Five years of an enlarged EU: Where is Eastern Europe?

Five years of an enlarged EU: Where is Eastern Europe?                        

Translation Gwendolyn Albert

Five years after the enlargement of the EU in 2004 and 20 years after the political revolutions in Central and Eastern Europe, we should have plenty of reasons to celebrate. Instead, the threat of a new division of Europe is now being discussed. When, after the extraordinary EU summit at the start of March, headlines ran such as “Rejection of solidarity assistance for Eastern Europe”, many Czechs were outraged. After all, the Czech Republic is not part of Eastern Europe.

This is not merely a debate over the geographic positions of various countries. It has far more to do with the need to overcome the political division of Europe. Twenty years after the fall of the “Iron Curtain”, Europe has yet to grow into a single entity in the minds of many. Five years after EU enlargement, the term “the east” often carries a kind of negative flavor, both in the “old” and the “new” Member States.

The Voice of Europe

This applies even more to the Czech government, which chose the motto “Europe without Barriers” and the slogans “We’ll sweeten up Europe” as well as “We will harmonize Europe” for its EU Presidency. At the moment there is no harmony in the EU. Czech-French relations have been moody since the handover of the presidency, and the financial markets are not attuned to one another at all. In many areas of policy, the EU has a long way to go towards speaking with a shared voice. Sarkozy’s critique that the French automobile industry is producing cars for the French market in a foreign country and therefore transferring jobs abroad prompted a great deal of agitation in the Czech Republic, as the Czech media and polticians interpreted this critique as a demand by Sarkozy for Peugeot and Citroen to cease production there.

Response to the economic crisis

There is neither a global nor an EU recipe for overcoming the global financial and economic crisis. Coordinated measures in the interests of all Member States are essential at EU level. The European response must take into consideration the fact that the Member States have not been affected by the crisis to the same extent, for various reasons. Of course, it would be too easy merely to speak in terms of the “West” and the “East” or of the “old” and “new” Member States in this context. Even in Western Europe some countries have been more strongly affected by the crisis than others (Ireland, for example). Among the Member States which acceded to the EU in 2004, there are states which find themselves on the verge of bankruptcy due to many years of neglecting reforms (such as Hungary), while others are feeling the crisis due to their heavy dependency on foreign investment and exports (e.g., the Czech Republic).

Economic successes of an enlarged EU

During the conference “EU Enlargement – Five Years After”, which took place on 2 March in Prague as part of the Czech EU Presidency, Czech PM Mirek Topolánek said the EU-27 share the same values and aims, but not necessarily the same concerns. He emphasized that the greatest challenge for the EU is the strengthening of the internal market. The Czech government has criticized the fact that in some areas, the same conditions for the four EU freedoms still do not apply for all Member State citizens (i.e., the free movement of labor and services). ODS, as the strongest governing party, is warning against national protectionism. Topolánek sees the only solution for strengthening the EU economy in the liberalization or rather the deregulation of the European internal market. Within the framework of this conference, the Czech government presented a Commission report on the economic impacts and challenges of the enlarged EU. The report comes to the conclusion that both the “old” and the “new” Member States have profited and are profiting economically from enlargement. This is news of no little importance during this time of crisis.

Protectionism or liberalization?

When seeking an answer to the question how to address the impacts of the financial and economic crisis are likely to be, the comparison of protectionism with liberalization is not the correct discussion to have. Neither protectionist measures nor the liberalization of the European Common Internal Market will solve the problems the EU is currently facing. Rather, the solution concerns whether the EU will succeed in creating terms of reference for the Common Internal Market that will take into account and realize the principles of balance, fairness, proportionality and sustainability. In addition, the Member States must agree on how it will be possible during a time of crisis to help those particularly afflicted. The prejudice that the “new” Member States are living at the expense of the “West” are just as dangerous in this context as the prejudice that the “old” Member States are incapable of solidarity. 
European identity and solidarity

The same voices warning several months ago that the EU was threatening the national sovereignty of the Member States are today demanding a consistent, coherent EU of solidarity. However, solidarity is a value that cannot just be assumed or required. Without a deepening of EU integration, the feeling that we are mutually responsible for one another will never be developed. Only the development of a European identity to overcome the emotionally laden categories of “West” and “East” or “old” and “new” will make it possible to recognize various concerns in the future and to formulate a joint strategy for overcoming crises. Inside the EU, however, there is currently a lack of imagination, inspiration and will; there is a lack of enthusiasm or passion regarding the European project. Little of the hopes of 1989 have remained alive in either the “East” or the “West”. Twenty years after these peaceful revolutions, there is the danger that the incompetence of many politicians to find an explanation for and resolve the crisis is having a negative impact on the political landscape and political culture in many Member States.

Perhaps the Europeans will once again find one another and Europe itself at the start of April during the EU-USA summit in Prague, when Barack Obama is expected to tell an enthusiastic audience of “non-East Europeans”:  “We need Europe!”