Eastern Europe Is Both Dreading Brexit and Ready for It

In the final days of June 1914, a telegram arrives in a remote garrison town on the border of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. On it is a single sentence in capital letters: “Heir to the throne rumored assassinated in Sarajevo.”

In a moment of disbelief and anxiety, one of the officers begins speaking Hungarian to his compatriots. The others can’t understand a word, but they suspect that the Hungarian is probably not unhappy with the news that Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whom Hungarians see as partial to the empire’s Slavs, cannot now become the next emperor.

Another officer, a Slovene, who has long questioned the loyalty of Hungarians, insists that the conversation be in their common language, German. “I will say it in German,” replies the Hungarian officer. “We are in agreement, my countrymen and I: We can be glad the bastard is gone.”

The scene was fictional — depicted in Joseph Roth’s remarkable novel “The Radetzky March” — but it captures a pivotal moment in European history: the end of the Hapsburg Empire. What Roth’s scene suggests is that the end of the empire was the outcome of decades of political decay, but also a moment of paralyzing uncertainty in the wake of disruptive events. The disintegration that until that moment was unimaginable suddenly seemed inevitable.

Pitched a century forward, Roth’s story is a powerful explanation of why the Brexit referendum is not about the future of Britain alone, but about the future of the European project. What seemed impossible even a year ago now seems fated. The European Union will probably be better run with Britain out, but it is unlikely to survive if the British next week decide to leave.

“The Radetzky March” is particularly apt here because, though the focus after a Leave victory will be on Britain, the real disaster will befall Roth’s literary stamping grounds of Central and Eastern Europe. Indeed, in a very real way, the disintegration of Europe will be set off by Brexit, but it will take place far to the east.

And it will happen here because of the same sort of complex allegiances that Roth depicted. Central and Eastern Europe live a paradox: According to the recent opinion polls, we East Europeans are the ones most friendly to the union, but also the most likely to vote for Brussels-bashing governments. Eastern Europeans want the union to survive because they are among the major beneficiaries of European integration. They would be the biggest losers in economic, political and security terms if integration was reversed.

At the same time Eastern Europeans, who less than three decades ago weathered the collapse of another political project, Soviet Communism, don’t quite trust such border-spanning efforts, and they want to be prepared in case things go awry. They vote for nationalists not because they want them to destroy the European Union but, per Pascal’s wager, because they want to be ready in case the union commits collective suicide.

There’s a form of social psychology at work here. After seven decades of stability, Western Europeans tend to believe in the resilience of institutions. Eastern Europeans don’t share that confidence. In a sense the European Union is like a married couple (Western Europe and Eastern Europe) who go through a nasty spell whenever some of the family money is lost in the stock market. The memories of their great romantic past have faded and most of their friends (read: the United States) are preoccupied with their own problems. If the family therapist wants to help the couple preserve their marriage, she has to be aware that one of the partners (Eastern Europe) previously endured an awful divorce. And the feeling that what happens today is simply a repetition of what happened before will, to a great extent, define that partner’s expectations.

I was a philosophy student in my final year at Sofia University when the Bulgarian Communist regime collapsed. That sudden and nonviolent end of something that we were sure was forever — until overnight, like the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it was not — is probably the defining experience of my generation. It brought not only a feeling of liberation but also the sense of the fragility of all things political.

True, comparing the current crisis in the European Union with the Soviet and Yugoslav crises of the late 1980s can be a bit like comparing apples and oranges. By its final years, Communism and the regimes had long since lost their ideological appeal, and their capacity to deliver economic growth was exhausted. In 1990, only 11 percent of all consumer goods in the Soviet Union could be found easily in shops, while there was a shortage of the other 89 percent. In contrast, the European Union is the biggest single market in the world, and Europe accounts for half of the world’s welfare spending. Whereas a majority of Soviet citizens were attracted by life in the West, Europeans are proud of their way of life and political model, and hardly aspire to follow the trajectory of China or Russia.

But ordinary people — unlike political scientists — are constantly comparing apples and oranges. They live in a world populated by dangerous analogies where every major crisis evokes memories of the previous one. And the experience of the Communist collapse strongly influences the way Eastern Europeans perceive and process Brexit. As Roth would understand immediately, the psychological impact of the British referendum is more important than any of the economic or institutional damages it can cost.

Ivan Krastev is the chairman of the Center for Liberal Strategies, a permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna, and a contributing opinion writer.

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