point could be made that in the case of weaker ties between Central and Eastern Europe and the rest of the European Union, NATO membership could be enough to provide security to the region. But security is not only connected to the military. Over the past two decades, EU membership has meant more solid institutions, more transparent democracies and a stronger rule of law in the former Communist bloc. All of these reduce the room for Russian manipulation, especially when Moscow's strategy is based on exploiting institutional shortcomings, not just on military intervention.
Difficult Choices Ahead
Slovakia and the Czech Republic have already suggested that they intend to remain as close as possible to the Continent's biggest players. Their decisions are motivated by economic and historical reasons, because they are former members of the Holy Roman Empire that are intimately connected to the German economy. But the choice will be harder for Poland and Hungary, which are governed by nationalist forces that see the European Union's federalist and post-national aspirations as a threat to their national sovereignty and identity.
Geopolitics suggests that Poland should want to remain as close as possible to Western Europe. The existence of Poland as a nation, located in the heart of the North European Plain and easy to invade, has been challenged traditionally by Germany and Russia
, forcing Warsaw to seek as many foreign allies as possible. Germany is no longer an immediate threat, but Poland still feels an intense sense of urgency — more than its peers in the Visegrad Group — when it comes to Russia. And this is where Polish and Hungarian imperatives diverge, because Budapest does not perceive an external threat the way Warsaw does.
It is also possible that the nationalist governments in Warsaw and Budapest are only an exception and that sooner or later pro-European administrations could return to power. In fact, there have been large demonstrations against both governments in recent years. So far, the contradiction between criticizing the European Union and enjoying the benefits of membership has not led to any meaningful consequences in the rebel countries. As the prospect of weaker ties with the bloc becomes more real, voters could return to pro-EU leaders. But the more the nationalist rhetoric takes root in these countries, the harder it will be for them to change direction.
But Central and Eastern European countries are not the only ones facing strategic choices; dilemmas lie ahead for Western European countries as well. In recent weeks France has criticized Poland and Hungary, suggesting that their participation is not essential
for the next stage of EU reform. In addition, France and Austria have pledged to restrict the use of an EU program that allows Central and Eastern European nationals to find temporary jobs in Western Europe. EU officials, in turn, have threatened to suspend voting rights and even to cut funding for countries that fail to follow the bloc's rules.
But enforcing these threats could fuel new waves of nationalism in the region. A weaker EU presence in Central and Eastern Europe could lead to illiberal and unstable states on the bloc's eastern flank, creating political, economic and even security threats for the European Union. Such a scenario would profoundly worry Germany. The fate of the region may be a secondary concern for France, but Germany sees the area as its natural sphere of economic and political influence. In the coming debate on the future of Europe, Berlin will probably seek to be involved in the region as much as possible. This could come at the price of compromises and watered-down EU policies to accommodate the region.
Roadblocks to Reform
The question of whether Central and Eastern Europe will let go of the EU is intimately linked to the question of whether the EU will let go of the region. And, all things considered, a multi-speed Europe may never happen. As well as managing existing East-West tensions, EU reforms have to overcome
the grating relationships between Europe's northern and southern members, which have different views of the bloc's future. Regardless, the mere discussion of a reformed European Union is enough to trigger strategic discussions in Central and Eastern Europe. After all, this is a region where the fate of nations is often determined by events beyond their borders.
For the European Union, the main challenge will be to find a balance between countries that want to deepen cooperation on monetary, fiscal, defense and migration affairs and countries that are reluctant to give up their national sovereignty. Without the United Kingdom, the ability of Central and Eastern Europe countries to shape the negotiations will be heavily constrained, forcing those countries to make decisions that they have been able to avoid for two decades.