Czechoslovakia: Bad News for Britain (1992), by Sean Gabb

Czechoslovakia: Bad News for Britain
by Sean Gabb
(Published in Transdanubia, Vienna, March 1992)

Bratislava, 12th February 1992

Forget Brussels. Forget Croatia. Forget everything outside Europe. The biggest question now in British foreign policy ought to be whether Czechoslovakia will fall apart. The Czechs and Slovaks have much in common. They speak almost identical languages. They were both once ruled by the Habsburg monarchy, and more recently were a single province of the Soviet Empire. But they also have differences of history and culture that may prevent them from living happily together in a common state.

Since the 1989 Revolution, these differences have caused repeated trouble between the Federal Government in Prague and the Slovak regional government in Bratislava. It seemed on February 8th that at least a provisional settlement had been made. But this looks now to be rejected by the Slovak Parliament. Some exultant, some terrified, people are running round Bratislava at the moment predicting independence by March.

I doubt this for March. But independence within the next few years does seem increasingly likely. And here is the problem for Great Britain. A dissolution of Czechoslovakia by any but the most cautious and gradual steps will cause endemic instability throughout the whole region. Though tidier than before the 1945 mass-expulsions, Central and Eastern Europe is still a jumble of nationalities. In greater or lesser degree, every border is an artificial line, leaving large national minorities on both sides. Accordingly, almost every border is either disputed or resented. If one is changed, the precedent is set for other changes. Civil or some other war becomes possible.

This might be disastrous for Great Britain. After the 1989 Revolutions, it seemed that the debate over Europe had been won for the anti-federalists. The Delors faction might still unroll its jargon about "deepening" and "consolidation". But another Europe a thousand miles wide was now asking for membership of the Community. It could not forever be denied entry. And while it was possible to digest twelve or a few more western member states into something like a common state, twenty or twenty five, spread out between the Atlantic and the Urals, would be completely indigestible.

This prospect explains British policy towards Europe at least since John Major came to office, and probably for a year before then. The old obstinate resistance vanished, replaced by warm compliance. The words "no and never!" were replaced by "certainly – but not quite yet". At the same time, efforts were made to assist the new legal states in the east and to prepare them for entry to the Community. The British Government has given almost every pledge asked of it in Brussels, while trying to ensure that no one will ever be able to call for their redemption.

Now the whole basis of this apparent policy is in danger of crumbling. At best, instability in this region will prevent any widening of the Community for years to come. At worst, it may bring in a large and semi-permanent "Community peace-keeping force". In any event, the federalists will have everything their way again.

Great Britain, therefore, has as vital an interest now in the fate of Central and Eastern Europe as it has ever had. It may have little direct influence in the region. But what it has will surely be used on the side of stability and democratic reform. For the most part, though, it must simply watch as further events unroll here in Bratislava.

© 1992 – 2015, seangabb.

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