There’s now a growing perception within Europe that one specific category of societies or citizens deserves to be labelled with scorn or condescending regret. That category is geographically defined: it’s in the east. In Brussels, Paris, Berlin, and elsewhere in the western part of the continent, it’s become almost common wisdom to say the “easterners” are spoilers in the EU club. Is that fair?
Last week. Emmanuel Macron, Europe’s poster boy for liberal democracy, seemed to echo that rather patronising western vision: “The last 15 years have shown a path that has weakened Europe by thinking all the time that it should be enlarged,” he said. This is not to deny that there are serious problems. Poland’s ultra-conservative, nationalist government has come under EU Commission procedures for breaching the rule of law. Viktor Orban’s brand of “illiberal democracy” in Hungary has caused a lot of trouble.
Next year will mark the 30th anniversary of the 1989 revolutions that allowed Europe’s reunification. But it now looks likely that the anniversary will be marred by acrimony and tension. The “east” has attained a kind of pariah status. Central and eastern Europeans, goes the logic, “just don’t get” the European project: they’re in it only for the money, they don’t cooperate with Brussels as they should, they’re troublesome, they’re xenophobic, and they hanker for authoritarianism — what a success the club would be without them!
But aren’t we forgetting something? Look at the outcome of Italy’s recent elections: anti-immigration populists and far-right extremists are now slated to form the next government in the Eurozone’s third biggest economy. And what about Austria, where the far-right Freedom party holds three key ministries? In Germany, not only does the far-right AfD control 92 seats in the Bundestag (a first for an extremist party since the Second World War), its ideology now seems to hold sway on how Bavaria’s ruling CSU party is preparing for elections in the autumn in that powerful regional state. Nor can it be said that France, despite Marine Le Pen’s defeat, has rid itself of xenophobic and anti-Muslim sentiment.
To ascribe all Europe’s woes to its eastern part is simplistic and in no small part disingenuous. Not only that, but “reading” Europe along east-west lines risks feeding the very divisions that pro-Europeans say they want to solve or repair. Tit-for-tat rhetoric is rife and historical complexes abound, with Germany’s influence being an obvious source of resentment.
Setting the record straight on western Europe’s own worrisome traits and mistakes might help rekindle a sense of collective endeavour that seems to be cruelly lacking these days. Let’s remember that back in 2005 it was French and Dutch citizens (voting in referendums) who delivered a massive blow to plans for further European integration by rejecting the proposed new European Union Constitution — not the newly admitted easterners. Nor is central and eastern Europe a homogeneous bloc. Slovakia is a keen member of the Eurozone. And some easterners, in particular in the Baltic states, support common EU defence projects.
East-west relations within the EU are now so fraught that it’s become tempting to moan about the consequences of Europe’s reunification rather than to applaud it as a major accomplishment for human dignity and the freedom of nations to choose their own destiny, at the heart of a continent devastated by war and totalitarianism in the 20th century.
Populists in eastern Europe feed on genuine contemporary frustrations. (Wages are much lower, so catching up with the West feels like an endless process.) They also play on deep historical grievances: An understandable sense of abandonment after the second world war, and the notion that if western Europe had it so good in the second half of the last century, that was because its poorer, eastern half was left to suffer under dictatorship — in a word, sacrificed.
Western Europeans thought the bridging of psychological gaps that derive from differences in historical experiences would be easier. But in the east, overcoming the lingering trauma of having been part of Europe’s “bloodlands”, where the crimes of Nazism and Stalinism converged, remains an unfulfilled task — one that westerners can’t fully grasp, simply because their memory is different. This is not to say a blind eye should be turned to democratic backsliding: The EU must defend its principles if it is to survive. But acknowledging the burden and the pains that our eastern neighbours endured, and paying tribute to the legacy of the people power of 1989, might perhaps go a long way to defusing some of today’s disputes.
In Bratislava, recently, I met the writer Fedor Gal, one of the heroes of the 1989 uprising in Czechoslovakia. When I asked him about east-west tensions in today’s Europe, he said this about his region: “We yet have to understand that Europe is a path, not just a source of income.” If we want to find a way of relating to one another, and not just squabbling over quotas or money, we need to show we are aware of history. Calling out misbehaviour when it occurs is necessary, but not enough. Westerners carry their own share of responsibility for Europe’s travails. They have to acknowledge that for us too, the European project is a path.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Natalie Nougayrede is a columnist, leader writer and foreign affairs commentator for the Guardian.