November 9th marks the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. A watershed in European history, it paved the way for an ideal re-unification of the Continent, dismembered by the logic of the Cold War. Indeed, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Central-Eastern Europe had progressively leaned towards accession to the European Union which, for most of these countries, occurred with the maxi-enlargement round of 2004/2007.
However, in the last years, the historical momentum of common European values and ideas has seemed to have finished its boost. Political friction in Brussels and in other European capitals is often channelled in a East vs West rethoric. How much of this is true? Is the European Union at risk of an internal fracturing? Which are the main inter-state cleavages it faces and why?
In this first episode of Directors’ Cut, our Director Giorgia Miccoli and our Deputy Director Fabio Seferi will try to shed light on these and more issues.
The celebrations for the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall will ignite the German capital and the rest of Europe as no other event has done in the last year. The 2019 has been defined by some as the revolutionary year for Europe: a new leadership, a closer Brexit, and two important anniversaries. Indeed, the 30th commemoration of the fall of the Berlin wall on November 9 follows the 15th birthday of some Central and Eastern European countries’ EU membership.
Thirty years after the end of the division of Germany – and Europe, the old continent is still facing key cleavages that can endanger its future and perspectives. Is Europe still divided? Can it be whole and free once and for all?
It does not surprise that the lowest turnout at the last European Elections has been registered in the 11 Central and Eastern European member states. Even in increased compared to 2014, this fact highlights a still evident gap between Eastern and Western Europe.
There is indeed a disaffection across the board for voting in the European elections; the disaffection and disengagement becoming more pronounced moving eastwards. Notwithstanding, this phenomenon has been steadily present through history since European elections have always been considered a second-level election, with minor importance with respect to national ones. A far and somehow exclusive forum, Brussels has historically been seen as distant from the grassroots voter.
A gap between Eastern and Western Europe can be seen in the facets that populism assumes in the former. Mistakenly enough, in recent years populism was matched by many with CEE countries as to be a common feature of their (recent) political systems. However, populist leanings can be found in internal politics of many countries (e.g. United States, United Kingdom, Italy).
On the other hand, if we adopt the widely accepted definition made by Cas Mudde – which regards populism as a thin ideology, that can easily adapt to societies through time and space and that internally separates those same societies into two different, homogenous and antagonistic groups, i.e. the “corrupt elite” and “the pure people” – we can see how populism in CEE becomes dangerous for the EU: the “corrupt elite” in this case nearly exclusively refers to political and economic elites in Brussels. The part of society that is seen as alien, oddly enough, is foreign and relies elsewhere. However, it is precisely (and even more so) this elite that stands between the will of the “pure people” and its true accomplishment.
The rise of populism, independently from its matrix, leads to the construction of walls. Figurative or real, the walls born out of populist anger are difficult to destroy. Divisive, more than cohesive, populism has been rising and spreading in Europe, hardening borders and wiping out ideas of bridges.
Today’s politics in countries like Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia can be easily defined as Eurosceptic and populist. One of the key issues where the dream of European solidarity expires, giving space to populist stances to arise, is migration. In June 2015, indeed the Hungarian Prime Minister announced his intention to build a fence along the border with Serbia, to avoid the entrance of migrants in his country. The project of a wall between Hungary and Serbia, completed in 2017, appears as the love child of a difficult relationship between Brussels and Budapest, and the consequence of a growing populism virus not only in Orban’s politics but also in that of its closer EU allies.
It is among parties like the Lega Nord, the Rassemblement National, and the Alternative für Deutschland that populist stances find a fertile ground to grow and give space to what can be defined as a figurative wall. Built from the fear of the unknown, the identity-threatening being of the “other”, the wall that is closing Europe on itself could be the most difficult to eradicate.
A trend, that has been clearly shown in the last European Council decision not to open EU accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania. France’s veto has determined a slowdown of the Western Balkans’ path towards EU membership, thickening the wall between EU member states and non-EU member states in the region.
I totally agree on the centrality of migration in the strengthening of populism and in the rise of illiberal democracies in Central Europe. Populists want to reassert the will of the “true people” against those of privileged minorities, be it Brussels’s elite or, in this case, migrants. Indeed, according to Jan Werner-Muller, “[p]opulists claim that they and they alone, represent the people… [this claim] is always distinctly moral”. So they do not stand for and represent all society, let’s say Hungarians, but only “true Hungarians”.
Democracy is thus transformed into an instrument of exclusion when it legitimises populist parties through electoral success, as Ivan Krastev further notes. The value-system that stems from this process is opposite to the spirit of the European Union itself. For Central Europe illiberalism was a clear choice, paradoxically enhanced by the process of Europeanisation and EU integration. More radical politicians can be elected by the people in a certain country, since there is Brussels that will always provide a safety net, taming someone who goes too far.
The issue of not opening accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia is quite delicate. In my opinion, responsibility has to be given, not as much to populist rhetoric and fear of the other, as to Emmanuel Macron’s political calculations, or even Dutch economic considerations for the region. Whatever the reasons may be, one of the effects has definitely been the one that you described: the reinforcement of a metaphorical wall with the Western Balkans’ non-EU member countries.
At this point, I would like to ask you a conclusive question: what has Europe learnt 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall? Is Europe going towards the dream of erasing all of its dividing lines?
The glorification of the past seems to be a too common phenomenon in Europe today. As argued by the Croat newspaper Večernji List, “Germany, the most developed country in Europe, suffers from the same syndrome as the former communist or socialist countries, the nostalgia syndrome.” What does this mean? Why should Europe look at the past with nostalgia when so many promising things lay in the future?
There is surely a long way to walk before reaching the dream of a whole-and-free Europe. 30 years after the fall of the wall, new walls arise and past divisions are discussed again. Central and Eastern Europe is probably still waiting for the return to Europe, as they dreamt it in the years after the end of the Cold War. Democracy trembles in the light of new enemies and new challenges, including disinformation, migration and populism. Looking at the panorama in front of us, I would say that a full reunification has yet to succeed.
When it comes to deep processes and large polities it is easier to embrace possible frictions that to envision a more prosperous future. Nostalgia – be it historical or considered in a broader sense – is just a reaction to a difficult and unhappy present. At the crossroads of the two most important critical conjunctures of our times (i.e. globalisation and the economic crisis) the European Union has not found the key to manage these ground-shaking phenomena yet.
I fully agree with you: a so-called reunification of Europe has yet to be completed. Once the battle of ideas had virtually finished with the fall of the Berlin wall – ideas that had profound repercussions on the ways people had to organise their own societies – an anti-idealistic and anti-status-quo sentiment was free to arise and to draw new dividing lines in Europe. Probably the best way to face divisions in Europe is not by trying to erase divisions once and for all, but by building the instruments and the environment through which we can overcome them together.