Seven Central and Eastern European leaders highlighted the region’s growing clout in the EU at the Leaders’ Panel. They stressed that it is a force to be reckoned with, economically and politically, in the post-COVID-19 era and highlighted the importance of true solidarity between all member states. One major point of discussion was double standards used when it comes to the region, in particular with regard to the rule of law.
H.E. Mr Janez Janša, Prime Minister of the Republic of Slovenia, said it was “dangerous to use double standards,” noting that in 2014 when he was in prison during the Slovenian general election, nobody had talked about stolen elections in Slovenia or political prisoners. Mr Janša said the real challenges that Europe faces are different than challenges that those which are being discussed, a reference to extensive debates in recent years about rule of law proceedings against Hungary and Poland. Asked about the accountability of politics to the public, Janša said it has been clear since the dawn of Ancient Greek democracy who the real public are: the voters, not artificially created publics such as NGOs.
H.E. Mr Mateusz Morawiecki, Prime Minister of the Republic of Poland, noted that thirty years after the democratic transformation began in the region, there was still “a very peculiar approach” to these countries. He said the region needed to maintain solidarity and unity, and at the same time be part of the European Union. Highlighting the Three Seas Initiative, he said: “We’re not against anybody, but we have our problems and we have to take care of them.” As for the state of the rule of law and democracy, Mr Morawiecki rejected the notion of polarisation arguing that this was normal democracy. “We’re not nationalists, populists … it’s simply a different approach in the post-communist world.”
H.E. Mr Viktor Orbán, Prime Minister of Hungary, asked about the state of democracy in his country, said Hungary’s democracy was just as good as Germany’s or Italy’s by objective measures, it just nurtures a distinct conservative, Christian democratic approach. “We would like to get back to the age intellectually when we can openly discuss issues” such as religion and family,” he said about the “intellectual sovereignty” promulgated by his government. Commenting on the Article 7 proceedings against Hungary, Orbán said such procedures were a simple matter of resolving disputes in line with the EU treaties. “If a member state has a dispute with an [EU] institution, they have to go to the court. It is very simple.”
H.E. Mr Andrej Plenković, Prime Minister of the Republic of Croatia, when asked whether Croatia as the presiding EU country in the first half of this year should have taken a firmer stand on rule of law, said he had not noticed any disappointment with its stance. “Everything that had to be undertaken was undertaken… We’ve never seen any signal anything is wrong with our values and policies.”
H.E. Mr Andrej Babiš, Prime Minister of the Czech Republic, suggested that the rule of law debate was misplaced, noting that discussions should instead have focused on results. He said Czechia was among the best countries in fighting Covid-19, had low unemployment and debt. “We have results.”
H.E. Mr Aleksandar Vučić, President of the Republic of Serbia, noting the different reactions of the western press to the actions of the authorities when protesters stormed the Serbian parliament and now that they tried to storm the German parliament. He said Serbia immediately stood accused by being a dictatorship, whereas Germany was not.
Looking ahead, some of the panellists stressed that the region was growing in importance politically and economically.
Mr Morawiecki suggested Eastern Europe was being scapegoated because it is successful and increasingly competitive, and therefore perceived as a kind of threat by the western member states. “But competition is good internally in the EU, through this the whole EU becomes more competitive,” he said. Mr Morawiecki also noted that the EU’s fundamental freedoms were well implemented, except for the freedom of services, an area where Eastern European Countries can have a competitive edge. “Things in favour of richer countries are completed, but freedom of services is not yet completed. This is where [Central and Eastern European] countries could more quickly catch up,” he said.
Mr Babiš said rapid action was needed to solve Brexit, bilateral relations with Russia and Turkey, the trade deficit with China and strike a trade agreement with the US. In general, he stressed that the EU needed to work hard on trade “We desperately need trade agreements.”
Mr Orbán called for a three-pronged approach to affirming Europe’s position on the global stage: it has to work on technological development, military capabilities and on enlargement to complete its security architecture. “To have the best technology, you need a military background and Europe is totally out of that competition.” He also stressed that without accepting Serbia in its midst, Europe cannot complete its security architecture.
Mr Vučić meanwhile dismissed the notion that Serbia was not very keen on joining the bloc. He said it remained committed to the European path but expected more respect from the EU. He also noted, however, that some 40% of people in Serbia were indeed against EU membership, but this is mainly because “they see it as an organisation that is putting pressure on Kosovo independence”.
Touching on the EU’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, the leaders stressed that member states took the lead in the early stages of the crisis, which was the right thing to do, as it took the EU a long time for a common response.
H.E. Mr Boyko Borissov, Prime Minister of the Republic of Bulgaria, said the EU should now come up with a common medical protocol so that member states react in unison. “I propose we urgently set up a medical shield … when the code it red, all EU should act the same way,” he said, adding that the most important fight now was over the health of the people.
Mr Janša said the fight against the pandemic should be the main short-term concern. “How to keep our people safe, how to best prepare for the next pandemic … this will be one of our priorities,” he said in view of Slovenia’s upcoming presidency of the EU.
H.E. Mr Giuseppe Conte, President of the Council of Ministers of the Italian Republic, said if there was one lesson the EU learned in the pandemic, it is the value of solidarity. Italy was the first country to be hit in a very hard way by the pandemic, and the country and its citizens have shown great resilience, adopting a model of containment that proved useful to many other countries. Mr Conte, participating via videolink, acknowledged that it was sometimes difficult to coordinate with so many countries, but noted than in the past, crises sometimes represented a powerful impetuous to shape a stronger and more cohesive European response. “This is a chance for a stronger, more cohesive union,” he said.
Ms Kristalina Georgieva, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), meanwhile emphasised the global response to the pandemic, which instils optimism. “A crisis like no other has generated a response like no other from leaders all over the world. What has been done has been phenomenal,” she said about a combined global fiscal stimulus of eleven trillion dollars to counter the effects of the pandemic. “I want people to take pride in this incredible response. If we did not do it, there would be a massive wave of bankruptcies.”
Mr Thomas Bach, President, International Olympic Committee (IOC), stressed in his video address the need to keep sport in mind in post-corona measures, and the lessons sports holds for such a response. “We need more solidarity – solidarity within society and solidarity among societies… Solidarity is at the heart of the Olympic games. In these times Olympic values can give us all good guidance.” He said in societies recovering from the pandemic, sport was ready to “help build a more human-centric society”.