When the countries of Central and Eastern Europe emerged from 40-odd years of Soviet-imposed limited sovereignty, one might have expected that their external policies would reflect the kind of prickly and insular independence usually associated with British Eurosceptics. The opposite has occurred. These countries have keenly sought to limit their sovereignty by applying to join such supranational organisations as Nato and the EU. The reason for this enthusiasm is not the prospect of Euros jingling in their pockets, but the security conferred by integration.
Intellectually and politically, the elites of former Communist states are today closer to the founding fathers of the then European Community than to the present-day western European architects of the 21st century's grande Europe. The countries in the eastern half of the Continent queuing to join the EU are undergoing a fundamental political, economic and social reconstruction on the ruins of a totalitarian occupation - a situation not unlike that experienced by western Europe in the late Forties and early Fifties. Although western Europeans were politically able to seize the chance to integrate in the post-war era - making war unthinkable among them - in the Communist east, any ideas about European integration went into the ideological deep-freeze or stayed in exile.
It should be remembered that during the Second World War, Central and Eastern Europe produced its own visionaries of European integration. Dreams of a "federal Europe" were not a monopoly of western Europeans. Edvard Benes, the leader of the Czechoslovak government-in-exile envisaged in 1941 a series of federations emerging out of the rubble of world war. And the Polish political writer and journalist Kazirierz Smogorzewski founded a review in London called Free Europe whose editorial line promoted the view that "some kind of regional federation in Europe must come". Underpinning these efforts was the same desire as their western European counterparts to avoid another war.
Today's champions of integration, however, find more inspiration from Brezhnev than Hitler. After 1989, freed from the yoke of Soviet Communism, "return to Europe" became the political battle-cry, and membership in the EU one of the targets of the post-Communist bravehearts.
To be sure, support for EU membership is uneven in the region. The Poles and Romanians are keenist to join, while a quarter of the population in the Czech Republic, Bulgaria and Hungary opposes membership.
The return of former Communists to power has not transformed the drive for EU membership in Hungary and Poland. But where former Communists never left power, as in Bulgaria and Romania, the integration priorities are mixed. Romania follows the Polish pattern, pursuing membership in all- western institutions as an important national interest. In Bulgaria, however, second thoughts about joining Nato have given efforts to join the EU a higher profile. Indeed, in security terms, Bulgaria seems to see the EU as more politically advantageous, with regard to Russian sensibilities, than membership of Nato.
This back-to-basics approach of the Central and Eastern European countries to integration has immediate implications for the Inter-Governmental Conference, which opened at Turin last month. For although EU enlargement is not officially at the centre of the conference agenda, it stalks every discussion on institutional change, from a common currency to trade policy.
Central and Eastern European thinking haunts the IGC like the ghost of integration past. It reminds the present-day Euro-scrooges of how, when it comes to European integration, they have come to understand the cost of everything and the value of nothing.
The writer is an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence Studies.Reuse content