European Affairs

The EU Must Foster the Fragile Democracies of Central Europe     Print Email
Krzysztof Bobinski

Krzysztof BobinskiThe enlargement of the European Union to include former Soviet bloc countries in May 2004 marks a major turning point in the affairs of the Union that will require new policies, sensibilities and a greater willingness on the part of its leaders to work together. Indeed it is becoming clear that attitudes will have to change if the European Union is to continue to successfully realize its main aim - that of ensuring peace and maintaining democracy on the European continent. Things were simpler for the founding fathers in the post-war years. The number of member states, starting with six and rising to 12 by the end of the Cold War, was still manageable. The confrontation with the Soviet Union behind its Iron Curtain provided a firm geographical framework for the European project. "Europe was sharply defined, and so was its central problem - Germany.

The challenge was how to rearm and integrate a defeated foe into the western alliance so that Germany could play its role in the standoff with the Soviet Union. Indeed, for the late French President Franois Mitterrand, even the birth of the common currency and the disappearance of the German mark, were a continuation of the effort to lock the Germans into the European Union. Helmut Kohl, the then German Chancellor, shared that view. If taming Germany was the key to maintaining peace in Europe, the establishment of stable democracies depended on facing down the continent's fascist past. Germany and Italy had been fascist states. France had flirted with authoritarianism under its wartime Vichy government. Spain and Portugal continued under authoritarian rule long after the war. Greece had its colonels. Of all the EU member states, Britain was the only combatant that had not been defeated or occupied during the war. Although the nationalist right still threatens to emerge in some countries as tensions grow within the European

Union, that legacy appears now to have been largely surmounted. But while democracy was assured at national level the European project was never submitted to a genuinely democratic test at the transnational level. As Loukas Tsoukalis notes in his 2003 book, "What Kind of Europe? the European Union developed under a "permissive consensus, in which populations was happy to leave the business of integration to their leaders. Tsoukalis adds that respectable economic growth rates meant that integration could be seen as delivering mounting prosperity.

The enlargement to the East bestows on the European Union an entirely different historical baggage that is nevertheless still largely the result of the last European war. Seven of the ten countries taken into the European Union in May 2004 - Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania - were either incorporated into the Soviet Union or were Soviet satellites. All were organized,more or less, according to the Soviet model.

Even though 15 years have passed since the Berlin Wall came down, the coming years will also be about erasing the legacy of communist rule that lasted almost half a century. Another priority will be to find a way of living with Russia, successor to totalitarian Soviet Union, which was neither defeated, as Germany was, nor has become a member of the European Union, as Germany is. No one is suggesting that the democracies in the post-Soviet countries are teetering on the edge of a return to one-party dictatorship or that Russia is about to resuscitate the old Soviet Union. Indeed the establishment of functioning democracies in the area once controlled by Moscow is a major achievement, especially if you remember that some of these countries, such as Poland under J—zef Pilsudski, Latvia under Karlis Ulmanis or Lithuania under Antanas Smetana, also had their authoritarian experiences in the 1930s. Since 1990, elections have taken place and governments have been replaced without dramatic side effects.

Nevertheless, the shadow of the past continues to fall on these countries. The weakness of their administrations and their institutions means that democratic structures are fragile. The taint of corruption mars the images of political elites and encourages widespread voter apathy. In some countries radical movements are challenging the established parties. Some of the smaller states could fall victim to state capture by Mafia-type organizations with their roots in Russia and elsewhere. Such developments could bring some exotic politicians to Brussels. Participation in elections in Poland, for example, is falling and confidence in institutions like the Parliament is close to single figures in the opinion polls. And while Moscow no longer has the ability to directly affect the affairs of the new EU member, Russia, as the German analyst Christoph Bertram has remarked, is in danger of becoming "not so much a failed state as a failed democracy. This means that the sensibility of the new member states to developments in Russia is and will continue to be much greater than in many West European capitals. Andrzej Olechowski, a former Polish foreign minister, told a conference in Warsaw in September 2004 that Russia must not be "left beyond the sphere of European values and norms. He argued that the European Union, working together with the United States, must find ways of bringing Moscow into the Atlantic community. At same time Olechowski urged the European Union to create the prospect of a "European future for Ukraine and Belarus by publicly declaring that these countries would be welcome to join the Union when they fulfill the conditions of membership. The European Union's so-called Copenhagen criteria demand that new members must have functioning democratic systems and market economies.

In a nutshell, the eastern enlargement means that the 25-nation European Union must remember that democracy in the new member states still fragile. The Union must also pay constant attention to strengthening democratic structures and blocking any return to the great power policies of the past in Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova, which will lie between its new frontiers and Russia after Bulgaria and Romania become EU members.

The European Union can be a powerful stabilizing force. One need only look back to the early 1990s and think what might have happened if the nations of Central Europe had not been on their best behavior in the hope of joining the European Union - or if the Union had not existed. Poland, for example, had potential frontier disputes and unresolved conflicts with almost all of its neighbors as the ice which froze the Warsaw Pact in place melted away. None of the potential conflicts came to the fore because the European Union had convincingly demonstrated a new "European way. Now Poland has good relations with all her neighbors.

Setting standards of behavior and extending promises of future membership will not, however, be enough. The societies to the East of the European Union's new borders are closely watching developments in Poland and elsewhere. They see the European Union's eastward enlargement as an experiment that can provide pointers to their own futures. If the economies of the new member states grow, corruption is beaten back and democratic institutions are strengthened as a result of joining the European Union, then the weight of the "Westerners among the Union's eastern neighbors will grow stronger. If the new member states falter in their development and are marginalized in the European Union, then those in Ukraine and Belarus who argue that their countries should turn away from the West will be vindicated. Membership of the European Union must thus be an economic success for the new states that will help to stabilize both the countries to the East and their own democracies. How this is to be done remains a matter for debate. It seems clear, however, that the economic framework of the European Union must be arranged in a way that allows the new members to make full use of their competitive advantage, which is lower costs of production. EU aid funds are, of course, important - not least in building a pro-European lobby in the new member states. But the newcomers must put their main emphasis on tight domestic fiscal policies and encouraging foreign direct investment. This, however, is a mix that requires courage from political leaders in the region, who are finding it difficult to tighten budget spending. Liberalization of labor regulations is also proving a major challenge for many new member governments.

This also requires special sensitivity from old member states such as France and Germany, which are demanding that corporate tax levels be harmonized across the 25-nation Union. The new member states already face increases in their production costs as a result of accepting EU rules and regulations. Demands that they now also increase their taxes amount to asking the new member states to concur in a further erosion of their competitive advantage, even though their levels of economic development are far behind those in the older members. Such demands serve only to confirm suspicions that the old EU states want to marginalize the new members economically. The new member states need to continue with economic reforms to remove the remaining vestiges of their old pre-1989 systems. This is not easy, as powerful forces want to keep the old social safeguards in a rear guard action that is slowing prospects for growth. Few argue, however, for the adoption of the Western European social model as everyone recognizes that the new member states simply could not afford it. But Germany and France also need to liberalize their economic systems to boost economic growth, which will also create more opportunities for exporters in the new member states. In short, the major EU economies must implement economic reforms to provide the high growth rates needed to finance enlargement and win popular support for it in both the new and older member states. But these reforms are in doubt because politicians fear the shortterm political losses such changes might engender. All this translates into politics at a time when EU voters and governments are taking close looks at the financial costs and benefits of the European project. In the West, the net contributor countries are becoming increasingly restive about continuing to bear the burden of financing the EU budget. Recipient countries that have been major past beneficiaries of EU aid, such as Spain and Greece, have long been concerned about the effects of bringing in new members that are more deserving of financial support. The new member states, whose populations have been led to believe that EU structural funds alone will provide major increases in growth, are nervous that these funds could be cut. They also wonder how there can be "more Europe if the EU budget is to be held to one per cent of the Union's combined Gross Domestic Product, as the largest contributors are demanding.

This nervousness comes as the commitment of individual countries to further European integration is to be tested in a spate of elections and in referendums on the proposed new European constitutional treaty. A positive outcome is by no means a foregone conclusion in major countries such as Britain, Poland or even France. In other words, the time of the "permissive consensus is over - as are the days of Jean Monnet, when progress on integration could be made in the European equivalent of American "smoke-filled rooms. Instead, the cause of European integration will have to be defended before national electorates suspicious of what they see as an elite project for which they are being asked to pay too much. Integration was easier during the cold war than in the phase of Eastern enlargement, on which the Union has now embarked. Then, there was a clearly defined enemy. Now, in the words of the British scholar Timothy Garton Ash, "Europeans are struggling to find an emotional glue to hold together this extraordinary project of voluntarily associating 25 very diverse European countries in a single political community.Á± My view is that the basic aim of the European Union, to ensure lasting peace and democracy for the continent, has not only not changed, but is still very much a priority. In a sense we are still attempting to put back together 19th century Europe. If Turkey becomes an EU member, Moscow will be the only major capital that played a leading role in that century which will not be in the European Union.Most importantly of all, Europeans are still working to erase the legacies of the two totalitarian ideologies that bedeviled the continent for so much of the 20th century. That task requires imagination, courage and a modicum of generosity from EuropeÁÃs present leaders. It also requires a dialogue between the leaders of the old and new EU member states to build mutual trust and recognition of the economic and political exigencies that both sides face. If European leaders continue to strike poses on the European stage meant largely for domestic consumption then the European Union is in trouble. But if they chose to look at the continent as a whole, and see enlargement as a major step to ensuring lasting stability, then the European Union, complex as the problems are, can have a future as successful as its past.

Krzysztof Bobinski covered Poland for the London Financial Times from the mid 1970s to 2000. Between 1998 and 2003 he published Unia & Polska, a bimonthly devoted to EU issues. He is currently the deputy president of the Unia and Polska Foundation, which studies the ramifications of EU membership for Poland.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number V, Issue number III in the Fall of 2004.