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Is the reunification of Europe under challenge?

Of the divisions that have emerged within the European Union the most serious of these is undoubtedly the one now dividing the East and the West.

With the exception of the exemplary Baltic States, which are lively democracies reinvented after a period of Soviet occupation, a club of Member States, whose present governments are openly questioning the principles and practices of Western democracy, is now forming, setting themselves up as an alternative model: "illiberalism". In Central Europe the political movements that have taken power and which are changing the laws and constitutions to ensure that they stay there, illustrate to us daily the how difficult it is to emerge from totalitarianism.

Democracy means rules, that of the rule of law, i.e. an independent legal system - it also means the acceptance of the neutrality of the civil service, checks and balances, contestation, a pluralist press, opposition movements, or even quite simply, opposition, and a wealth of other things that are gained after a long process and agreed in the European treaties. Some in Central Europe are turning their back on this model to which they adhered when they signed the treaties. They are theorising, with naîve confidence, a very formal idea of democracy which finds its origins in punctilious nationalism, a response adopted against the supposed lax attitude of the West, demagogic, provocative narratives - true populism. The leaders of these countries are undermining Europe at a time when it is facing extremely powerful States, which are themselves already adepts of autocracy, or like Turkey, are heading to the abyss of authoritarianism.

This might simply remain a violent political debate, in which unacceptable excesses occur - such as the Polish Prime Minister's declarations about the Shoah - if it were not that European solidarity is being seriously damaged.

However, the leaders of these States are indeed organising questionable factionalism. In their attempts to achieve autonomy in terms of external policy they are thoughtlessly playing into the hands of China, Russia and even Donald Trump. They are setting off on paths against the European Union, which is more prudent - along the "Silk Road", they are making nuclear deals with Russia, they are compromising themselves with Turkey and see their defence only under the American umbrella. Their attitude towards refugees, which is legally objectionable, is especially morally reprehensible. This is also the case from an economic point of view, since their demography is declining in all areas, and they are losing citizens, who prefer to leave their country behind. Their dramatic failure to meet their obligations reflect a serious drift that is detrimental to their populations, and this cannot find justification in the attitude of other Europeans.

European political solidarity has been expressed unfailingly, including on a military level, in the protection their borders in the East. Europe has generously financed the economic "catch-up" of these countries at great cost. The major structural fund and investment programmes of the European Union have totalled 1000 billion € since 2004. They have benefited from the major share of this.  60% of Polish public investment between 2014 and 2020 will have been achieved with European money to a total of 86 billion € over 7 years. During this period, Hungary will have received 25 billion, Slovakia 15 and the Czech Republic 23. These 150 billion represent a 2,700 € per capita donation to their citizens from the European taxpayers. In spite of the care taken by the European institutions, which have sometimes gone as far as suspending the payment of these commitments, which have not always been wisely or well used explain the recovery of Central Europe, which is also, it is true, in the interest of all of Europe and firstly of the citizens of the poorest countries.

But we shall not be able to prevent public opinion in the West, likewise their governments, from demanding renewed commitment by those who might seem to be ungrateful "profiteers" of a Europe that is also facing financial difficulties. In the spring some tough negotiating will take place over the 7-year financial perspective. It will be difficult to prevent a balancing of the behaviour of these governments, who we must not confuse with their citizens, against the generosity of the contributing countries.

Because not only are the founding principles but also national, social, foreign policy and defence, economic and financial interests at stake. It will especially involve showing that the reunification of the continent has been a success, whilst enlargement is increasingly contested.