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West losing battle for the heart of Europe

By John Lloyd | January 18th 2016

A little over a quarter of a century ago, Europe celebrated the healing of the schism that Communism enforced on it since World War Two, and which produced great tribunes of freedom.

Lech Walesa, the Polish shipyard electrician, climbed over his yard wall in Gdansk to join and then lead a strike in 1980. Ten years later, he was elected president.

Vaclav Havel, Czech writer and dissident who served years in prison for his opposition to the Communist government, was elected president of Czechoslovakia in 1989.

Jozsef Antall, a descendant of the Hungarian nobility who opposed both the Hungarian fascists and communists, was imprisoned for helping lead the 1956 revolt against the Soviet Union. And he was foremost in the negotiations to end Communist rule in the late 1980s. He survived to be elected prime minister in 1990.

These men were inspirations to their fellow citizens, heroes to the wider democratic world and were thought to be the advance guard of people who would grow and prosper in a Europe eschewing every kind of authoritarianism. Havel could say, with perfect certainty, that the Communists in power had developed in Czechs “a profound distrust of all generalizations, ideological platitudes, cliches, slogans, intellectual stereotypes we are now largely immune to all hypnotic enticements, even of the traditionally persuasive national or nationalistic variety”.

Poland, largest and most successful of the Central European states has, in the governing Law and Justice Party, a group of politicians trying to remold the institutions of state so that their power withstands all challenge. The government has sought to pack the constitutional court with a majority of its supporters; extended the powers of the intelligence services and put a supporter at their head; and signed into law a measure which puts broadcasting under direct state control.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the Law and Justice Party leader, and former prime minister, drives the government’s agenda with a steady purpose: to fashion Poland into a state guided by Catholicism, free from foreign influence - whether from the Western European states, or from Russia.

In this quest, he sees a model in nearby Hungary. He has a close relationship with Viktor Orban, the Hungarian prime minister, huddling with him for six hours of talks on Jan. 6. Orban was once a close ally of Jozsef Antall in bringing democracy to their country.

Yet, since his first election victory in 2010, he has successfully cowed the leftist opposition, suppressed the media, packed the constitutional court with his loyalists, made the electoral system friendlier to his party and clamped down on the activities of civil society.

Orban and Kaczynski seem to disagree on just one thing. Orban and Russian President Vladimir Putin are mutually admiring: Kaczynski holds Putin’s regime responsible for the death of his twin brother Lech, then Poland’s president, in a plane crash in Russia.

The Czech Republic isn’t authoritarian, but the promise Havel held out for it; to be the heart of Europe, a lighthouse of freedom, civility and diligence, has been frittered away. Those, for whom Havel was a hero and a model, despair of a country whose political and business elite, including many media owners, are in and out of each other’s’ pockets. It’s corruption, the scrambling after political power to benefit one’s own or allies’ business, which corrodes civic behavior and trust.

It never seems to be vanquished. Waves of new, or old politicians come to power on an anti-corruption ticket, and too many of them stay to discover and enjoy the fruits of power. Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta resigned last year with numerous charges of corruption and abuse of office hanging over him. He’s not alone in the former communist world.

These governments, all members of the European Union, feel less and less loyalty to it. What little they had has been strained by the stream of refugees that has flooded the continent. Most of them have followed the early example of Slovakia, and shut their borders. The Germans have threatened legal action to reopen borders, but mass attacks near Cologne’s main train station early this week by young men of Middle Eastern appearance have weakened its moral authority.

With police and politicians apparently attempting a cover-up, it has raised the level of anger at the mass acceptance of migrants in Germany itself. In regaining autonomy with the Soviet collapse, the Central Europeans first reached gratefully for Europe and its panoply of rights.

Now, they recoil from its responsibilities. Instead, they seek a patriotic spirit impatient of liberal opposition and what they see as immoral or alarming innovation from abroad, such as gay rights.

This is likely to change again.

A young Polish friend, working in the United Kingdom, told me that “the old voted for Kaczynski: we, the young, didn’t vote, and that was a mistake.”

An opinion poll recently showed 56 per cent opposition to some of the Law and Justice government’s measures. But they need a new inspiration and jobs. Their provision is the largest task in the presently fading continent.

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