Hostilities between old and new Europe linger three decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall
But now, new reasons for hope: Donald Trump’s protectionism is forcing central and east European nations to forge better relationships with their near neighbours
Even 30 years on, there are still mysteries about exactly how the Berlin Wall fell on 9 November 1989. Was it a response to a slip of the tongue by a beleaguered East German spokesperson, or the result of an official decision taken by a panicked leadership before due preparations had been made? Did sheer force of numbers then force the breach, or was rather the spirit of the time?
It was not, it should be stressed, the first breach of the Iron Curtain that divided Europe. That came on 19 August, when Hungarian border guards took a split-second decision to watch, rather than shoot, when pan-European picnickers at the country’s eastern border cut the border fence.
Nor was the whole Iron Curtain asunder when the wall fell. There were still upheavals to come: the removal of Todor Zhivkov in Bulgaria, the Velvet Revolution in what was then Czechoslovakia, the violent overthrow and execution of the Ceausescus in Romania – and, two years later, the dissolution of an enervated Soviet Union.
But it was the fall of the wall that signified the end of the Warsaw Pact and the defeat of communism in Europe, and held out the hope of what the then US president, George HW Bush, called “one Europe, whole and free”.
That phrase became the leitmotif of the months and years that followed. And from early on, most of the states that had languished behind the Iron Curtain were keen to join both Nato and the European Union. They saw the Atlantic alliance as a guarantee of their security against what they regarded as the threat from the country that, as the Soviet Union, had dominated them for the best part of half a century. They saw the European Union as a beacon of prosperity and solidarity; joining the EU would, in their view, validate what they saw as their return to “Europe”.
To a large extent that has happened. Between 1999 and now, Nato and the EU have expanded to incorporate the three Baltic states, all the former Warsaw Pact states, and several of the former Yugoslav republics. There is not complete crossover between Nato and the EU: Albania and Montenegro have joined Nato, but not – yet – the EU, and the spasmodic expansions have not been without disputes and delays. But the result is that the political map of Europe has changed beyond all recognition.
Whether Europe has, as a result, become “whole and free”, however, is another matter, with the “whole” being perhaps more open to dispute than the “free”.
One reason is that, with each new enlargement, a new line has been drawn that seems – to those on the “wrong” side of it, at least – something almost as impenetrable as the Iron Curtain dividing “them” and “us”. The advance of Nato and the EU to the east has also created new risks of a confrontation with Russia.
The more contentious divide, however, is within the EU, where many of the “new” Europeans – a term they detest – feel that they are still, after more than 15 years of full membership, treated as second-class members.
They are not completely wrong. Despite confident hopes when they joined of economic convergence, they still lag behind “old Europe” in living standards and the initial, near-miraculous growth spurt at the start has understandably slowed. There are suspicions among some that they are treated as repositories of cheap labour; that multinationals fob them off with goods inferior to those supplied to “old” Europe.
There is still an economic divide, too, though the near-catastrophic effects of the 2008-9 crisis are finally wearing off – even in Latvia, which was particularly hard hit, where new businesses and services are visibly starting to flourish. Deeper and harder to shift, however, may be deep-seated differences in social and political attitudes.
Having been the stars of political and economic reform as communism collapsed, Poland and Hungary now feel they are being unjustly condemned by Brussels for just trying to be themselves. They regard criticism of their political and judicial systems as unwarranted, and the insistence that they should accept a – very small – quota of non-European refugees and migrants as an unacceptable imposition.
Some of these tensions stem from the reality that east and central Europe tend to be more socially conservative than much of “old” Europe; some from resentment that – in Hungary’s case – they feel the EU left them defenceless during the refugee crisis of 2015. They also argue that their governments enjoy full democratic mandates and the EU has no business interfering in what they see as their internal affairs.
But the problem runs deeper.
When the countries of central and eastern Europe joined Nato and especially the EU, they did so in the expectation that membership would protect and nurture their newly established or re-established sovereignty – which it undoubtedly has. The genesis of the common market, as the precursor of the EU, however, was quite different: it included an acceptance of pooled sovereignty as a guarantee of future peace. This fundamental difference underlies many of the misunderstandings of today.
More controversially, many of the “new” Europeans, especially Hungary, also feel that “old” Europe should have done more to accommodate them: that they should not have been the only ones required to adapt. In fact, their accession has changed both the EU and Nato in ways they might not recognise. Not only has it shifted security priorities towards the north and east (and away from the Balkans and the Mediterranean), it has complicated the EU’s relations with Russia, as the “new” Europeans brought with them their old fears and quarrels.
Three decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the enlarged EU in particular stands at a crossroads: is the continuing new-old, east-west divide permanent; could it lead to an inner and outer European Union as envisaged by Emmanuel Macron, soon after he became French president? Or is it simply that expectations (on both sides) were too high, and that coalescence will take a lot longer?
The countries of “new” Europe, it should be said, are as hostile to a two-speed EU as they are to being called “new”. Whether the two halves of the EU will grow further together, however, cannot be taken for granted. Once they are fully confident of their regained sovereignty, will the “new” Europeans be prepared to sacrifice just a little for the sake of EU solidarity? In other words, is the current defensiveness, especially of Poland and Hungary, just a phase? Could a new generation follow, say, Ireland in its rapid shift from social conservatism to liberalism? Do not rule it out.
The other big question is how completely they will settle back into their continent. In their rush to join Nato, the “new” Europeans were putting their trust less in Europe than in the United States. Along with the UK, they became the most Atlanticist members of the EU, and the most averse to a common European defence. That may be changing because of Donald Trump’s questionable commitment to the transatlantic alliance, and the UK’s likely departure from the EU.
The countries of east and central Europe, it seems, are starting to look less across the Atlantic than to their European neighbours and the immediate region in which they live. The Visegrad grouping (the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia) within the EU has a new lease of life; Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine are reviving old ties. Latvia’s relations with Sweden are starting to flourish, as Finnish-Estonian links have done since early on. May we see the restoration of something akin to the Hanseatic League?
Taken together, these are all hopeful signs – signs that the resentments of the east and central Europeans may turn out to be a temporary stage and that the expectations of the 1990s, on both sides, were simply too high.
Most of the “new” Europeans lived reluctantly under varieties of communist repression for nearly half a century; 30 years may simply not be long enough to cast that legacy aside. Let’s reconvene for a new appraisal in a decade’s time.