EU’s challenge is East-West divide, not populism
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HIGHLIGHTS

Politically incorrect western officials now quietly suggest the eastward expansion may have been a mistake.

EU policies aimed at transforming the eastern area have stalled, while the continent’s southern flank continues to fester and requires immediate attention.

The next EU budget will probably be less favourable towards the poorer east, and expenditure will be tied to respect for the rule of law.

As the EU elections approach, the Brussels bubble is focused on the future make-up of the European parliament. According to some pundits, MEPs from anti-establishment movements may seek to derail or slow down European legislative processes. To put it simply, they will want to rock the boat. But no matter how well the motley crew of Europe’s populists does at the polls, the traditional big-tent parties will more or less hold. No, the real threat to the European project lies elsewhere, in the national capitals.

The rise of a Eurosceptic Italy has become a rallying point across the continent. In France, Marine Le Pen is trying to ride the wave of discontent that started with the gilets jaunes (yellow vests). In Austria, Heinz-Christian Strache’s Freedom party is exploiting blue-collar frustration over welfare payments supposedly lavished on foreigners in the country. Europe’s north-south divide is another obvious problem: many southern Europeans feel disillusioned with an EU that they, rightly or wrongly, perceive as a German or “northern” construct. They instinctively fall back on the nation state, which gives opportunities to cynical national leaders to present themselves as a bulwark against overbearing Brussels — think of poor Greek pensioners who were told it’s the evil Troika that is bringing about the misery, not the elites who had misruled the country.

But let me turn to a reality I know better — that of central Europe, whose discontent and malaise has not only a national dimension but a regional one, encompassing the post-communist countries. I see their estrangement from the mainstream as a more serious threat to European unity than disjointed populist movements. Why? Because central Europe is still markedly different from the rest of the EU — politically, economically and, most of all, culturally.

A new EU approach for the regulation of the single market (industrial policy, and more social rules adopted through qualified majority voting) will challenge the low-productivity, cheap-labour, dirty-energy model of central Europe.

- Jakub Winiewski

It’s hard to deny that divisions between so-called old and new member states are growing. Back in the 1990s and 2000s, inevitable east-west tensions during membership negotiations were softened by the importance of the “geopolitical moment” for people who’d brought the iron curtain down. Pope John Paul II spoke about Europe finally breathing with two lungs again. How quickly the mood has changed. One widely held belief is that post-2004 immigration made the British turn bitter about EU membership. Politically incorrect western officials now quietly suggest the eastward expansion may have been a mistake. Meanwhile easterners believe they are sentenced to second-class status for ever — and that belief has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

What went wrong? Changing laws, institutions and standards was always going to be easier than making mindsets align. Throughout the immediate postwar period, communist societies had been on an entirely different trajectory — missing out on the trente glorieuses era, from 1945 to 1975, of prosperity, secularisation, postmodernism and the maturation of democratic institutions.

The self-imposed isolation of central Europe will continue. Leaders in countries such as Poland and Hungary showcase their own specific “visions” for Europe but know full well they aren’t feasible or realistic. They are also less self-assured, hence their anxieties about Muslim immigration or leftist internationalism. The mood on both sides will continue to deteriorate. Italy’s downward spiral will preoccupy France and Germany more than the sulking central Europeans will. The next EU budget will probably be less favourable towards the poorer east, and expenditure will be tied to respect for the rule of law. A new EU approach for the regulation of the single market (industrial policy, and more social rules adopted through qualified majority voting) will challenge the low-productivity, cheap-labour, dirty-energy model of central Europe.

EU policies aimed at transforming the eastern area — Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia — have stalled, while the continent’s southern flank continues to fester and requires immediate attention. All these trends can be handily exploited by politicians looking to earn brownie points with voters.

The consequences will be almost immediate. The EU commissioners nominated by some central European governments will abrasively Eurosceptic. Don’t expect the next president of the council or parliament to be from central Europe. Bureaucrats from the east already face more difficulties joining the ranks of the EU external action service or commission, especially at higher levels.

This may make for a bleak picture, but in the longer term there are reasons for optimism. Central European societies are definitely pro-EU. The populist wave in central Europe could easily subside, as quickly as it came  the chaos of Brexit has opened many people’s eyes as to what the reality of being outside the EU might be. While there is no single solution to the east-west divide, one commonsense recommendation for all would be to keep calm and carry on, rather than yield to the temptation of excluding any member state, however aggravating its government may be. Thirty years after the reunification of the continent, the job is far from finished.

— Guardian News & Media Ltd

Jakub Winiewski is a Polish political analyst and director of the Slovakia-based GlobSec Policy Institute.