Europe between past and future

Krzysztof Bobinski
9 March 2009

An early sign of how the financial crisis in east-central Europe in February 2009 was being perceived in the west came in a major feature in the Financial Times. The story was not so much in the words as in the accompanying map, which showed the old Comecon countries as an undifferentiated mass. It was as if nothing had changed since the 1980s, when the Soviet Union's own "single market" still kept a swathe of states from the Baltics to the Balkans tightly in its orbit. Krzysztof Bobinski is the president of Unia & Polska, a pro-European think-tank in Warsaw. He was the Financial Times's Warsaw correspondent (1976-2000) and later published Unia & Polska magazine. He writes for European Voice and is an associate editor on the Europe section of Europe's World

Among Krzysztof Bobinski's articles in openDemocracy:

"Democracy in the European Union, more or less" (27 July 2005)

"The European Union's Turkish dilemma" (2 December 2005)

"Belarus's message to Europe" (22 March 2006)

"Poland's populist caravan" (14 July 2006)

"Hungary's 1956, central Europe's 2006: beyond illusion" (27 October 2006)

"European unity: reality and myth" (21 March 2007)

"The Polish confusion" (22 June 2007)

"Europe's coal-mine, Ireland's canary" (20 June 2008)

"The Caucasus effect: Europe unblocked" (15 September 2008)

"Europe's politics of self - and others" (20 October 2008)

"Poland: the politics of history" (24 January 2009)

A small matter on its own - but also significant in the very year that the new European Union member-states are celebrating a double anniversary: the twentieth since the peaceful collapse of Soviet communism, and the fifth since the enlargement of the EU to accommodate seven former Soviet-bloc states (Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania - as well as Slovenia, Cyprus and Malta). The Financial Times's map is a sobering reminder that western Europe's reflexive view of the former "satellites" of Moscow - if indeed it thinks of them at all - is of an anonymous, uniform "other".

The twilight of union

The latest crisis to afflict the enlarged European Union of twenty-seven member-states is bound to test the depth of the union's will to stay together as a forward-looking project: that is, as a post-1989 grouping which accepts and practices the belief that the new members are full partners deserving of a solidarity which will give them a chance to develop.

The impression that this conviction was more fragile than it needs to be deepened in the days leading up to the informal meeting of European Union heads of state and government in Brussels on 1 March 2009. The primary focus of the summit - though it was held under the auspices of the Czech Republic's presidency - seemed to be on solving the problems of the union's major (western) economies, relegating those of the smaller (and newer) states to a lower place on the agenda. Even the widespread scare-stories about the rise of a new "east-west division" (or a new "Berlin wall") implied that the eastern countries were not really part of the same, shared reality. There was little affirmation of the enlarged EU as an achieved whole - the taken-for-granted foundation on which understanding is to be reached and policy developed.

True, a degree of division is rooted in objective post-enlargement conditions. The newer member-states - including Bulgaria and Romania, which joined in 2007 - remain recipients of major aid flows from the EU which will run until 2013, and these can be expected to cushion some of the shock of their financial troubles.

But the financial hurricane that has hit the union's eastern flank also reverberates in the west, as Anand Menon notes in his openDemocracy article (see "Europe's eastern crisis: the reality-test", 5 March 2009). After all, western-owned banks are in danger of being drained of capital by their crisis-hit owners, and western-owned industries located in the new member-states could become the first to be downsized. The ravaged financial markets themselves at least recognise integration and interdependence - for as the east Europeans see their currencies fall and export-markets vaporise, investors keen to offload their stocks see no difference between the stronger economies in the region and the ones (Latvia and Hungary in particular) where the crisis is biting especially hard.

The turning-point

The retreat from inclusiveness and solidarity evident before and during the Brussels summit is arguably not just a response to immediate events, but part of a wider problem in the European Union's sense of self and direction. Indeed, one response in "deep" Brussels to the financial crisis is to excavate the only half-buried feelings of nostalgia for the days of a smaller, more exclusive and manageable union. The implication is to see the decades when the European Union's precursors were composed of only six or nine or twelve states - when integration seemed to be happening, and additional members seemed no more than a peripheral distraction from that aim - as the equivalent of a golden era.

The proponents of this view have at heart never really accepted the logic of enlargement. They have also internalised a particular - and selectively misleading - narrative of the European Union's history, which argues that the EU was set up as a federalist project to safeguard Europe against the threat of future wars. What this misses is that the creation of the EU was also a response to the Soviet Union's expansionist challenge after 1945, with a design that attempted to make the remilitarisation of West Germany palatable to the French.

The effect of the disappearance of the external threat - with the disintegration in 1989-91 of the Warsaw Pact, the Comecon bloc, and the Soviet Union itself - was to make enlargement to the east the prime response to changing times. The dominant motif that survived the geopolitical convulsion was of a peaceful Europe whose member-states dedicated themselves to working in solidarity with each other towards an "ever-closer union". As enlargement to the east progressed in the 1990s, however, this motif itself began to come under increasing strain. Now, in 2009, it is now set to be severely tested by Europe's share of the global financial crisis.

In this light the current strains were to a degree foreordained by the way the cycle of enlargement - a policy that the EU stumbled into after 1989 as its main policy-tool for relations with its neighbours - has unfolded. The promise of EU membership was dangled before states emerging from Soviet hegemony as an incentive for political and economic reform. The approach worked - to the extent that all sides now accepted that significant reforms in an aspirant member can only be achieved if the membership "carrot" really exists.

There is both "negative" and "positive" evidence for this. Turkey's pro-EU reform efforts have stalled partly because Ankara no longer believes the EU is serious about its membership offer. The reforms in Ukraine are chaotic and half-hearted not just because of the country's internal political divisions but because the EU seems unable to open a real membership perspective for the country. The Balkan countries (including Serbia) are finally gearing up to incorporate the EU's body of law - the acquis communautaire - because all believe they have a chance of joining the EU.

But if enlargement to the east and southeast is becoming the EU's raison d'etre, how long can it go on enlarging? The failures of success, after all, were already apparent in 2005 when voters in France and the Netherlands voted in referendums against the constitutional treaty. A year after the major expansion of 2004, "enlargement fatigue" was becoming widespread in the EU's founding-states.

The rear-view mirror

The twinge of longing for a lost past in "deep" Brussels is paralleled in the revival of nationalist sentiments in several member-states - fuelled by the protectionist temptations that accompany economic dislocation. Even within the framework of the European Union, the member-states - the larger and/or post-imperial ones especially - respond to the pressures of the time by pursuing national strategies that draw on only half-submerged memories of earlier grandeur.

The Austrians are most interested in the territories that once belonged to the Austro-Hungarian empire. The French are absorbed by the southern Mediterranean and north Africa. The Germans pursue their business-based romance with the Russians, confident that they are the only ones who can handle Moscow. The British, in classic balance-of-power mode, fret about the links between Germany and Russia and look for a policy in the east which could somehow provide a counterweight to this growing alliance. Even the Poles at a certain level "remember" their pre-partition frontier to the east, and focus on support for the states (Ukraine and Belarus) whose territory lies to the west of that line.

The official response to the crisis in the European Union is to reaffirm the need for greater economic and political integration; to hold the single market together; and to maintain the four freedoms - the movement of goods, persons, services and capital - on which the EU is based. This is all very well, but the logic of the foregoing is that neither it nor an impossible return to the past can address the more fundamental issue of the European Union's identity and purpose.

It is clear that a new paradigm is needed for European integration which takes into account post-1989 realities. That must include a genuine recognition that the present new member-states are indeed full-fledged members of the EU. A failure to do this will compound the dangers of the present moment.

In London in the early 1940s, Paul-Henri Spaak - the exiled Belgian foreign minister who was to become one of the architects of post-war European integration - had a conversation with a colleague. Both had just emerged from a meeting about the creation of a federalist European order with the Polish prime minister, General Władysław Sikorski, and other exiled representatives of European governments.

Spaak's colleague remarked that he couldn't summon up much interest in the concerns of the central Europeans. Spaak replied that if we had taken more interest before the war in these concerns, then maybe we wouldn't be in London in the middle of a war which had driven them into exile. The sentiment is worth remembering today. It presents a challenge to the present generation of leaders: look back, to look forward.


openDemocracy writers track the European Union's politics:

Aurore Wanlin, "The European Union at fifty: a second life" (15 March 2007)

Krzysztof Bobinski, "European unity: reality and myth" (21 March 2007)

Frank Vibert, "The European Union in 2057" (22 March 2057)

George Schőpflin, "The European Union's troubled birthday" (23 March 2007)

Kalypso Nicolaïdis & Philippe Herzog, "Europe at fifty: towards a new single act" (21 June 2007)

Krzysztof Bobinski, "The Polish confusion" (28 June 2007)

Michael Bruter, "European Union: from backdoor to front" (3 July 2007)

Kalypso Nicolaïdis & Simone Bunse, "The ‘European Union presidency': a practical compromise" (10 October 2007)

Katinka Barysch & Hugo Brady, "Europe's "reform treaty": ends and beginnings" (18 October 2007)

Ivan Krastev, "Europe's trance of unreality" (20 June 2008)

Krzysztof Bobinski, "Europe's coal-mine, Ireland's canary" (21 June 2008)

Ivan Krastev, "Europe's other legitimacy crisis" (23 July 2008)

Paul Gillespie, "The European Union and Russia after Georgia" (10 September 2008)

Krzysztof Bobinski, "Europe's politics of self - and others" (20 October 2008)

John Palmer, "Ireland, the Lisbon treaty, and Europe's future" (16 December 2008)

Dessy Gavrilova, "Entropa: art of politics, heart of a nation" (16 January 2009)

Anand Menon, "Europe's eastern crisis: the reality-test" (5 March 2009)

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