In the Pursuit of Ideal Institutions

Central Europeans have bigger trust in international institutions than in their own national ones. The best evidence of how slowly social stereotypes evolve.

Foreign minister of Czech Republic Jan Kavan sign the Treaty of Accession of the Czech Republic to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Archive photo from 1999
Foreign minister of Czech Republic Jan Kavan (seated) signing the Treaty of Accession of the Czech Republic to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in Independence, USA, March 12, 1999. Foreign ministers (left to right) Madeleine Albright, USA, Janos Martonyi, Hungary, and Bronislaw Geremek, Poland are in the backround. Photo: PAP / CTK / Michal Dolezal

In the beginning, there was NATO. In 1999 and 2004, ten post-communist countries became members of the Alliance. In doing so, they symbolically broke down the institutional barrier separating the two parts of Europe. After a while, this barrier broke down even further when former satellite states of the Soviet Union joined (in two installments – in 2004 and 2007) the European Union.  Thus, the processes that the Velvet Revolution and the fall of the Berlin Wall began in 1989 were coming to a close on an institutional level. As Ronald Reagan said:

There are no constraints on the human mind, no walls around the human spirit, no barriers to our progress except those we ourselves erect

– President Ronald Reagan

But we can see that the barriers that people erect themselves are the most difficult ones to break down. This is one of the reasons why today’s Europeans – bound together by a common culture, Roman-Christian heritage, and history – still differ fundamentally on many issues. And one of the most important differences can be seen in their approach to their state institutions. How citizens of individual European countries approach their own governments and public institutions is still one of the clearest indicators of which side of the Berlin Wall we were born on.

Finlandization rejected

“Hallelujah!” said Madeleine Albright when it finally became clear that the Czech Republic, Poland, and Hungary would become members of NATO. It was 12 March 1999. On this day, at the Truman Library in Independence, Missouri (USA), Jan Kavan, Bronislaw Geremek, and Janos Martonyi – the foreign ministers of these three Central European countries – together with Albright signed the accession documents of membership in NATO.

Today, membership of the Central European countries in the Alliance is taken for granted, but in 1999 it was not so obvious. Russia did not accept it, but also, in the USA, many people in the political elite were against it. Expanding NATO would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-cold-war era,” wrote George F. Kennan, a senior American diplomat, in the opinion piece for “New York Times” published in 1997.

The enlargement of NATO – and the EU a little later – became possible for two reasons. Firstly, because of the break-up of the Soviet Union. After the Second World War and the Yalta Conference, the Kremlin created a system of satellite states in Central Europe directly dependent on decisions taken in Moscow. This system only disintegrated in the late 1980s and early 1990s. As a consequence of the Velvet Revolution, power in those countries was taken over by politicians advocating closer integration with the structures of the Western world. A political change began, making the CEE states independent of their neighbor to the east.

And reason two: the deep conviction of societies about the direction of change in their countries. Almost 50 years of dependence on the Soviet Union had done its work. Having to function under the extremely oppressive and inefficient communist system imposed on the CEE countries by Moscow gave rise to a strong need for change in the region’s people. They were fed up with ineffective, weak states with corrupted institutions – and as soon as the opportunity to do so arose, they immediately decided to take it.

This was a common emotion among all states. From Tallinn to Sofia, the people of these countries wanted integration into NATO and the EU (two symbols of strong, efficient organizations) as soon as possible. There was intense pressure on the politicians governing these countries to make this happen as quickly as possible. Any attempt to even slow down this direction of change was immediately squelched. Discussions about looking for other solutions (for instance, there were ideas of “Finlandization” of the region at one point) were not even developed. The direction was clear to all: NATO and the European Union until these goals were finally achieved.

Mixed feelings about institutions

If there is the will, political changes can be introduced relatively quickly – but the social processes behind them are transformed at a slower pace. CEE countries have been members of NATO and the EU for more than a dozen years (the Czech Republic, Poland, and Hungary have been members of the Alliance for more than 20 years). Still, all the time, the motivations of the people in these countries are similar to those before accession.

This motivation also stemmed from the belief, perpetuated by decades of communism, in the superiority of Western institutions over domestic ones. This persists to this day – although, after all, the region’s countries have since 1989 achieved a series of real successes, increasing in real terms the value of their own economies and the quality of life of their citizens. Despite this, international organizations (such as NATO and the European Union with its institutions) are still more highly esteemed in the region than national institutions. The same phenomenon can be seen in Western Europe, but the difference is much greater in CEE countries.

A distrustful government

This is proven by the results of the Eurobarometer survey published in the summer of 2022. In it, respondents were asked about their attitudes towards particular institutions. Asked, “How much trust do you have in the government” on average, 34% of citizens of EU countries tend to believe their national governments, and 61% do not. But analyzing answers for every country separately, there is a difference. For instance, 70% of Luxembourgers trust its government – as well as 68% of Finns, 52% of Danes, 49% of Germans, and 45% of Portugueses. On the other side of the scale, we have mainly Central Europeans. Only 18% of Slovaks trust its government – as well as 19% of Bulgarians, 20% of Croats, 26% of Poles, and 27% of Romanians (but also 23% of Spaniards and French).

A similar division can be seen when reading answers to questions on trust in political parties. In general, there is little confidence in them. On average, only 21% of Europeans tend to trust them – 75% not. But 42% of Danes and Finns declare their trust in parties, 37% of Luxembourgers, 35% of Dutch, and 34% of Swedes. At the same time, only 9% of Latvians and Slovaks have trust in political parties in their country, 11% of Croats, 13% of Bulgarians, Czechs, and Lithuanians. Clear contrast between the two European regions. It is also seen in the issues concerning public trust institutions. For instance, 92% of Finns trust the police. The same answer gives by 90% of Danes, 83% of Dutch, 79% of Germans, and 75% of Spaniards. The same opinion has 45% of Poles, 48% of Romanians, 49% of Bulgarians, 51% of Slovaks, and 57% of Slovenians. The average confidence level in police on the EU level is 69%.

The same pattern occurs when analyzing responses to questions about trust in public administration. 50% of citizens of the EU believe in it. Over this average are people living in Luxembourg (86%), Denmark (75%), Sweden (64%), Germany (62%), France (57%), and Belgium (56%). Below this line are, for instance, Latvians and Croatians (34%), Bulgarians (35%), Romanians (37%), Slovenians (47%), and Poles (45%). And it repeats the question on attitudes towards national parliaments.

Generally, confidence in them is low, with an average of 34% of Europeans trusting deputies’ work. Below this line is, for example, Bulgarians (12%), Slovakians (17%), Croatians (21%), Latvians and Lithuanians (22%), and Poles (28%). Above – for example, Finns (70%), Luxembourgers (54%), Germans (49%), and Belgians (45%).

Do Eastern Europeans trust their countries?

But the situation is different when questions of trust in international institutions are raised. On average, 49% of citizens of the EU declare their faith in European Union. About this average are people living in Lithuania (69%), Poland (64%), Hungary (56%), and Romania (54%) – but also Scandinavians and Benelux countries. Trust in the EU is declared by 49% of Germans. However, this figure is lower among others, like the French (34%), Greeks (37%), Cypriots (42%), and Italians (46%).

At the same time, 51% of citizens of the EU trust NATO. People living in Latvia (75%), Poland (71%), Czech, Hungary, and Estonia (61%), Lithuania (56%), Romania (55%), as well as Danes (87%), Dutch (73%), and Belgians (62%) have more trust in NATO. Conversely, Greeks and Cypriots (18%), Bulgarians (34%), French (36%), and Croatians (38%) have less than average trust in the institution.

Responses to the question on trust in international institutions clearly show that they evoke mixed feelings – but attitudes towards them are a consequence of the geopolitical situation and the political set-up in individual countries. The problem is different with regard to confidence in national institutions.  Here, the difference between Central and Western Europe is clear, with trust in the ECCs’ state institutions being noticeably lower. This does not promise to change in the coming years, although Central European countries have made positive changes in so many areas of life. Central Europeans are still in pursuit of ideal institutions.  Social processes are always the slowest to evolve.

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