Last month, Moldova and Ukraine were granted candidate status by the EU. Cue much back-slapping and cheering from Brussels. But the self-congratulation masked a very different reality. For starters, neither Ukraine nor Moldova is likely to ever join the EU, certainly not on terms either would find acceptable, while both would quickly be disabused of the true nature of the EU’s politics if they ever did join. It all comes down to a cultural Iron Curtain which now cleaves the bloc in two, between a secular and progressive west, and a conservative, largely Slavic and overwhelmingly Catholic east.
Despite talk of “European values” then, there is disagreement about what these actually are. For someone like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, they are bound up with Christianity and opposition to mass immigration, something which has put him on a collision course with progressive Brussels. Soon after coming to power, Orbán oversaw a new constitution with references to God, Christianity and family values; funded Catholic schools, and banned content deemed to promote LGBT issues to under-18s. Hungary has largely been joined in its efforts by Poland, a country with which it was united under Louis the Great in the 14th Century and Władysław III in the 15th. Poland – with its Catholicism and traditionalism – has long been on the EU naughty step with Hungary, somewhere Ukraine would likely find itself as well.
Central and eastern Europe have long entertained hopes of defending their sovereignty against what they see as ideological encroachments. Orbán himself proposed a major restructuring of the European Parliament, which he described as a “dead-end” for democracy, while building a “democracy of democracies based on European nations”, meaning delegates from national parliaments able to block EU legislation. This echoes the sentiments of former Slovenian Prime Minister, Janez Janša, who last year warned that imposing “imaginary European values” on central Europe could lead to the EU’s collapse. He added: “We are not a colony – we are not second-class members of the EU.” Ultimately however, the EU is unlikely to cede to devolution demands. The EU is western Europe’s club and they have made the rules.
Today then, two “Europes” now exist. Yet while much is made of the financial benefits of EU membership, most central and eastern EU states are likely to become net contributors to the EU by 2030. Hungarian Finance Minister Hungary Mihály Varga has already warned that Budapest could reassess EU membership in light of this. Moreover, since most central and eastern EU states never joined the euro, they could more easily extricate themselves from the bloc. Even western European leaders can see the tensions. Last year Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte warned that Hungary “has no business being in the European Union any more”, in reference to the country’s LGBT laws. In 2020, Rutte even hinted at an EU without Hungary and Poland.
If this divided house cannot stand – but if Ukraine needs a ‘European’ home – the eastern EU states may decide to form a parallel confederation, linked by trade with the ‘western EU’ but operating under its own rules. Yes, support for EU membership remains high in the EU’s east but this is for an EU respecting national sovereignty, suggesting support for a bloc but one based on very different values. Despite the Orthodox faith of Ukraine and Moldova – as well as EU states Bulgaria and Romania – their values align more with Catholic Hungary and Poland than post-Christian western Europe. The election of a Hungarian Pope could energise the cause. Any union could build upon structures such as the Visegrád Group, and would have grounding in the ‘Intermarium’ concept to unite central and eastern Europe as a third pole between western Europe and Russia. The Intermarium is based on the old Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which once had ambitions to bring a liberalised Russia into the fold.
Kyiv then is likely to find its final EU acceptance letter lost in the post. Western Europe clearly fears another Hungary or Poland in its midst. The central and eastern Europeans, by contrast, have championed Ukrainian membership, no doubt hopeful of the balance tilting in their favour. These countries now find themselves both literally and metaphorically on the EU’s periphery, but developed enough to leave, and with historical precedents for unity. Where such a union would leave the secularising but Eurosceptic Italy is up for debate. But if a new Catholic-led super-state is to emerge in Europe it will likely be in the conservative east, in what would become a lodestar for traditionalists, Catholics and other Christians across western Europe and the US. As Orbán himself said: “whereas thirty years ago we believed Europe was our future, today we understand that we are Europe’s future.”
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