Europe’s East-West Divide: Myth or Reality?

Written by | Friday, May 31st, 2019

Fifteen years after the EU’s big bang enlargement, one would expect the dividing line between old and new (or post-communist) member states to have faded away. Many in Western Europe now think the EU was extended too far and too quickly as growing estrangement is beginning to lead to a reevaluation of the enlargements of 2004 when ten mainly Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries joined the EU, and 2007 when further two became members. Frustrated about a perceived lack of commitment to integration from the newest member states, some Western politicians have pushed for a two-speed Europe which leaves CEE countries with feelings as victims of persistent discrimination. In this situation, it is helpful to unbundle some of the key assumptions underlying the divide and check each one’s validity.
Myth 1: Two Opposing Factions
The first misconception is that Eastern and Western Europe have turned into discrete camps divided by many issues. Yet, in reality, the CEE countries are not a single bloc but are about as diverse as other regions of the EU. Apart from their common history as parts of the Soviet empire, their relatively low per capita incomes, and interest in a well-funded EU cohesion policy that can reduce the gap in economic development among member states, the CEE countries have overall little in common.
Myth 2: Incompatible Views on Migration
The second assumption is that fundamentally different attitudes between East and West on migration make progress on relevant EU policies impossible. However, while the CEE countries’ different historical experience and aging societies explain to a large extent why ethnic and religious diversity is perceived more negatively in these societies than in the globalized Western European states, it is undeniable that the anti-migration attitude is not exclusive to CEE countries in the last three years. As Western European states have also adopted much more restrictive policies and the number of new arrivals has diminished, the difference between East and West is now much smaller than it used to be.
Myth 3: Deficient Rule of Law
The third myth is that the CEE countries suffer from endemic rule-of-law deficits that threaten the functioning of the whole Union. While the legacy of four decades of Communism is certainly an additional handicap toward weak governance, such challenges are not unique to CEE countries. It was overoptimistic to assume that the EU accession process would remedy these deficits within a few years. But in fact, some CEE countries have made rapid progress, whereas others have good prospects to improve the situation. Much more serious are such situations when the problem is not the mere legacy of a weak state structures but rather the conscious effort of a governing party to entrench its rule by corrupted behaviour.
Myth 4: Opposing Stances on Integration
Another belief is that different attitudes to European integration in Western Europe and in CEE obstruct the EU’s further development and risk its fragmentation. Yet, studies have shown that contrary to earlier expectations, the accession of the post-Communist countries has not reduced the EU’s legislative productivity or slowed its decision-making. But, at the same time, the EU’s treaty commitment to an “ever closer union” has weakened in Western Europe over past decades, which has actually created more distance between both blocs.
Myth 5: Discrimination Against the Newcomers
The final misconception is that fifteen years after joining the EU, the CEE countries remain the poor relatives in the European family, with the older members continuing to run the show and protecting their advantages. However, in terms of political influence, what really matters is more the a core-periphery constellation and the size of a country. This does not mean that smaller member states have no influence, but they have to lobby harder and develop intelligent strategies to achieve their objectives. There is thus no systematic discrimination against the post-Communist member states, but only certain distinct rules of the game.
‚Europe’s East-West Divide: Myth or Reality?‘ – Analysis by Stefan Lehne – Carnegie Europe.The Analysis can be downloaded here

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