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East Central Europe: liberalism gone missing – or just never there?

Refugees welcome hashtag

Spread of #refugeeswelcome 3 September 2015

This commentary on liberalism and the responses to the refugee crisis in East Central Europe was co-authored with James Dawson.

 Images from Hungary showing security forces turning tear gas and water cannon on refugees from behind a newly fortified border will come as little surprise to many observers of East Central Europe.  The government of Victor Orbán has systematically exploited the refugee crisis to ramp up a long-standing rhetoric of nationalist intolerance and consolidate its grip on power by passing a raft of emergency powers, further eroding Hungary’s once robust legal checks and balances. Such actions have drawn a storm of international opprobrium – including harsh criticism from the governments of Austria, Croatia and Serbia, all of which have taken a more humane and pragmatic approach to managing the influx of refugees.

Few criticisms of Hungary’s actions have come from neighbouring EU states in East Central Europe still widely seen as front runners in liberal political and economic reform. Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic initially opted to close ranks with Orbán to head off the European Commission’s proposals for compulsory quotas. Wrong-footed and exasperated by the sudden re-discovery of liberal compassion on the part on Germany and other West European governments, leaders ranging from Slovakia’s social democratic prime minister Robert Fico to Poland’s newly elected conservative president Andrzej Duda provoked astonishment in Western European capitals by conceding that they might take a handful of those fleeing the war in Syria hand-picked on the basis of their religion. Poland has lately broken ranks by responding to pressure from Berlin, Paris and Brussels to sign up to quotas, yet even the deal’s supporters doubt it will ever be implemented against a backdrop of consistently hostile public attitudes towards refugees in the region. As one social media visualisation graphically showed, widespread use of #refugeeswelcome stopped abruptly at the old Iron Curtain. Such stances have been widely lambasted as hypocritical, ungenerous, lacking in compassion, and contradicting the long-term interests of East Central European states themselves.

Yet just a decade ago these same former Eastern bloc countries acceded smoothly to the EU on the basis that they had fulfilled the Copenhagen Criteria as ‘functioning liberal democracies’. Why has liberalism, once a rallying cry for pro-European leaders from Warsaw to Sofia and a condition built into the EU’s demanding  pre-accession acquis, suddenly gone missing when it is needed most? Read More…

>Czech Republic: Green Card law opens left-right split on immigration

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One of the more interesting developments in recent Czech politics has been the recent passing of a law creating a new system of ‘Green cards’ for non-EU nationals, skilled or unskilled, to fill job vacancies that cannot be filled within 30 days by Czech or EU citizens. The measure will streamline bureaucratic processes as the cards are to serve as combined work and residence permits, but, seemingly, seem to represents a reversal of earlier Czech policies of creaming off educated migrants from outside the EU to boost the country’s human capital. Instead, it seems Czechs (and other EU-ers) will gain the qualifications and do the high-end stuff, while migrants, as old Western Europe may do the dirty and unpleasant work. This all fits with market principles – the current government is broadly centre-right – and World Bank recommendations to addressing the CR’s ageing population and already high levels of older people working.

Most interesting, however, is the political divisions that the debate opened up, which tended to reverse the left-right splits more commonly seen in Western Europe: the Czech left, in the form of the main opposition Czech Social Democrats, is opposed not on the usual grounds of maintaining wages and labour standards, but also on the somewhat populist (not to say racist) grounds that non-European migrants will bring crime, disease and social disorder. Controversial ex-Health Minister (and doctor) David Rath evoked a nightmare scenario of rising unemployment (among Czechs) and hospital wards full of AIDS and TB ridden immigrants. “Do we want to focus recruitment on regions where AIDS rates are around 50-60% of the active population?” he asked in a perhaps less than subtle headline-grabbing attempt to warn Czechs that migrants might be black Africans. Always a bête noire for the right, Rath was then lambasted by the centre-right deputies as Czech Jean- Marie Le Pen in the making or a reincarnation of the former Republican leader Dr Miroslav Sládek whose far-right party crashed out of the Czech parliament in 1998.

There is perhaps a rational argument somewhere below the surface here: there would be social and policy consequences of migration in a small rather mono-ethnic society, which would a strategy and some serious public policy thinking. But what is striking is the Social Democrats’ immediate instinctive – and politically acute – response tuning in to chauvinist and populist positions which will play well with much of their electorate. Will this, I wonder, in the longer term open the door to the far-right, whose main preoccupation is still fulminating about the Roma minority? A distinct possibility as the Communist party sinks for demographic reasons into slow decline – especially the Social Democrats eventually emerge as the stronger of the two main parties and hold office for 2-3 terms.

Rath, I should perhaps add, is probably best known for fisticuffs it with equally controversial dentist-turned-politician Miroslav Macek, who walked up to him thumped him at health conference for suggesting that Macek had married his second wife for her money – click on picture above for the incident – but this display of cojones (“You’re a coward Dr Macek – why didn’t you face up to me like a man?”) probably did him no harm in eyes of the voters. Rath for my money is a shrewd and effective politician, who came to prominence – in somewhat more centrist political persona – in the 1990s as leader of junior doctor’s trade union and later headed up the Czech Medical Association.

It will be interesting to see what stance President Klaus takes on the Green Cards issue. His previous statements about multi-culturalism would suggest that – as on some other issues – his view may overlap in key respects with those of the left.

>Warsaw Voice: Polish government to lure migrants home

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Just as a follow up to my earlier post on CEE politicians fishing for ex-pat votes, I see the latest issue of the Warsaw Voice carries the following story by Andrzej Ratajczyk:
“Luring Back Expat Workers
10 October 2007
As the country starts to suffer from labor shortages, the government is trying to entice expatriate Poles back home.With the economy growing at more than six percent and investment soaring, employers are finding it increasingly difficult to attract suitably qualified staff even though unemployment is still hovering around 12 percent. This is partly because thousands of Poles have gone abroad in search of greener pastures since several EU countries opened their labor markets to them. This has depleted some rapidly expanding industries and several regions of manpower despite wages having grown substantially.Foreign investors pumped 6.2 billion euros into Poland during the first half of this year, 27 percent more than over the same period last year. Foreign corporations created more than 31,000 jobs in Poland last year, more than anywhere else in Europe, according to Ernst & Young, and companies with foreign capital employ around 1.2 million people.More than 50 percent of the companies recently surveyed by KMPG are directly affected by labor shortages and half of them have lost staff to better pay and development opportunities abroad. What employers most need is people qualified in information technology, finance and logistics. The country is also short of machine operators, construction site workers, electricians, locksmiths and other skilled laborers. Poland is lacking around 300,000 skilled workers, mainly in the construction and services industries, according to the Migration Department of the Ministry of Labor and Social Policy.The ministry estimates that 1.2 million Poles are working abroad, mainly in Britain (310,000), Ireland and Germany (160,000 each). “According to our research, 20 percent of the 1.2 million Poles working abroad intend to return home, 20 percent want to stay abroad for good, and the remaining 60 percent are undecided,” said Labor Minister Joanna Kluzik-Rostkowska during a recent conference on labor emigration. “We want to encourage them to come back. The average age of Poles working abroad is 26 and most of them are doing jobs for which they are overqualified. If Poland can offer them the right opportunities then they will return.”The ministry has drawn up a program entitled “Return” which provides a range of incentives for returning Poles to start up their own businesses. These include a two-year exemption from paying income tax and contributing to disability pension and labor funds. Old age pension contributions will also be reduced by a third for those who work in firms employing fewer than nine people. Applicants must have been abroad for at least a year to be eligible.”It’s vital that we encourage people to come back now as people make that decision of whether to stay or return during their first five years in a foreign country,” said Kluzik-Rostkowska. “This means that young Poles will be weighing up whether they want to return to Poland over the next two or three years.” Kluzik-Rostkowska says that family policy and the labor and housing markets will have to be improved if emigrants are going to be lured back. The ministry has set up websites (www.powroty.gov.pl, www.migracje.gov.pl and www.polacy.gov.pl) outlining basic information about the countries where Poles are working as well as the employment situation in Poland. The ministry will also be setting up an EU-financed online employment bureau at the end of the year where employers will be able to post job vacancies and applicants will be able to submit their CVs.The ministry is also planning to open special informational and advisory outlets at Polish embassies in the countries where most Poles are working, to hold job fairs and promotional activities for emigrants, and to develop Polish education abroad so that emigrants do not lose their ties with their homeland.The government’s efforts are driven by a number of factors not least of which is a desire to staunch the burgeoning brain drain. Lower GDP and higher inflation are the main long-term costs of economic emigration, according to a ministerial report on the subject.Reducing unemployment through emigration will strengthen the bargaining power of workers, and this may increase wages pressure in the current climate of rapid economic growth.Migration has its upside too. Monetary transfers to Poland stimulate the economy. The influx of foreign currency strengthens the zloty, improves the current-account balance, and makes Poland appear less risky in the eyes of foreign investors.Other benefits include increased demand for Polish exports, more business contacts and the work experience brought to Poland by returning emigrants.The main benefit of emigration, however, is a fall in unemployment.”

>Slovakia: open for business, open for immigration?

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As Tim Haughton and Darina Malová point out in the latest issue of Slovak Foreign Policy Affairs, even under the lefty nationalist/populist government of Robert Fico, Slovakia is – thanks to pressures of key business groups and its low wage, high(ish) pattern model of integration into the European economy – very open for business. And, logically, but said unusually publicly, it is also open for migration, at least if you happen to be a Ukrainian with skills in the construction industry.
Consistent with Haughton and Malová’s stress on brute business interests as akey social determinant of government policy, a recent issue of Sme reports growing pressure from Slovak employers to open up the Slovak labour market to Ukrainian migrants on a longer term basis, revising the current system whereby most work permits for Ukrainians are issued non-renewably for only one year. Some business leaders even want the quotas restricting Ukrainian migration abolished altogether.

The shortages seem to be for semi-skilled labour predictably, in the construction, manufacturing, garment and agricultural fields. Despite the nationalist colouration of much Slovak politics, the potential growth in Ukrainian migration seems to be received with equanimity by most of the political spectrum with the key obstacle seemingly how quickly Ukrainian and Slovak officials can re-negotiate the technicalities of the existing bilateral agreement dating from 1994 (not very, is the answer there). The most revealing and interesting remark, however, is the comment attributed to Alexander Duleba of the liberal-leaning Slovak Foreign Policy Association thinktank that ‘It is in our interests to have Ukrainians here rather than people from non-European countries, who will pose a problem of integration in terms of culture and customs’. The subtext seemingly being that Slovakia should hoover up the limited supplies of suitably qualified, culturally assimilable migrants before other competitor countries in the CEE region do. However, as Ukraine itself has an ageing population and labour shortages of its own emerging in fields like the construction industry, I doubt whether even the most liberal open door policy to post-Soviet neighbours will avert the need for migration from points further East (and South).

>Migration and multi-culturalism inevitable say Czech commentators

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Rare to find voices in the Czech media and blogosphere explicitly defending multi-culturalism and advocating (more) open migration policies, but today I found two in one day. František Kostlán tells readers of his blog for the excellent online newspaper http://www.aktualne.cz/ that short of a renewed totalitarian regime multiculturalism – which he takes to mean the reality of people with different cultures co-existing – is inevitable. Although his main targets are the predictable hordes of xenophobic Czech bloggers, he does, however, slightly spoil the effect by trying in the usual manner of ex-dissident journalists to present his view as centrist, non-ideological practical solution standing between ideologies of left and right. There is, he thinks, a supposed left-wing ideology of dissolving dominant domestic national culture as well as the right-wing nationalist one of pulling up the drawbridge and trying to maintain the purity of a hermetically sealed, pure national culture. This, however, rather ducks the slightly more substantive conservative critique of multi-cultural policies (picked by Václav Klaus) which centres on the status of group rights and the question of acceptable degrees of diversity and the impact of ethnic and cultural diversity of social cohesion. Robert Putnam’s recent findings about the inverse relationship (which he discusses in an interesting if slow moving Guardian podcast) highlight this, although as Putnam notes what this show is not the inherently defective nature of culturally diverse societies per se ultimately as how define and construct the social identities that matter – decades ago religion was the key, divisive social dividing line in the US, now it is ethnic origin.

The second piece I saw by Věra Roubalová Kostlánová – whose name, although I’ve only just noticed the fact, suggests she may be married to Kostlán – appeared in Lidové noviny and criticized the new Aliens Act in the Czech Republic – and the broader philosophy of restricting and discouraging (non-EU) migration that underlies it. Such restriction she argues are based on a grossly exaggerated view of the amount of crime committed by non-Czechs and tends to reinforce the very phenomenon it seeks to control, by criminalizing migrants and pushing towards reliance on mafias and criminal groups. Increasing the discretionary power of the Czech Immigration Service (cizinecká police) she suggests simply increases opportunities and openings for official corruption. A new two year restriction on access to social benefits for foreign (non-EU) spouses of Czech citizens and their children as a measure against bogus marriage, she argues, is pointless as it will target the group of foreign citizens most likely to integrate into Czech society.

>German lessons for Czech immigration policy?

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Luboš Palata, Central European correspondent of the Czech right-wing daily Lidové noviny is one of the more readable Czech journalists: his coverage of the Visegrad countries has a quality born of consistency rarely found in Western print media, which tend to have generic East European correspondents with wide beats who hop from crisis to crisis or election to election. His coverage of Robert Fico’s official visit to Libya, for example, was both enlightening and amusing. Palata’s commentary in the electronic edition of today’s LN on migration in the new EU is also interesting, although I’m not sure if I entirely trust its logic and conclusions.

Noting that renewed economic growth and a shortage of skilled professionals has at last led Germany to open its doors to well qualified citizens of the new member states in CEE, Palata notes that the Czech Republic has ‘conquered another bastion’ in its struggle to win acceptance as a normal Western country. The sting in the tail is that the Germans may be creaming off the very skilled people the CR badly needs for its own economic modernization. The knock on effect he thinks will be to create economic pressure to recruit migrants into the CR. But, he warns, the country needs a small quantity of high quality, high skilled migrants not a general opening up or a policy of promoting immigration. Here, he thinks, the CR should learn from the Germans.

Reading this, I couldn’t help wondering if this was actually not simply another reflection of Czech fears of large scale future immigration disguised as an argument about economic modernization. After all Germany is rarely cited as a model of anything in Czech right-wing liberal circles and the Czech Republic already has precisely such a programme to allow skilled non-EU migrants to settle in the country, but bureaucracy and the limited attraction of the CR in terms of living standards and broad opportunities have seen only a trickle of such highly skilled migrants..

Some of Palata’s more usual journalism on CEE is now coming out in English translation in Transitions Online and English summaries and links to Czech (and occasionally Slovak and Polish) originals can be found on the Eurotopics website here.