Eastern Europe: (Still) the Most Crucial of All Challenges Facing the European Union
Without figuring out how to complete successfully the integration of Eastern and Western Europe, the EU will be doomed to failure.
Many, if not most, citizens of the European Union don’t seem to realize it but “Eastern Europe” (still) is the most important of all challenges and “issues” for the survival, success, and well-being of the European Union.
The failure to realize the importance of the lingering relative failure to achieve the all-out equalization and integration of the EU’s West and East is true of EU citizens anywhere – regardless of whether they live on the Atlantic Coast or in the Baltics or the Balkans.
In other words, continuing in a successful manner the integration of the Eastern European member states with Western Europe has always been and will always be the single most important thing (factor, challenge, decision, area, you name it) for the EU as a whole.
And, by extension, for the entire global West.
The significance of managing to integrate all EU member states into a single geopolitical being combining its globalized West with the former communist East into a single supranational entity dwarfs every other challenge before the EU that one could think of.
When, or if, that finally occurs, the supranational entity in question would be one of relatively equal economic well-being, opportunities, freedom, human rights, rule of law, quality of life, and a common identity – from the North Sea to the Black Sea.
The West – East integration inside the already existing EU membership is without a doubt the single most crucial issue for the EU.
(Except maybe climate change – but then, again, assuming there is, or was, enough time to tackle climate change, one would never be able to do that without all-out political stability, and certainly not if international relations in key world regions are in disarray. Certainly not if the EU, the world’s only post-modern zone of inter-state relations, is suffering from flawed integration.)
Perplexingly and counterintuitively, the importance of this “merging” of Western and Eastern Europe is routinely overlooked in both the Western European member states (“Old Europe” as the American neocons once styled it somewhat shrewdly) and the Eastern European member states (“New Europe”) off the European Union.
The fact of the matter is that a failure of the supposedly successful “merger” of Western and Eastern Europe poses a greater risk to the EU and the entire West than the other major risks such as mishandling relations with top outside powers and EU great power competitors such as Russia, Turkey, or China (or even Trump’s America); failing to cope with the migration crisis; or being unable to tackle international terrorism.
Why would that be the case?
How is Eastern Europe so important, this land where the Commie murderers went berserk, brought it to a demographic apocalypse and left behind ugly landscape of rusty unsuccessful industrial plants that are decaying today just as the communist propaganda claimed the West was decaying back in the good old Cold War days.
Eastern Europe is so important because it contains a huge number of Europeans.
Or “new” or “newly (self-)discovered” Europeans, if you wish.
It contains a large chunk of the body of Europe. A human individual woudn’t consider a part of their own body as not belonging to it, or as being inferior to the rest of it. That should be case with the EU as well.
That’s not even mentioning the tremendous still unrealized or under-realized potential of Eastern Europe and the Eastern Europeans.
Or the indisputable historical fact that Eastern Europe is the key to the security of Western Europe and the entire continent for that matter.
(Guess where the Mongols, the Ottomans, the Nazis, and the Commies went first in their woefully inspired quests to conquer the entire Eurasian landmass.
It’s actually worth reminding how each of those forces went as deep inside Europe as it could:
The Mongols swept Hungary but went back because of dynastic strife. The Ottomans reached Vienna twice within 150 years, before they were beaten back by grand Europe-wide coalitions. The Commies made it all the way to the Fulda Gap, and stuck around for decades (in a previous attempt in 1921, they were stopped earlier, in Warsaw). And the Nazis – well, they did originate in the heart of Europe like “a spider web with octopus tentacles”, as one college history professor once put it but they still were all about their Eastern European lebensraum.)
To put it another way, thanks to its three enlargements from 2004 until 2013, the European Union added a combined total of 110 million “new” Europeans to its population, 1 million square meters to its territory, and 1 trillion USD to its GDP.
And those figures have no way of reflecting the things that are far more important than size:
Enormous economic and social growth opportunities, a greatly enhanced geopolitical position, and, most important of all, an unprecedented boost in continental security.
Doing the good and the right thing isn’t even considered here. It seems that it rarely is in high politics. And, yet, us common folk seem to think that it should. And we are right. This integration between Western and Eastern Europe that is finally underway is the ultimate act of changing for the better the lives of dozens of Europeans whose countries have suffered horrifying mass-scale atrocities under the yokes of Nazis and Communists more recently, and of outside invaders such as Mongols and Ottomans before that.
After the end of the Cold War, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the lifting of the Iron Curtain, the EU15 thus correctly and rightfully chose to integrate with the other European countries:
A total of 13 so far – six former Warsaw Pact and Soviet Bloc states (Poland, Czechia, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria), three former Soviet states (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania), two former Yugoslav states (Slovenia and Croatia), and, to spice things up a notch, two Mediterranean island states (Cyprus and Malta).
The bulk of these “newly European” countries have had a more turbulent fate than those in the West, and a tougher historical heritage largely thanks to their geographic location.
Yet, despite all their existing flaws these are primarily modern-minded, overwhelmingly secular, and stanchly pro-European nations. Historically, these nations or their predecessor have defended themselves against outside invaders, thus also inadvertently defending all of Europe, and all of the West.
These nations have unconditionally desired to integrate with Western Europe through the EU.
And while the economic reasons for that have been the most overt, in reality this desire has been driven first and foremost by these nations’ never-ending quests for freedom
For it is freedom that starts it all, including economic opportunity.
Living in the “middle tier” of states between the Baltic, Adriatic and Black Seas, possibly the most invaded and conquered part of the world, would do that to you. So would having fought countless wars, rebellions, and civil wars with all kinds of enemies for many decades so as to defend, preserve, liberate, or re-establish your nation state.
The newly found unity of Europe epitomized by the enlarged European Union today is threatened primarily by two factors:
First, the emergence or resurgence of powerful post-communist oligarchy ruling elites in Eastern Europe, a direct consequence from a colossal mistake made by the West in the early 1990s, especially by the United States of America, the dominant power at the time and still, not to seek the decommunization of the former Soviet Bloc after the collapse of communism (the way Germany, Austria, and other parts of Europe were denazified after World War II).
Second, a failure in Western Europe to appreciate the importance of Eastern Europe (or at the very least of the Eastern European countries already admitted to the EU), and thus to solidify the integration of the two so that no other major outside power could manage to grab hold of the latter and thus threaten the well-being and survival of both in the foreseeable future.
The post-communist oligarchies throughout Eastern Europe demonstrate a varying degree of robustness – from being the least robust, probably in Estonia, to being the most robust, probably in Bulgaria.
However, these oligarchies’ common denominator is the possibility that, although they have benefitted tremendously from their countries joining the EU in a variety of ways, thanks to their misfortunate capacity as de facto ruling elites they could be tempted to snatch their countries away from the European Union and the West – depending on the circumstances.
They could do that either by attempting to govern their countries entirely on their own, which is not very likely, or by succumbing to the influence of outside powers who would be hostile not just to Europe and the West but to democracy, human rights, human freedoms, and everything that’s good and pure.
Western Europe, at the same time, has been perplexingly inclined to devote itself to all kinds of other issues different from solidifying its historic achievements with respect to Eastern Europe.
It’s as though “the Wind of Change” captured by legendary German rock band The Scorpions in their emblematic 1990 song of the same name was very weak and very brief.
That has been true despite the billions of euros in development aid the EU allocates each year to its poorer member states.
(Although those aren’t even technically specially designed for Eastern Europe because of its horrendous poverty heritage from communism – the funds are need-based also to Greece, Portugal, Spain, Southern Italy, Wales, Ireland, or whichever EU regions need them. And while that is fair by itself, there is a loss of focus on why Eastern Europe is lagging so far behind the rest of the West: because of its horrible historical heritage, most recently and perhaps most notably resulting from communism.)
Eastern Europeans still are – or at least seem to be, or at least are widely perceived to be – on the bottom of the feeding barrel in the EU (forgive my cynical metaphor) – not just as member states inside the EU but also as EU citizens whenever they emigrate to the Western European parts of the Union.
Or even when they get Nutella and other consumer food products with inferior ingredients from multinational corporations. (Yes. What’s that about?)
To top it all off, the Eastern Europeans have even suffered from the political correctness paradigms dominating the “old” Western societies because they happen to be “white”. This has made them the most beloved and universal target of anti-immigrant fury, xenophobic fury, economic fury, or just any kind of fury that an average Western European might experience.
Naturally, this has been most notably pronounced in the constant lashing out of the British press.
(It’s unknown how they will do it but it seems guaranteed that even after Brexit, the British press would still attack the Eastern Europeans day and night as the source of all evil in the entire universe – wherever those wretched of the Earth might happen to reside.)
This fact that the continuing integration, and mutual integration of the Western and Eastern EU remains the most important thing for the European Union has got to be reminded constantly. It seems so easy for everyone to forget. Not just for the public but even for the political leaders.
The topic in question has now come to the fore once again with the comments in the first interview of Ursula von der Leyen, the new President of the European Commission, whose election has become an incredibly interesting phenomenon.
Especially because it happened with the crucial support of some truly unpleasant rulers from Eastern Europe who, however, also happen to verbalize some truths about the European Union.
(Sure, they have used those truths as a justification for their abuses of power – but could you blame them? Yes, actually, you could and you should.)
For the EU as a whole, and for Western Europe in particular now it all boils down to that:
Want to guarantee your security for centuries, or at least decades? Want to be a world power not for the sake of being a world power but for the sake of doing good – say, tackle climate change with some success, bring freedom and democracy to those east of the current EU borders who desire it, or not be dependent on the whims of whatever celebrity makes it next to the White House?
Then figure this Eastern Europe thing out. It’s very complex but history doesn’t care. Those who want to destroy you don’t care. So figure it out soon. And be persistent about it by always keeping it at the top of your priorities list.
Want to set yourself further down the path of decline, to an honorable spot on the former great powers list? Want to expose yourself to ambitious and very powerful enemies – because the rest of the world isn’t post-modern the way you are? Want to depend on somebody else’s election choices and their rulers’ decisions?
Then ignore Eastern Europe and try just muddling through.
Good luck with that.
(Banner image: Wikipedia)