It’s a long-time ambition of the Central Eastern European region to be a serve as a kind of bridgehead between the East and the West. But history hasn’t shown any examples so far, when this role really materialised or stabilised in the long term.
The Pallas Athene Geopolitical and Innovation Research Institute (PAIGEO) organised a debate on Tuesday entitled “Bridgehead or buffer zone? Central Eastern Europe’s 21st century role between Europe and Asia”. Geopolitical analyst and expert of the Hungarian National Trading House, Agnes Bernek and Norbert Laszlo Arok, researcher of the Szazadveg Foundation argued in favour of the region’s bridgehead role, while Peter Talas, head of the Center for Strategic and Defense Studies at the National University of Public Service, and Tamas Levente Molnar, researcher of the Institute for Foreign Affairs and Trade considers our region a buffer zone.
“The role of our region acquired a new significance”
The starting point of the event was Agnes Bernek’s polemical essay entitled “Central and Eastern European Geopolitical Study – Central and Eastern European Countries in the Multipolar World of the 21st Century”. According to Bernek, now we are in a new geopolitical situation to become a bridge region between Europe and Asia. From an economic aspect, there is a chance to step out from the captivity of the East and the West.
But to achieve this, the topic needs to be dragged out from the narrow world of diplomacy and academy, to give a more significant role to the world of business.
According to Bernek, it’s a crucial question whether we can create a North-South field of force, and whether we can further enlarge the Visegrad Cooperation (V4).
Norbert Laszlo Arok said that the role of our region has definitely acquired a new significance. He sees the unity in the NATO’s alliance, the EU membership, the question of the migration crisis and also the Visegrad Cooperation. He thinks that we are a bridgehead, because it’s an attractive region, where the potential of economic growth is good, there are stable democracies with functioning rule of law, and the EU membership is another stabilising force that creates the security of investment.
“On the whole, we are struggling with each other for investments in the region”
Peter Talas stressed:
Whether we are a bridgehead or a buffer zone doesn’t depend on us, but rather how our partners see us.
He reminded: it was always like this, in history, we have proclaimed many times that we want to play the bridge’s role, but we couldn’t make it happen in the long term. According to Talas, our region is united only on the surface. He acknowledged that V4 is indeed an international brand, but if we check the reality behind, we can only say that “the PR people are working well”.
“We can say about ourselves, what a fantastic region we are for investment, but let’s admit it, the numbers don’t really reflect this,”
Talas added. On the whole, we are struggling with each other for investments in the region, he stated. Regarding the bridgehead role, he said it’s important to handle such plans with a realistic approach.
Talas’s view of the future is that we are heading towards a multipolar world with great powers who mark their zones of influence,
“they urine mark the territory they think they are entitled to own.”
He elaborated that in order to be a bridgehead, we have to face a fundamentally big dilemma,
“we should defeat the trend that puts us here in Central Eastern Europe to the European Union’s periphery”.
He added: “we shouldn’t confuse periphery with bridgehead”.
Peter Talas also said that bridges in history – especially in the middle ages -, were important transport hubs. The one of the most important aspects was that they collected the bridge toll.
“We can be a bridge if this region can collect its bridge toll,”
he stated. According to Talas so far we are struggling and competing for something with which we think we can build the bridge. Regarding China, the 16+1 cooperation and the One Belt One Road Initiative he said: our region is still not attractive or significant enough yet.
Agnes Bernek pointed out that we have to think over where we are heading to in a multipolar world. It can’t be seen yet what happens with the Chinese silk road, but the Chinese are thinking in the long term, and this initiative is robust idea that will materialise. According to Bernek, if we become a logistics hub, then we can collect the bridge toll. For that we need the North-South infrastructural connections, and then “we can make a great step forward”.
“China doesn’t need bridges”
Tamas Levente Molnar said he understands the geography, but can’t handle the region as a unity in the political, economic and social sense.
“There are much more which separates these countries than what unites them,”
he added. He named “two key players”, who make our region a buffer zone. There’s a military and political confrontation with Russia (for example regarding Ukraine and Crimea), and Moscow is also trying to gain more influence. According to him, Russia made the region a buffer zone, and one of the answers to this was the strengthening of the NATO’s eastern flank. He mentioned several clichés and myths about China, then warned:
China is pursuing a hard, aggressive acquisition in Europe and expects access to the markets. China doesn’t need bridges, the Central European region is by far not its most important priority.
“If they want to negotiate with the Germans, they will speak to the Germans and don’t need the V4 for that,”
Molnar said. He also added that there’s an incredible conflict developing between the Western hemisphere and the East, namely China.
Molnar stressed: it’s important for our region to have a much stronger political coordination in the V4, more attention should be paid to the Three Seas Initiative and energy diversification, Eastern Partnership should be strengthened, the Western Balkans should be integrated in the EU as soon as possible and we shouldn’t forget, who our strategic allies are.
“We have much experience as a buffer zone”
In the Q&A, Agnes Bernek and Norbert Laszlo Arok both concluded that even though we can’t compete with the great Western European economies, we should develop in transport and logistics. According to Bernek, we have much experience as a buffer zone, and this can be used for determining short-term and long-term strategic goals that help us become a bridge zone.
Peter Talas agreed that any source that helps our modernisation should be acquired, but we don’t need to be a bridge for that, we just have to trade well and determine the areas where we want to build economic relations. According to Talas, it’s possible to aim for the bridgehead role, but this is not the primary task of the region, not to mention that we live in a world where bridges are not necessary any more and the conflicts of the great powers strengthen the buffer zones. This was seen in Ukraine’s example: they could have a transit role, but Russia didn’t let it happen and wanted to tie Ukraine to itself. He explained that our region should determine itself, where we want to go geopolitically, because as long as there’s no ability and will to pursue common goals, there’s no point in speaking about a bridgehead.