Questions broached on behalf of CEIPA by Peter von Bethlenfalvy, Executive Director of CEIPA, with edits and contributions from Dominique Foubert, Treasurer and Webmaster of CEIPA and Heather Fermor, Policy Advisor CEIPA.
I am speaking today with Karel Barták, journalist, publisher, EU affairs expert, former official of the European Commission who is now working in Prague.
During the 1990s Karel Bartak’s influential journalistic work greatly contributed to a conducive climate towards the EU enlargement in 2004. He was one of the few sources explaining the functioning of the EU as well as the merits of membership. His engagement and impartial reporting influenced the thinking in his country and beyond, and helped strengthen the Czech democracy and freedom of press.
Karel Barták has had a long career as a journalist and reporter. He worked for decades for the Czech News Agency (ČTK) as Press Correspondent in Paris, Moscow and Brussels. He has also worked as a stringer for other media groups including the BBC, Le Monde Diplomatique, 100+1, Mladý svět and Český rozhlas.
From 2006 to 2016 he was a middle manager at the DG EAC, European Commission and over his time there he was in charge of youth policy, communication and culture. Between 2016 and 2018 he stood as the head of the Creative Europe unit in the EACEA. He retired in January 2019. Since then, he has been working freelance for the Czech public radio and the INFO.cz information platform commenting on EU affairs.
What conclusions do you draw from the 2004 EU enlargement to East and Central Europe?
A vast question. In general terms this enlargement was successful and far less complicated than foreseen, also thanks to the intense and long preparation. On the other hand some of the 2004 new members, in particular Hungary and Poland, have been diluting their understanding of and support for the core values and democratic principles enshrined in the Treaties. They would not be meeting the Copenhagen criteria today. Which is very disturbing for the functioning and the future of the EU and is also undermining the further enlargements.
Looking back on the Enlargement in 2004, would you say that it was stimulated by political instincts of that time, rather than serious consideration being given to issues of democracy, rule of law, corruption and security?
The then-future new members had been sincerely longing to become a part of the EU. Not only politicians, but most of their societies. For the Western nations it became clear that the historic reconciliation of the continent would only happen at this price. It was somehow taken for granted that the post-communist countries would be logically and naturally longing for democracy.
The negotiations “per se” which started in 1998 focused very much on the details of the EU legislation; the more political requirements were not dealt with consistently and in detail, as if the adoption of the “acquis“ would somehow automatically also influence the democratic functioning of the state and society. Today the societies of the post-communist states tend to be less immune against demagogy and populism than the mainstream western countries. But there is no efficient remedy across the board – we see this in Austria, Italy, even Germany.
In your opinion did the almost twenty years of enlargement of the EU to the East and Central Europe bring the expected results – such as strengthening democracy, freedom of media and press, strengthening the solidarity principle, rule of law, reduction of corruption, stability and security?
Definitely. Just try to remember what these countries looked like at the beginning of the nineties. There are ups and downs, the road can be rocky, but the direction has been very clear. My country, Czechia, is a good example of a rather self-confident free society. Even if people elect politicians on a populist platform, the principles of free elections, free media and freedom of speech are not being dismantled. They can be attacked, weakened, but have somehow become an organic part of the society, carried more and more by the young generation.
Were the decisions of the EU Council, in urgent and quintessential foreign and security issues, facilitated by the new EU member states of East and Central Europe?
Depending on the issue, of course. Traditionally the new member states were inclined to be less outspoken, often simply nodding to the decisions proposed by their western peers. Sometimes they made the impression of not really being interested in relations with Africa, Latin America or the Middle East. Sometimes they looked for direction more to the US than the collective wisdom of the EU.
The reaction to the Russian aggression against Ukraine was a game-changer. It turned out that countries like Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia or Czechia were right about their mistrust of Russia and came out as the spearhead of the anti-Russian, pro-Ukrainian policy change.
Have the voices of the Eastern and Central European governments been instrumental in building a strong and common foreign and security strategy, especially vis a vis Russia and China?
Yes and no. On one hand you have the experience with the totalitarian regime which inspires these countries and helps formulate EU positions. On the other you have the internal political interests of respective parties and politicians, as well as successful disinformation campaigns, which may go in the opposite direction. Hungary is now famous for its pro-Russian and pro-Chinese attitudes, and similar tendencies can be observed in Slovakia, Bulgaria, even Romania.
Are the EU institutions in the position to present credible measures eradicating growing nationalism, corruption, populism and euroscepticism in the Central and Eastern European EU member states?
The EU has very limited instruments for influencing the domestic political development in its member states. The “club” was conceived for functioning democracies; no one expected that the basic principles and values might come under pressure, not only in the new member states. Countries like Hungary or Poland do not abide by the Copenhagen criteria anymore. But Austria could be in a similar situation soon. It is therefore important that besides the few “bureaucratic“ tools foreseen by the treaties there is more political pressure exercised by the European Council – after all a body composed of elected leaders of sovereign states should be able to generate the necessary soft power.
Could you give us a short comment on the EU strategy for the future enlargement of the following the candidate countries:
Frontrunner, but so small and unimportant that it would hardly make it alone. Strong Russian influence.
Key country for the future enlargement. Given the new confrontational relationship between the EU and Russia, it is more obliged to take sides. And the EU feels more compelled to accelerate the accession process, despite the lack of Serbian support for anti-Russian sanctions and the controversial Kosovo issue.
The accession process is frozen and will stay so in the foreseeable future. Erdogan´s Turkey is an important regional player with rather different goals than the EU. It is nowadays largely EU-incompatible.
The country has suffered from the unfair blockage by Greece and then Bulgaria, as well as some internal backsliding. It should be supported to enter the fast-track accession process soon.
More and more visible on the European political scene, also internal progress has become faster. Might be joining Serbia, Montenegro and N. Macedonia for the next EU enlargement.
For political reasons the EU has extremely accelerated the process. It is very important at this moment to provide hope and strength to the Ukrainian society and political establishment. At the same time no Ukraine membership is possible without the resolution of the conflict with Russia and vast reforms on both sides. The accession process will be long, and enthusiasm will be gradually dampened by frustration.
It is interesting how little we know about this country which is being drawn into the negotiation process by the attention and empathy towards Ukraine. It is an enigma, just like for instance Latvia was for France in late nineties. The country is under pressure from Russia and must be therefore supported. A lot depends on the commitment provided by Romania, which is far from acquired in advance.
Bosnia and Herzegovina
The candidate status is being offered exclusively for political reasons. There is hope that the new impetus, plus the faster pace for Serbia, will weaken the tensions between the communities and enable their more constructive cooperation. The EU opening is a part of the overall charm offensive towards the Western Balkans, long overdue.
Would you feel that prior to any further EU enlargement EU member state citizens should be given a chance to express their views… for example by way of a European wide referendum?
If referendums were to decide, there would have never been any enlargement. Even more so in Europe of today, with nationalist and populist parties and movements on the rise in most countries. Democratically elected politicians have enough representativity and responsibility to take decisions. Even then it will be very difficult.
What are the positive aspects, in your opinion, of enlarging the EU with countries such as Bosnia Herzegovina and Kosovo, given that both are experiencing increasing political destabilization as well as security threats through political agitation from Serbia?
As I have already hinted, the EU is co-responsible for the fate of the continent, including of course the Western Balkans, which should not be left alone and sacrificed as an easy victim of the Russian influence. The prospect of common EU membership may calm down tensions, but also it may not. There is not much manoeuvring space for other options.
What should the European Union do in order to prevent the further growth of anti- European sentiments spread during the past years by a number of EU governments?
The EU is the sum-up, if not the common denominator, of the political will of 27 governments. It can only work by compromise. Some governments, usually for internal political reasons, whip-up anti-European sentiment. It is a very irresponsible way of doing politics because they weaken the whole community and its international political might. We are witnessing paradoxical situations – governments are democratically elected on an anti-European ticket by pro-European electorates. According to the polls most of the population of Poland, Hungary, Slovakia or even Austria is pro-European. This shows an alarming level of confusion in people´s minds. The best way to weaken this tendency is to promote the EU values, focusing on young people.
What in your opinion should be visibly changed in the EU’s power architecture, prior to any future EU enlargement?
Much depends on which countries will be accessing the club in the first wave. Should Ukraine be among them, then we need above all a thorough overhaul of the way the EU budget is composed and spent. We will have to abandon the sacrosanct rule of 1 percent GDP and opt for the double, otherwise we cannot continue the cohesion policy. We will have to impose discriminatingly long transition periods for agriculture. We should also abandon unanimity in decision-making in some areas. All this might be done without the revision of the treaties, which would be extremely cumbersome and politically dangerous. Even without the treaty change the current 27 member states will have a lot of trouble finding consensus.
The process will be long and cumbersome. In order to prevent frustration and backlashes, the EU should decide on changes to the rules of the accession process. Instead of dwelling on the “all is decided until everything is decided“ some parts of EU policies and policy-making should be made available to the future new member before the accession per se. The narrative should not be the one of the “waiting room“ or the “training before competition“, but simply “partial accession“. The transition periods should be also used to maximum: if you wish for the accession as soon as possible, you will have to accept a dose of suffering.
What should be the legacy of the work of the Vice President of the European Commission Vera Jourova for the future European Commission beyond 2024 when looking on her fight for democracy and rule of law?
Hopefully she will express her vision for the future when time comes. Looking from the sidelines, one can see clearly today that it was a wise and shrewd decision by VDL to charge Vera Jourova with this portfolio, given her nationality and political affinity. Throughout her second mandate she was obliged to fight on several fronts – at the EU level to promote things which were never done before, like the protection of media freedom, fighting disinformation on social networks or inventing rules for the use of artificial intelligence.
On the domestic front, she was logically at odds with the populist style of her “party boss“ Andrej Babis, while being at the same time suspect for the parties and politicians of the current government. She managed finally to be respected across the board. Also thanks to her the “rule of law“ imperative has become more integrated in the political thinking and narrative in Europe, which is of course welcome.