A new decade of the 20th century has just opened – one of uncertainty brought forth by the global pandemic and its consequences. But it is also one of hope and opportunities for civilisation's recovery, and a chance to create a world that respects the principles of sustained development. Certain areas will become centres of dynamic and positive change, and I am certain that Central Europe will be one of them.
Central Europe (sometimes called Central and Eastern Europe) is the area between the Baltic, Adriatic and Black Seas, or between Germany and Russia. It is a significant regional entity, and a community of shared fate in terms of geography, politics and economy, as well as in terms of ideas and cultures. But above all, we constitute a circle of common memory. We have had our share of shared historical experiences. We have suffered from totalitarianism, but we have also had glorious experiences over the centuries. The 15th-17th centuries, during the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, saw a flourishing of a voluntary political union in a substantial part of the territory – a precursor to the EU of today, which was home to many cultures and faiths and which respected the rule of law, parliamentarianism and democracy. We are carrying lessons from those experiences – both good and bad – into the future as a universal warning as well as inspiration to work towards a common good.
A description of Central Europe’s values is also important. The author Milan Kundera suggestively named Central Europe “a kidnapped West” – that is, a part of western civilisation that found itself under Soviet domination against its will – imperial, authoritarian and unable to manage rationally. It must be emphasised, though, that our commitment to values that have built European culture is not without reflection. We know the high price one must pay for defending them. We are aware that one must cultivate and reconcile freedom and responsibility, rights and duties, individualism and solidarity, the attitude of criticism, innovation and modernisation that describe our identity.
On the threshold of the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, the historian Timothy Garton Ash wrote that the concept of Central Europe has roused the western world from thinking in Cold War terms by challenging common notions and priorities but also offering something new in return. This opinion is as valid today, as the participation of Central European countries in the EU and Nato forms a crucial part of the European and Atlantic order.
If I were to concisely summarise the modern face of Central Europe, including Poland as its largest country, I would say that it is a community of shared success and shared aspirations at the same time.
Central Europe constitutes a perfect example of how powerful and creative freedom is. Freedom and its siblings – economic freedom, entrepreneurship and self-government – open up space for fulfilment of bold ambitions. Development accompanies the progress of freedom. The three decades that have passed since the fall of communism are the story of economic and social advancement of a degree that hardly ever happened over such a short time in world history. Poland and the whole of Central Europe are a fascinating testimony to opportunities that come with freedom.
We can also serve as an inspiring example of how co-operation, joint initiatives and undertakings bring positive results. They have enabled Central Europe to cease being a peripheral area between the West and East, and instead became a structure connected by multiple ties, aware of its interests and influential in European affairs.
There are three important planes of Central European co-operation, significant not just for the region but for the EU, Atlantic and beyond. The first of them is the Visegrad Group, a long-standing entity comprised of Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary. Initiated in 1991 as a platform for political dialogue and co-ordination of efforts to gain membership in Nato and the EU, the Visegrad Group proved useful even after it achieved these goals. Today, it is one of the most important agents in activating co-operation in Central Europe and improving the understanding of European affairs.
The second is the Bucharest Nine, a grouping of Nato’s eastern flank: namely, Poland, Romania, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Bulgaria. It was established in 2015 in Bucharest to secure a “robust, credible and sustainable Allied military presence” in the region. To a large degree, the B9 is a response to Russia’s policies, and to the violations of borders and territorial integrity of the neighbouring Ukraine, which threatens regional and Atlantic security. We are not going to watch it idly.
The third is the Three Seas Initiative, initiated by the President of Croatia, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, and me in 2015. The group comprises countries located between the Baltic, Adriatic and Black Seas. The goal is to make joint investments in infrastructure, transport, energy and new technologies that will boost development in our countries and contribute to the cohesion of the EU. When we look at the map of economic connections within the EU, we see a significant prevalence of horizontal flows along the west-east axis over vertical flows along the north-south axis. This includes flows of people, goods, services and capital, but also infrastructure networks such as expressways, railroads, pipelines, power and IT lines. The Three Seas Initiative aims to fill in the missing elements of the “scaffolding” to strengthen the integration of our region and the entire EU. The fact that, alongside the EU, investors from the US, China and other parts of the world are involved in the Three Seas Initiative ensures diversified benefits and mutual interdependence.
This is both today’s picture and the future vision of Central Europe as a community of shared activities, successes and aspirations. We have travelled a long and successful road – from being a region almost non-existent in the minds of many on the world stage (“in Poland, that is to say, Nowhere", as the French writer Alfred Jarry wrote in late 19th century) to becoming a region that is one of the most dynamic parts of the globe and aspires to being a centre of civilisation. Central Europe – doesn’t the name say it all? We are on a fascinating adventure, and all are invited.
A version of this column will simultaneously appear in the Polish magazine "Wszystko Co Najwazniejsze"
Andrzej Duda is the President of the Republic of Poland