As an old empire emerges from Europe's new alliances, Cameron will be left behind

If the PM thinks he can ally himself with the ‘new Europeans’ to reform the EU, he has another thing coming. These countries now have their own agenda

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You could probably date it from Margaret Thatcher’s Bruges speech: the Great British ambition to refashion the European Union after its own desires, as a flexible grouping of sovereign states, rather than the “ever-closer Union” enshrined in the Treaty of Rome. But when communism collapsed and the newly independent states in the east sought EU membership, the UK saw its chance.

Expansion, of course, was a laudable project in itself, reflecting the optimism and idealism of the times. But the enthusiasm of successive British prime ministers concealed a hope that the addition of so many new members would dilute the whole European enterprise – not least, so the thinking went, because nations newly reborn would be reluctant to sacrifice even a fraction of the sovereignty so hard won. Britain would gain friends to argue for a more loosely constituted Europe.

And so, for about a decade, it was – to the barely disguised fury of, among others, France. As the East and Central Europeans – enduringly dubbed the “new Europeans” by the US Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld – went through the hoops necessary to join the EU, the British gained trusty allies for their Atlanticist view of the world and for the European Union as a confection of fully independent states. In this complex and evolving union, Britain’s various opt-outs and its absence from the single currency were less conspicuous. Its “special relationship” with the US seemed less of an anomaly. The “new Europeans” had also joined Nato. They were as keen as the UK on the protection of the US defence umbrella.

All of which might give David Cameron the idea that, if all else fails, he can rely on the “new Europeans” for support in his quest to reform the EU in time for his promised In/Out referendum. If this is indeed part of his strategy, however, he may have another think coming. Times have changed, and so have the “new Europeans”, who are doing their utmost to live down that increasingly disliked label.

The speed and completeness of this  change were clearly felt in the Slovak capital, Bratislava, last weekend, at the annual international security conference, Globsec, which provides a showcase for the so-called Visegrad group of countries. The group, comprising the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland, as well as Slovakia, harks back to a 14th-century accord, and was formed in 1991 to press for guarantees that Central Europe would be firmly fixed in the Western bloc. Its efforts were crowned 13 years later, when all four countries joined the European Union. In 2009, Slovakia became the last country to join the single currency before the euro crisis struck.

For all the tentative efforts at regional cooperation that followed the end of the Cold War, however, the 1990s were years of splitting, not coming together. The biggest, most spectacular and most destabilising fragmentation was that of the Soviet Union, which dissolved into its constituent republics. And there were signs, at times, that the fragmentation could go further, with a brief challenge to Moscow from the mainly Muslim region of Tatarstan and the increasingly brutal Chechen wars. 

Beyond the Soviet borders, Yugoslavia broke up, Slovenia leaving peacefully, but the rest descending into civil war and, subsequently, dividing further. The three Baltic States were pursuing their fortunes as separate nations even before the final Soviet collapse, and within five years of throwing off communism, Czechoslovakia split amicably in two, demonstrating that divorces can sometimes be civilised. 

With so much breaking up going on, it made perfect sense for these countries to seek security in existing institutions, such as the European Union and Nato, even as they delighted in their rediscovered nationhood. Nor was there any need for them to banish old enmities. Small matter that Russia was a smaller, weaker, more self-absorbed successor to the Soviet Union; it was still the menacing bear to its former vassals, who brought their collective apprehension with them to the European Union. It was an apprehension that Britain, but not all “old” Europeans, was happy to share. 

Two striking trends emerged from this year’s gathering in Bratislava. The first – swiftly grasped by a young Russian academic – was that the preoccupation with Russia as the unifying enemy had receded. The notion of a Russian threat was not gone completely, but the emphasis was on the need and potential for regional cooperation within the EU and Nato. Russia was no longer the looming shadow of yore.

The cue for a new, more realistic, less fearful, approach to Russia had been set by the Polish foreign minister, Radek Sikorski, in a speech in Berlin at the end of 2011. But the combination, perhaps, of other factors – the continuing uncertainty in Europe because of the euro crisis, a growing sense that Europe would have to look more to itself  for security, given the US “pivot” to Asia (now renamed “rebalancing”), and an increased understanding of the way internal EU politics works through alliances – has fostered a new collaborative mood among the Central Europeans, both between themselves and with the consensus in the EU. This will not be of much help to Mr Cameron in the coming months.

A precondition of cooperation, however, is often the need to feel comfortable in your own skin – which is the second, related, trend. Over the past two years, I have visited each of the Visegrad countries, and the sense is of nations rediscovering their identity and heritage, while anchoring themselves, consciously or not, in the wider region. Sometimes, as with the – temporary, it is to be hoped – nationalist lurch in Hungary, they go too far. But in Bratislava, the sun shone. The restoration of the Baroque palaces is almost complete, the pace of life is relaxed, people look cheerful, and I cannot remember seeing more small children or pregnant women in one city centre. Looking around, it was easy to believe that, culturally and politically, Austro-Hungary is on its way back.

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