1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Brexit vote provokes angst in Eastern Europe

Bruce KonviserJune 20, 2016

Until recently, nationalistic voices in Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary, were limited to the fringe. But could a possible Brexit lead to similar plebiscites in these countries?

A man holding a sign, "4 the Union" kisses woman holding a sign "Together we are stronger," as the spire of teh Big Ben clock tower rises behind them.
Image: Getty Images/AFP/D. Leal-Olivas

Across Europe and across the Atlantic there is growing anxiety about Britain's future in the European Union. On Thursday, British voters will decide whether the country should remain an EU member state or leave the 500-million-strong bloc.

Those favoring a British exit, or "Brexit," were pulling ahead in opinion polls last week, but the shocking murder of pro-EU Member of British Parliament has shifted momentum back to the "Remain" camp, at least for now. MP Jo Cox was gunned down by an apparent right-wing extremist last Thursday, as she campaigned for Britain to remain in the EU.

But stay or go, critics say British Prime Minister David Cameron blundered badly in deciding to hold the referendum. Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn on Sunday described Cameron's decision as a "historic mistake" due to the consequences it may have for other member states.

Großbritannien Labour-Politikerin Jo Cox
Labour MP Jo Cox was campaigning for Britain to stay in the EUImage: Reuters/Press Association

"It cannot be ruled out that Brexit leads to a domino effect in Eastern Europe," Asselborn told German newspaper "Tagesspiegel am Sonntag" (The Daily Mirror on Sunday).

There have long been xenophobic and nationalistic political voices in the Visegrad countries of Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary, but until recently, they were usually on the fringe.

The Polish & Hungarian contradictions

Poland and Hungary both have right-wing governments that represent a mixture of nationalism and populism. The nationalist side might compel their leaders to seek an exit from the EU, but experts say they are restrained by populist reality. Majorities in both countries support EU membership.

The Polish government is not likely to seek an exit pass from the EU, according to Konstanty Gebert, a political writer for Gazeta Wyborca, a leading newspaper in Poland.

"I don't think there would be a vote in Poland because Poles would massively vote to stay, and that would undermine the government's anti-EU stance," Gebert said.

Tamas Boros, a political analyst at the Policy Solutions think tank in Brussels, expressed similar doubts that Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban would launch an exit campaign.

"In the short term, it is out of the question because [Orban] knows Hungary is one of the most pro-EU countries," he said, adding that public support for the EU is about 60 percent in Hungary.
Infografik Wie steht die EU nach einem "Brexit" wirtschaftlich da? Englisch
"In Poland and Hungary, government rhetoric is used for finding an enemy outside the country," Boros said. "They are populists and know they shouldn't go against the public."

Orban even signed his name to an ad in a London tabloid Monday, asking Britain to stay. And Poland's prime minister and foreign minister have both publicly voiced the hope that Britain will remain in the EU.

Leaders in both countries fear that without Britain, Germany and France will seek a tighter Union.

"An even closer union is anathema to the ruling party," Gebert said. "Poland doesn't want to be part of a closer union. Poland would like the EU funding and influence in decision making, but without the responsibilities."

The Czech paradox

Paradoxically, the Czech Republic - the Visegrad country with arguably the most pro-EU government - could be the first to hold an EU referendum of its own, if the British vote to leave.

Grenze Ungarn - Serbien - Flüchtlinge
Hungary built a fence on its Serbian border last year to keep refugees awayImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Z. Gergely Kelemen

The left of center government, led by the Social Democrats, is decidedly pro-EU. But nationalist voices on the fringe are exploiting the migration crisis besetting Europe. This despite the fact that while more than 1 million would-be refugees entered the EU last year, almost none have sought asylum in the Czech Republic.

Jan Urban, a former political dissident and freelance writer in Prague, said there hasn't been much talk of a "Brexit" type referendum in the Czech Republic - so far.

"Not yet, because everyone is kind of scared," he said in a phone interview with DW. "It's sheer panic. No one knows what would happen."

Jakub Janda, an analyst with the European Values think tank in Prague, said an exit referendum in the Czech Republic appeared likely if the British voted to leave.

"It seems probable because the status of EU approval among the Czech public is only 30 to 40 percent," he said. "Far-right political parties are advocating for an exit. It would be very hard to stop the demand for a referendum."

As in Poland and Hungary, Janda said Czechs fear a Franco-German effort to bring the EU even closer together if Britain leaves. "If Brexit happens there is a fear that Germany and France would push for more integration," said Janda.

Slovakia tied to the Euro

Slovakia is led by an ostensibly left-of-center government, but Prime Minister Robert Fico is also something of a nationalist-populist hybrid.

Like Orban in Hungary, Fico advocates walling off Europe from all would-be refugees no matter how desperate their plight. Indeed, Hungary has literally fenced off its border with Serbia, which had been a primary passage route for migrants trying to make their way to the wealthier countries of Western Europe.

Slovakia would face the added difficulty of withdrawing from the Euro zone if it ever decided to leave the EU, but for now that doesn't seem to be a serious consideration, according to Miroslav Kusy, a former dissident and political commentator.

"It is a question more for the political elite in Slovakia," he said. "It's not a significant issue for regular Slovaks. Something negative would have to happen to change the prevailing public opinion."

Something "negative" like, say, the UK deciding to leave the EU?

"For me Britain is a country of democracy," Kusy said. "It would be something unbelievable if Britain were to be on the other side."