“We should understand the frustrations of Central European countries”

Despite marked differences between Western and Central Eastern European countries regarding issues of the rule of law and migration policy, the French politician and former Director-General of the WTO Pascal Lamy remains convinced of a fundamental common European identity. He argues that the West should understand cultural and historic differences and the frustrations of Central Eastern European countries in order to prevent these from slowing European integration. Pascal Lamy talked to Yuriy Sheyko during the first Paris Peace Forum that took place from 11 to 13 November 2018. The Körber Foundation is a Founding Member of the Paris Peace Forum.

While most World leaders commemorated the centenary of the end of WWI on Sunday in Paris, the Polish government marched together with far-right activists. Could you imagine something like that in the Western Europe countries?

Pascal Lamy: No. But that’s the reality. And we have to understand that and cope with it, even if it’s not something which any of us, at least in my generation, expected when Poland joined the European Union. So it’s unexpected, but it’s happening. And we have to react. And in order to react we have to understand.

Would you call this march a sign of a deeper split between the Western and Central Eastern European countries?

I think it’s a sign that history was not brushed away by the fall of the Berlin Wall, and that a new reasoning has surfaced since. After 1989, it was about these countries aspiring to become like Western Europe. But structural and fundamental cultural, religious, demographic issues have remained. These countries have an ethnic homogeneity that the rest of Europe does not have. If you understand this, you can comprehend how populist forces exploit the notion that, with young people moving to the West, “people in Brussels” want to replace them with Muslims. Which, of course, is total nonsense.

But it seems to work for considerable parts of the population in a number of the Central Eastern European countries. We need to understand why this narrative works. In Central Eastern European countries a small percentage of the population is foreign born, whereas in the rest of Europe it is much higher. This difference has a large impact on peoples’ minds, imagination, dreams, and nightmares. This is something we need to understand. At the same time, an institutional aspect need to be considered. The European constitution is based on values such as freedom of speech, freedom of press, and the independence of justice. These things are in danger in countries such as Hungary or Poland. So we have to use the institutional system of the EU to make sure that things do not drift away. But we also have to understand the frustrations of Central Eastern European countries, who believe that they are not recognized for what they are.

What are the reasons for that frustration and for those differences?

History, culture. Retrospectively, it’s easy for them to say: when the Berlin Wall fell, we had no choice. We had to join. And it’s not them who joined us, it’s us who had to join them.

By “us”, you mean those Central Eastern European countries?

Yes. Not that any of these countries now want to leave the European Union. A very notable change within the far right agenda has occurred, as compared to 10 years ago. At that time, the political right held nationalistic and pro-sovereignty, anti-EU positions. The rhetoric was centered on the message “We have to leave”. Today, 10 years later, that has changed. They are not anti-EU anymore. They are pro-EU. But they’ve grown to a stage of importance in their respective political systems where they can have an ambition to change the EU. Their agenda 10 years ago was to move out of the EU, their agenda today is to change the EU their way. And why? Because they believe their way was sidelined or neglected.

Compared to the history of the Western Europe, 30 years of Central Eastern European democratic experience is not much, and the argument is brought forward that “they just need more time”. Would you agree?

I think they need a bit more understanding from others…

What do you mean by understanding?

An understanding of their identity, of their culture. Why they are who they are. I spent 15 years in Brussels with people wondering what the European identity is. The moment you step out and ask a Brazilian or an Indian or an African, he or she can tell what the European identity is very quickly. But we see our differences. And as long as we bump into the differences without understanding them, which is the only way to overcome them, we have problems.

There are cultural differences. But there are other differences, for instance with regard to the rule of law. The current governments of Poland and Hungary are criticized for disrespecting it. The Romanian government is criticized for efforts to roll back the fight against corruption. There are insurmountable differences on migration policy. Do you see a deeper split behind all those differences, a division regarding values?

No, in the long term I don’t think so. In a long term perspective, the European identity is abouta specific mix of democracy, market economy, strong welfare system, social market economy. This will prevail, because it makes out our identity for the rest of the world. We just have to find a ways to digest these differences that resurfaced in the meantime without slowing the process of the European integration too much.

How is it possible to overcome these differences while keeping one’s identity?

By working two ways. Institutionally, with regard to the rule of law, independence of the judicial system, freedom of the press. There is an Article 7 in the European constitution…

…which foresees the suspension of some rights of EU member states if they do not respect certain values…

…and then there is a softer approach which is about listening to them, understanding them, helping them, hearing their frustrations, why they feel this way. So that more of the Western side understands why we have these phenomena. Negating it is, in my view, stupid. Resorting to sanctions is insufficient. They have to get a signal that this is about following the rules. But they also have to get a signal that we have greater understanding for their frustrations.

From September 2005 to August 2013, Pascal Lamy served for two consecutive terms as Director General of the World Trade Organization (WTO). Pascal Lamy was appointed in 2016 President of the French Committee of the Pacific Economic Cooperation Council (PECC) and chair of the European group of experts in charge of evaluating the impact of EU research funding. He also serves as President emeritus of the Jacques Delors Institute, President of the World Committee on Tourism Ethics, as well as in various positions related to international affairs.

Initiated by the French government, the Paris Peace Forum is concerned with the mechanisms and instruments that create and sustain peace. In innovative conference formats, Heads of State and Government, representatives of international organisations and members of the civil society (associations, NGOs, think tanks, media, companies etc.) will discuss concrete projects, present initiatives and jointly seek feasible solutions. The debates focus on issues such as peace and security, environment, development, digital and new technologies, and the inclusive economy. Following the event, a report presenting recommendations from the different sessions shall be produced, aiming at directly influencing policy formulation. In doing so, the forum seeks to reinforce multilateralism, international cooperation, and – above all – global governance.

With its focus topic »The Value of Europe«, the Körber Foundation contributes to the debate on the past, present, and future of the European project. In various activities with political decision-makers and societal actors, we recognise different points of view and values and identify common ground.

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