Little sympathy for UK's Brexit woes among EU's newest members
Eurosceptics bullish but no deep desire in central Europe to leave EU
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is welcomed by Romanian president Klaus Iohannis during their official meeting at Cotroceni Presidential Palace in Bucharest, last week. Photograph: Robert Ghement/EPA
On a sweltering Bucharest afternoon last week, student Andrei Marinescu sipped iced coffee in a cafe near Romanian government headquarters, where his country’s flag and the Irish Tricolour hung side-by-side in the sultry air.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was here as part of efforts to shore up support for Ireland’s position on Brexit from the nations of central and eastern Europe, which waited many years to join the EU and now watch bemused as the UK tries to leave.
“Maybe it will be good for them. Or maybe it’s their dream that Britain is still a big power with an empire,” said Marinescu, whose hopes of working in the UK could be scuppered by its planned departure from the EU next March.
“We’re on the other side of Europe but of course we want to know what will happen. So many Romanians go to live and work there – what will happen to them? And if Britain does well, will other countries also want to leave?”
If Britain does find the exit on schedule, despite currently struggling to pack its bags or even locate its luggage, then Romania will be EU presidency-holder as 27 remaining members wave farewell to the UK after 46 years in the club.
Collapse of communism
It was membership of this club, with its promise of democracy, prosperity and respect for human rights, that Romania and other former Soviet satellite states set their sights upon after the collapse of communism in eastern Europe in 1989.
Now, more than a decade after they finally joined the EU and with nationalist, eurosceptic leaders ascendant in much of Europe, how do people from the Baltic to the Black Sea see the bloc’s future after the departure of the UK?
“The UK was one of the countries leading the push for Romania and Bulgaria to join the EU in 2007... so it came very much as a surprise for us when the Brits decided to leave,” said Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, a Romanian-born professor of democracy studies at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin.
“For Romanians there was always was one ‘West’ and the fact that one day Britain leaves the EU and now the United States has this rift with Europe – people don’t understand this,” she added, reflecting on US president Donald Trump’s tetchy relations with EU leaders.
The main Brexit concern for Romanians is the welfare of some 400,000 compatriots who now reside in the UK, making them the second-largest group of foreign nationals in the country after one million or so Poles.
Brexit has not fuelled resentment towards Britain or fed any pro-leave movement in Romania, however, even as experience of EU membership has dashed hopes of a swift end to poverty and corruption in the country of 20 million.
“We had very unrealistic expectations in 2007. People would stop me in the street and say ‘So everything’s going to change, right?’” said Mungiu-Pippidi.
“People have become more realistic but I don’t think they’re less pro-European ... Romania is one country in Europe where people are not resentful that Brussels tells us what to do. People still expect a lot of guidance – and a lot of money, also.”
To the northwest in Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland, meanwhile, Eurosceptic parties are making hay by denouncing Brussels’ “meddling” in their affairs, and they cite Brexit as proof that deeper EU integration would be folly.
Leaders in Hungary and Poland have called Brexit part of a “counter-revolution” against the EU, while in the Czech Republic – one of the bloc’s most Eurosceptic states – the far right wants to hold a referendum on “Czexit”.
“The Czech Republic is politically deeply polarised and we have our own bunch of populists who of course welcomed Brexit as a sign of the larger disintegration of Europe,” said Jiri Pehe, director of New York University in Prague.
“But opinion polls show support for the EU has increased in the last year by quite a lot in the Czech Republic, and one reason is the mess in Great Britain,” he added.
“Czechs realise that we are really tied up with the EU and leaving it would probably produce even bigger problems than for Great Britain...So some who thought Czexit would be a good thing are now discouraged by what they see in Britain.”
And while nationalist Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban and populist Czech president Milos Zeman miss no opportunity to deride Brussels and talk up ties with Russia and China, those powers offer no alternative to the hundreds of billions of euro in “cohesion funds” that the EU funnels to its poorer members.
To the north and south, in the Baltic states and the Balkans, EU membership still means more than a steady flow of cash: it represents a historic break with a brutal recent past – Soviet occupation and the Yugoslav wars – and a pledge to prevent such misery being repeated.
When Croatia joined the EU in 2013, Britain restricted its citizens’ access to UK jobs for five years, limiting their exposure to the impact of Brexit and making Germany and Ireland the top destinations for Croats seeking work in another member state.
“I’d summarise the Croatian reaction to Brexit as one of indifference ... because Croatia doesn’t have many vested interests in Britain,” said Tena Prelec, a specialist in southeastern Europe at the London School of Economics and the University of Sussex.
“Croatian people actually view Britain’s decision to leave as quite arrogant and self-centred,” Prelec told The Irish Times from Croatia.
“On the whole, people are sorry Britain is leaving the EU, but there’s also a bit of schadenfreude at how hard a time the UK is having with Brexit negotiations and the leaving process.”
While Croats may not be as deeply connected with the UK as Poles or Romanians, however, Croatian prime minister Andrej Plenkovic spoke for many in central and eastern Europe after meeting Varadkar in Zagreb this week.
For all concerned, he said, Brexit was a “lose-lose-lose situation” from the start.