For a good decade starting 25 years ago, one didn't even have to open the papers in America or Western Europe to see something exciting, every single day, about events in Warsaw, Budapest or Prague (Slovakia was not yet an independent country). Central Europe was headline news. Leaders of the 1989 revolutions: Havel, Walesa, Göncz or Dubcek became household names. The corridors of the White House, the offices of the Brussels institutions or the German Chancellery had major traffic jams, caused by visiting dignitaries from Poland, Hungary, Czech and later Slovakia. The elites and the public of western democracies cared about these countries, acting out of a sense of solidarity, self interest or perhaps guilt.
The four countries hung together as the so called Visegrad group, as a quasi entity in the backyard of the more developed part of Western Europe. Rightly, they understood that together they were a size the rest of Europe must reckon with. Their transition from dictatorship to democracy, from a command economy of different degrees to a market economy, with all its flaws, was a success. They established the rule of law, and set out to make up for the lost years of communism. By 2004 the re-integration into the western community of Central Europe was complete, they became members of Nato and the European Union.
Their transition has not been easy, and perhaps in some aspects still incomplete. At a certain moment in time during the past two decades, they all went through the "populism scare", with extreme nationalist parties and populist leaders embracing authoritarianism, threatening the modernization project. Hungary is going through that phase now.
The glory days of Central Europe as the center of attention, the drivers of tectonic changes, is now faded memory. Central Europe's political, business and cultural elites must wake up to the reality, that as "normal countries" they need to rethink their place and indeed role in the world. Even if some of their more ambitious leaders, and Poland in particular, are making such efforts, Visegrad today is hardly a real brand, its members seem to be seeking "rebranding" in four different directions.
In the meanwhile, another grouping of medium size countries in Europe are showing the way, how to create a global brand, a force to be counted internationally. The Nordics, which include countries with a widely different history: Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Iceland, have emerged as a point of reference for the resilience of democratic societies. They are a proof of the vitality of pluralistic, democratic societies. They are a demonstration of the strength of the consensus based model of governance, the power of transparency, the freedom of speech and the rule of law. It is in times of crisis, in moments of desperation when a model is tested, and the "Nordic Model", while covering widely diverse solutions, has stood its ground. Extremism and populism was never considered as a possible alternative. They are a source of stability for Europe and as members and as partners of NATO, for strengthening the Transatlantic relationship. They have embraced new solutions for "smart" regional military cooperation, others in the Transatlantic Alliance should follow. They stand out in understanding the role of hard and soft power, and wield both with great self confidence.
Not that they are flawless. They too struggle with maintaining economic growth, welfare issues, and of course, they too have their differences. However, all in all they are increasingly emerging as a possible example for others to follow.
They suggest, that as an "entity" they are far more visible on the World stage, than as individual countries. Add to that the well structured and institutionalized cooperation between the Nordic countries and the Baltics. For Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania their closeness to the Nordics has been an important element in their own renewal and stability in the last decade.
Germany is clearly the pivotal point for the Visegrad Group and much of Europe's core. Poland boldly embraced the Weimar group ( with Germany, France and Slovakia), which it feels serves its own ambitions best. Central Europe would be better served however, if it looked at complementary pivotal points a lot more seriously. It would be wise to revisit a concept developed at the time of the changes in the early nineteen nineties, namely the Nordic-Central European cooperation. At that time, the efforts gave way to the greater strategic concepts of full Euro-atlantic integration. Poland can and should take the lead.
With the worst part of the crisis behind it, Europe is struggling to reinvent itself, to define the level of its global ambitions. This a good time for Central Europe to rethink its own. It is also a moment when they can reposition themselves from the periphery to the center. Joining up with the Nordics, they can become an important link between Northern and Southern Europe. It would be a great position to be in. It would also be a great antidote against those, who see populism and a return to authoritarian rule as the solution for the future. Together they could be a treasure trove of new ideas and concepts.
Central Europe's pivot to the North would serve their long term interests well.