On the Road 2011: Day Six

May 30, 2011

By hammersmith

Each summer the Flinn Scholars Program takes an entire class of Scholars to Budapest, Hungary, and neighboring Slovakia and Serbia for a three-week seminar on the emerging democracies of Eastern Europe. Here’s a day-by-day account.

Alan Mackey (’06)

We started off our full day today in Bratislava with a walk through the city, followed by a visit to the Slovak Foreign Policy Association, an independent foreign policy think tank. Our session there regarding The Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, was led by Vladimir Bilcik.

Bilcik focused on some of his recent research on these new member states (NMS) and their role in the EU, continuing and expanding a discussion we begain three days ago in Budapest. Generally, these NMS began their EU accession talks with a great deal of enthusiasm (or EU-phoria), but in some countries this eagerness has waned since entry. Their political culture still leans pro-integration in most issues, barring a few exceptions in social policy and taxation. Bilcik ventured that this was due to the communist past of these NMS; they have much to gain from their positions in the EU, but are still reluctant to hand over the right to choices they just earned with their independence from the Soviet Union.

The part of this discussion I found most interesting regarded foreign policy in these NMS, which find themselves torn between East and West. For them, membership in the EU offers a new sense of security– Slovakia is a very young country, not even 20 years old, and Hungary is still very conscious of territory it lost to its neighbors after World War I. At the same time, both rely heavily on natural gas and oil from Russia, which influences their policy goals. On this and some other issues the NMS act as fence-sitters, but generally have not slowed down larger EU initiatives.

I was surprised to hear some pessimism from Bilcik (or at least what I took to be pessimism) about the future of the EU. The current financial problems in Greece seemed to worry him, because if Greece were to be kicked out of the Euro-zone he fears it could compromise the entire monetary union. He also questions the effectiveness of the monetary union because the EU lacks fiscal policy entirely.

After the lecture we split into smaller groups for lunch, followed by a walking tour of old town Bratislava which led us back to our hostel for a media workshop with Michael J Jordan. A journalist currently living in the city, Jordan has spent most of the last 18 years in Central Europe and offered our cohort insights into the changes still taking place in the wake of communism. We also discussed how these changes, including a rise in unemployment and widening of the gap between the richest and poorest, have colored Hungarian and Slovakian attitudes toward the EU. Jordan related his own story of how he came to be a foreign correspondent in this region, then shared with us some of his personal writing strategies in a media workshop where we brainstormed and refined ideas for articles of our own.

Dinner with the group followed the media workshop, and many of us ate with Slovakian students before exploring Bratislava by night. This first major city following Budapest on our itinerary offered each of us a new perspective on the Central European region in general, highlighting the gradient in political and cultural attitudes along the Danube.