Château Béla 2015

Chateau Bela is a distinctive security conference. Held in the depths of the Slovak countryside in December, it is small (invitations are coveted) and features intimate, frank discussions among participants who have known each other for years, even decades.

The mood has been growing grimmer each year I have attended. We have seen the financial crisis deal a huge blow to the credibility of the West’s economic model. Vladimir Putin’s revanchist foreign policy has long threatened Russia’s western neighbourhood. The failure of the EU and NATO to appreciate the threat, and deal with it, has made it worse. The weakness of American leadership is now almost taken for granted: though our distinguished American participants are welcome, we do not expect them to solve our problems for us.

Of course there has been good news too. Thanks to German leadership we have serious sanctions on Russia. The EU has dealt formidable blows to Gazprom’s abusive and market-distorting export policy—the Slovak vice-president of the European Commission responsible for energy, Maroš Šefčovič., is a Chateau Bela alumnus. NATO now takes territorial defence seriously. Ukraine is still hanging on.

But the big worry this year is a new one. The migration crisis and terror attacks have highlighted the growing gulf between the liberal elite that has run Europe for decades and the public. The process of European integration, which once seemed inevitable and unstoppable, has not just stalled. It is going into reverse. Sacred, untouchable principles, such as the absence of internal border controls within the Schengen zone, have been breached. The public cares about keeping life safe and predictable much more than it cares about adhering to the liberal nostrums that underpin the European order. It may also care more about being safe than it cares about preserving some jealously guarded freedoms, such as the right to stay private.

So chill winds were blowing through the warm rooms of Chateau Bela. The discussions were all under the Chatham House rule, meaning that everything can be mentioned but nothing attributed. But three points stood out. The first was migration. Slovakia is finding it hard to accommodate even a handful of Syrian families, handpicked for their Christian faith (one wonders what the founder of the religion would have said about that).

Yet outside the Chateau, Slovakia is an exemplary multi-lingual and multi-cultural country. The Christmas fair happening in another part of the castle grounds was happening in Slovak and Hungarian. So was the church service in the castle chapel on Sunday.  The problem is not prejudice, it is mistrust.  The public does not believe that the state is going to handle migration properly. So they oppose it, and the politicians quickly follow the public mood. Sentiment in the Czech Republic and Poland is hardening. In Hungary it has already hardened.

This leads onto the second problem, much chewed over in the discussion sessions: the renationalisation of policy. In the past, leaders of the CEE countries were happy to outsource swathes of decision-making to Brussels, in return for large amounts of money and the right to sit at the top table with the rich countries. That is now over. Politicians now want to make the decisions that immediately meet the needs of their electorates. The awe once felt towards Brussels has ebbed; in its place is apathy, even contempt.

This is corroding the rules-based order on which the EU (and NATO) rely. Of course European countries have habitually broken the rules for their own convenience over many years (think German deficits, or French protectionism). But these have been aberrations, not the norm. Now we seem to be moving into an era in which countries feel it is normal to break the rules.

Of course the rules are often silly and applied badly. I have sympathy for Hungary, for example, in the question of the border fence. Spain has a colossal fence protecting its two tiny exclaves in North Africa. Nobody says that is shocking or racist. A double standard all too often applies to ex-communist countries.

That is partially in evidence with the third big issue at this year’s Chateau Bela: Poland. That country matters more than any other in the region. It is the linchpin of security planning, the biggest economy, the loudest voice in the EU and NATO. But the new government has made a dreadful impression in its first few weeks. I think much of the criticism is unfair. Poles have every right to boot out a bad government, and the outgoing Civic Platform coalition was visibly threadbare, tolerated shocking sleaze, made dreadful decisions (such as confiscating private pensions to plug the public finances) and on occasion abused its power. It is true that it made a big effort to please other countries, but outsiders cannot expect Poland to be run for their convenience.

I think the likelihood is that the Law and Justice government settles down after a bumpy few months. It will find that pursuing conspiracy theories about the Smolensk plane crash in 2010, and trying to jail its political opponents, are a distraction from the huge and pressing challenges the country faces. The dilemmas and constraints of power are a great reality check.

Yet I still worry. Poland’s institutions need to be stronger, not weaker. The new government had a great chance to put criminal justice, intelligence, public broadcasting and the constitutional court into the hands of respected neutral figures. Instead it has packed them with its placemen. For a party that aspires to higher standards of probity in public life, that is a shame.

Moreover, the institutional framework in which Poland is working is now weaker. Outsiders have less time, energy and inclination to work with the new government in Warsaw. If Law and Justice chooses to break the rules, little stands in its way.

So we left Chateau Bela feeling grateful to our hosts but gloomy about the future. But not despairing. I was a foreign correspondent in Communist Czechoslovakia; I remember being arrested, beaten up and harassed. Others had it worse: at least one of the other people attending was a political prisoner in 1989. We have all come a long way since then. The clock may be ticking backwards for now, but the decay can be reversed, if we can summon up the willpower.

The piece was written by Edward Lucas, who writes for the Economist. He is a senior vice-president at the Centre for European Policy Analysis, a think-tank in Warsaw and Washington DC. He is also a member of the International Advisory Board of the Central European Strategy Council, the parent body of the Chateau Bela conference.