The Solution Abroad: Hungarian, Polish and Romanian Diasporas Engage for Democracy Back Home
As the new year began, Romania took over the EU presidency for the first time, Hungary experienced continued protests against the government in response to its controversial legislation regarding workers’ rights, in Poland citizens mourned the murder of Gdansk Mayor Pawel Adamowicz and were left wondering about freedom of speech and safety in the country, and in Brussels the European Parliament debated legislation connecting the allocation of EU funds to respecting the rule of law in countries like Hungary. The state of democracy in Central and Eastern Europe remains therefore at the forefront of European concerns. At the same time, as my research for a new GMF paper shows, a growing number of pro-democratic actors look for solutions to these challenges in the region – including members of the Hungarian, Polish and Romanian diasporas.
Hungary, Poland, and Romania have some of the highest outward migration rates in Europe. There are an estimated 3.6 million Romanians, 2.9 million Poles, and 500,000 Hungarians living abroad. The reasons for people leaving are diverse, ranging from economic difficulties to looking for better educational and professional opportunities abroad.
These diasporas remain strongly connected to their countries of origin. At the economic level, remittances in 2017 were 3.3 percent of GDP in Hungary, 2 percent in Romania and 1.3 percent in Poland. And they do not contribute only financially – they do so also through civic engagement.
This is visible through a new wave of civic initiatives and civil society organizations with a focus on pro-democratic civic engagement that emerged in recent years. These are small organizations such as Freie Ungarische Botschaft, Women’s Congress, Femini Berlin Polska, Dziewuchy Berlin, Diaspora Civică Berlin, Rezist Zürich, Rezist Madrid, GRASP, Europuls and Cercul Donatorilor Bruxelles.
They all focus on fostering democracy in the region and in Europe more broadly. Their activities range from protests and voter-awareness campaigns, to civic workshops, debates with politicians and other activists, and fundraising for civil society organizations in their countries of origin. Even though it is difficult to assess clearly their impact at this early stage, these initiatives are actively creating civic-minded communities that are spearheading the resistance to anti-democratic trends in Europe.
The interactions of the new diaspora initiatives with the current governments in Hungary, Poland and Romania are very limited and sporadic. They are more likely to support protests or to engage in different opposition actions together with civil society in the three countries. Even though the initiatives themselves are not associated with political parties, they are in contact with new opposition parties in the region – Razem in Poland, Momentum in Hungary, and Uniunea Salvați România in Romania – rather than with the parties in power. The initiatives look to engage political actors at EU level too, but due to limited capacity this area of action is still incipient.
An important contribution to Europe
Diaspora civic initiatives act as advocates of pro-European forces in their countries of origin and abroad. By bridging different geographies and European social realities, they contribute to addressing democratic backsliding in Europe directly through a transnational perspective and approach. As the organizations are still in an early stage of development, national and EU-level policymakers and support organizations that focus on advancing and strengthening democratic developments in Central and Eastern Europe should support them in the coming years.
These initiatives need support in the form of appropriate funding, capacity building, and expertise on how to build grassroots organizations and movements, as well as how to engage more effectively with political power structures. For their part, they need to become more collaborative nationally and internationally, in order to generate more aligned and coordinated cross-border action.
Pro-democratic actors in Europe need to also develop more in-depth knowledge about the diasporas from Central and Eastern Europe, their needs, and especially their political engagement. Policymakers at EU-level need also to engage diaspora groups directly in elaborating responses to democracy challenges in Central and Eastern Europe.
The political participation of the millions of people belonging to diasporas from Hungary, Poland, and Romania will be crucial for these countries in the coming years, starting with the European Parliament elections in a couple of months and continuing with different presidential, parliamentary, and local elections. The efforts of new diaspora initiatives to promote pro-EU and pro-democratic values as well as to mobilize voters to this end will make an essential contribution to shaping the turn of events in Central and Eastern Europe, in Europe, and the world more broadly.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.