The conflict between old and new member states is putting the EU to the test. The Union threatens to break apart without a solution.
A crack goes across the EU and it keeps getting bigger. Clear differences between the western, old EU countries and the new members in Central and Eastern Europe appeared: Among the new ones, more and more authoritarian governments are rebelling against fundamental European values that are taken for granted in the West: such as independence of the judiciary, freedom of the media, rights for minorities, equal treatment of people with different sexual orientations, to name but a few.
In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán continues his course towards what he calls “illiberal democracy”. The EU is viewed by the government in Budapest as a haven of evil, above all because of its refugee policy, which is considered too tolerant. At the same time, however, Orbán and his closest confidants benefit from EU funding, especially in agriculture. In Poland, Jaroslaw Kaczynski and his “PiS” (law and justice)- party are pursuing the right-wing authoritarian restructuring of the state. In Poland, too, the judiciary was placed under the government’s curate. Polish public service broadcasting / TV was also brought into line. Unlike in Hungary, there are more media in Poland that continue to defend their independence.
Last November in the Czech Republic, on the 30th anniversary of the “Velvet Revolution”, a hundred thousand people demonstrated in Prague against Prime Minister Andrej Babis’ government, against whom allegations of corruption were made. In Slovakia, Prime Minister Robert Fico had to resign after the murder of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancé. In Romania, some social democratic politicians even ended up behind bars due to corruption.
Two proceedings under Article 7 of the EU-treaty are underway against Hungary and Poland for violating fundamental European values. However, the sanctions provided for – such as cuts in EU funding or even the withdrawal of voting rights – cannot be imposed as long as the governments in Warsaw and Budapest support each other and vote against punitive measures in the respective partner country. For the EU, not less than its credibility is at stake. With what right can Brussels request candidate countries to fulfil the “Copenhagen criteria” in terms of rule of law if individual member states violate them without consequences?
The biggest differences became apparent in the course of the migration crisis in 2015 and 2016. The EU-Commission, led by Jean-Claude Juncker, made a decision to distribute refugees from the Syrian civil war and North Africa who had arrived in Greece, Italy and Malta. However, several EU countries, in addition to Hungary and Poland also the Czech Republic and Slovakia (so-called Visegrad 4 countries), did not implement the EU Commission’s proposal.
In a defiant reaction, several new EU members renounced the liberal values of the West. In the old EU countries, anger and lack of understanding spread. In 1989, weren’t the formerly communist countries enthusiastically transferred to the NATO and EU camp? Were the promises of freedom, prosperity and market economy not convincing arguments?
The first rift appeared in 2003, a year ahead of EU-enlargement when several eastern countries joined the US in its war against Irak. George W. Bush praised the “new Europe”and criticized the “old Europe”, mainly Germany and France, for not taking part in his war against Saddam Hussein.
“One of the paradoxes was that after the entry of Eastern Europeans, Western Europe ceased to be interested in Eastern Europe,” analyses the Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev. “The West thought that the East would continue on its own towards the West. As a result, the specific history of Eastern Europe was ignored in Western Europe.”
In this ideological vacuum, a newly awakened nationalism was spreading in the countries liberated from the Soviet empire in 1989. And this new national pride was difficult to reconcile with the European consciousness prescribed from above.
In addition, many citizens east of the “Iron Curtain” that was dissolved in 1989 felt like second-class citizens in the EU. With few exceptions such as Great Britain or Ireland, the labor market in the rich EU countries remained blocked for many years. And the promised prosperity was a long time coming. “People from the new member states have been treated arrogantly far too long,” admits the former head of government of Austria, Franz Vranitzky.
In addition, politicians from the east rarely came to influential positions in the EU or in international bodies: exceptions such as the former President of the European Parliament, the Pole Jerzy Buzek, or the former President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, or the Bulgarian Kristalina Georgieva the head of the International Monetary Fund, confirm the rule.
Companies from the west profited from the new markets in their neighbourhood, especially from the lower wages there. But there was also misuse: Multinational corporations operating across Europe – for example in the food sector – offered goods in the east with the same presentation but with less quality. This ranged from spreads with less hazelnut content to fish sticks with less fish. Such practices caused anger among consumers in the east and would actually have required countermeasures on the part of the EU Commission. But there were none.
Many Eastern citizens also remembered unfulfilled promises that wages would soon reach Western levels. Instead, a brain drain to the west occurred in the new EU countries. Bulgaria in particular lost almost two out of nine million inhabitants.
After 2015, the fear of predominantly Muslim immigrants was deliberately stirred up by populist politicians. In Hungary, the slogan of a “population exchange” supposedly planned by the EU seemed credible to many. Negotiations on the next EU budget from 2021 to 2028, which will start in early 2020, will further intensify the front-line struggles between the old and new member states. The “net payers” will demand cuts in EU funding to those EU countries that have shown no solidarity with the reception of refugees. The problem with this is that there is unanimity in the EU when it comes to determining income and expenditure for the common budget. So compromises will have to be made. The EU Commission will have to ensure that all EU countries comply with the common regulations with all rights and obligations. This is also the prerequisite for the admission of new states, especially in the Western Balkans. The old EU countries have to pay more attention to the concerns and problems of the new members. In terms of culture and social interaction, residents of Central and Eastern European countries can teach their richer neighbors a lot. They should shed their arrogance towards the newly admitted family members. “When you are invited into a house full of rich people you do not want to bring along your cousin with the torn trousers,” said the former Czech minister of Foreign Affairs, Karel Schwarzenberg.