There are those who maintain that the European Union is just one giant illusion, a product of wishful thinking that bears no relation to reality. I am not among them. But there is one respect in which the EU countries, collectively and individually, have been wilfully deluding themselves, to the detriment of the enterprise as a whole.
Ever since 2004, the year of the great enlargement, both the “old” and the “new” Europeans chose to behave as though there were really no serious differences between them, and the few differences that remained would soon melt away. That happy conceit has now evaporated. In their response to this autumn’s refugee crisis, the bloc of new Europeans has shown markedly less generosity than most of the oldsters.
Now there were reasons for the self-deception, as there always are. Both old and new Europeans had invested a great deal in the success of enlargement. The old Europeans – rightly – felt an obligation towards the countries that had languished, through no fault of their own, on the “wrong” side of the divide after 1945.
Even the UK, hardly a poster-child for EU solidarity, signed up enthusiastically to eastward enlargement. No less a figure than Margaret Thatcher had spoken presciently in favour of a broader Europe in her 1988 Bruges speech, so the prospect was eminently saleable to the British right – even if the UK’s motives, when the time came, were tinged with hopes of diluting the power of Brussels.
The new Europeans, for their part, had worked hard to meet every dot and comma of the accession terms. They were not about to be patronised. They felt that they had earned their membership and deserved to be accepted on equal terms. They were eloquent on the matter of European “values” – which they cited at every opportunity, partly as a badge of belonging and partly to differentiate themselves from their eastern neighbours. New and old now joined a chorus of common, self-justifying, purpose.
There were tensions, of course, but the preference was to bat them away. France took against what it saw as Poland’s over-assertiveness in the early days, suggesting at one point that it should know its place. Poland learned to be more diplomatic, and speak better “European” (a skill not yet fully mastered by the UK). Four of the new members, including Poland, kept up their association in the post-Cold War Visegrad Group, giving them more clout on security than they might otherwise have had.
But the pluses were held to far outweigh any minuses. Rapid growth made many of the post-communist states admired models of economic progress; the wealth gap with much of “old” Europe was reduced. How much this was simply catch-up after decades of anti-market constraints, and why the narrowing of the income gap has now stalled are both questions worth asking. Until recently, though, the prevailing view was that “old” and “new” Europe were coalescing naturally into one.
That flattering conclusion, however, derived from only partial – largely material, and statistical – evidence. How deceptive it was became clear to me during a road trip around Central Europe this summer. As it happened, the route my husband and I had long planned took us through many of the places that are now almost daily in the news. They included the Austria-Hungary borderlands, where the lorry with its shocking cargo of 71 bodies was found; the delightful small city of Sopron, close to where the celebrated Euro-picnickers cut the first holes in the iron curtain; we took in Budapest, parts of Slovakia, southern Poland, and a rural area of former East Germany.
One conclusion I reached was that it will take a lot longer than the 25 years since the fall of the Wall to harmonise the two halves of Europe, not just in wealth, but in mentality. Russia will take even longer. The less visited parts of Central Europe offer a case study in what has been (relatively) easy about the post-communist transition, and what remains – and will continue to remain – hard.
To risk a sweeping generality, it is mostly the smaller, visible and tangible things that are quickly fixed: small shops and big supermarkets; banks and ATMs; petrol stations, better roads; the gamut of consumer electronics and domestic comforts (Ikea!). Of course, all this makes a big difference to people’s lives. But such obvious success of the sort that now makes, say, Budapest little different materially from Vienna is not the whole story. Major infrastructure takes longer to change; changing attitudes is the greatest challenge of all.
Cross the former east-west border, including the one within today’s Germany, and the difference is apparent almost at once. Quality of service; trust between individuals; confidence in institutions, and the sense of civic responsibility all hurtle down the scale. The “values” that the “new” Europeans so loudly espouse – and not just they, remember the cries of “Europe” from city squares in Ukraine – are also more circumscribed than in “old” Europe, deeply conservative in many ways, and rooted in the idea of a Western Christendom in need of protection. Of course, such undertones persist in “old” Europe, too, and you could argue that “new” Europe is just being more honest about its misgivings towards specifically Muslim refugees. You can also understand that countries which have only recently reclaimed their identity will be fiercely protective of it, and half a century of imposed communism leaves its mark.
But if Europe is to mean, as the impressive Jean-Claude Juncker insisted in Strasbourg this week, values that are both human, and humane in the broadest sense, then Europe is not yet united. And old Europe is entitled to point out that if new Europe wants the economic and security benefits afforded by the EU (as it clearly does) it will have to give, as well as take.
As Monday’s emergency EU meeting nears – which will discuss compulsory quotas for relocating up to 160,000 refugees – there are signs that Poland, Slovakia and perhaps others are moderating their stance. That would be progress. But the truth can no longer be ignored. While the visible disparities between “old” and “new” Europe are fading, in matters of mentality there is a way to go.
Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism
By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists
Already have an account? sign in
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies