The meaning of a bigger Europe


It is too easy to be complacent about what has just happened in Europe. Ten countries, eight of them from central Europe and so formerly part of the Soviet Union, joined the European Union on May 1st. That was, in a way, just a technical or institutional event: a group of 15 countries became 25, and the various EU institutions had to adapt to the change. But it was much more than that. It was an event of deep symbolic and emotional importance.

The event was above all of emotional importance to central Europeans themselves, whether Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Slovenes, Hungarians, Latvians, Lithuanians or Estonians. But it was also significant for west Europeans like myself, who was lucky enough to be born in Britain during the 1950s, not Latvia or Poland.

During the years when I was growing up, it was as if central and eastern Europe were on another planet. Even visiting Austria, part of the West, was strange, for one saw road signs to places I was taught to view with great suspicion: Prague, Warsaw, Budapest. These were the homes of communist enemies and hotbeds of spying.

When I visited East Berlin for the first time in 1981, it was horrifying as well as scary to see the Berlin Wall and to pass through the border checkpoint. I then got my first lesson in the hopelessness of Soviet-style economics and management when I queued up to have a meal in the revolving restaurant on top of East Berlin´s telecommunications tower, a local landmark. The queue was long and very slow-moving, so I assumed it must be popular and full. But when I finally got into the restaurant I found that it was almost empty and the staff were mainly leaning on the bar and smoking cigarettes. They had decided only to admit a few customers at a time in order to avoid having to work hard.

All that came to an end, of course, in 1989-91, when the Berlin wall was demolished, Germany reunified and Soviet control over central and eastern Europe collapsed. Since then, I have visited central Europe many times, and watched it become more modern, developed and gradually more prosperous. In a way, the joining of the European Union on May 1st was the culmination of a decade-long process rather than something new. But to me, and I think to the whole idea of Europe, it meant much more than that.

First of all, it meant that at last the name “European Union” really became more or less accurate. When the EU just involved countries in western Europe, the name was a hollow boast, a sort of propaganda claim against the Soviets. Now it is almost real: the EU stretches across almost all of Europe. Romania and Bulgaria will join in two or three years time, and other small states in southern and eastern Europe will follow soon afterwards.

Second, it symbolised the beginning of a new sort of equality of political and economic treatment across the whole of Europe. Since 1991, central Europeans have felt like second-class Europeans, poorer and in need of support. Now, as full members of the EU, they are still poorer but nevertheless have first-class rights (or they will, over the next few years, as rights to work anywhere in the EU are phased in) and are catching up in economic terms.

Many people, including in Britain, do not treat them as equals. There is plenty of prejudice against immigrants from central Europe, including beliefs spread in popular newspapers that such immigrants are stealing jobs or scrounging welfare benefits. Such beliefs are false. Unemployment in Britain is low, central Europeans are hard workers, and there is less evidence of those immigrants scrounging welfare benefits than there is of British people doing so. Britain, like other European countries, has always been a land of migrants, who have added greatly to our economic and cultural dynamism over the centuries. In my house in London, when the builders working on it were Polish and I found the labels on the electricity supply written in Polish, I thought of that history.

But these prejudices will fade and become less important, even if they will not disappear altogether. We can now share workers, markets and cultures much more easily than before, which should help Europe become more economically successful.

The decision to join the European Union is about more than only economic gains, however, and it is about more than symbolism—important though both of those things are. What it means above all is that, thanks to the treaties and common institutions of the European Union, the now 25 countries of Europe are forced to find ways to co-operate with one another, to compromise, to reconcile their many differences and conflicts. The treaties oblige them to do that, by law, but also the schedule of having to meet in ministerial summits every month or two, and to send bureaucrats and ambassadors to Brussels, builds this deep into the political and institutional fabric of each country. The habit of compromise and working together cannot be avoided, once you are a member, even if it is uncomfortable.

The result is not always pretty. Many common European policies are a muddle. Many needed reforms become blocked because it is impossible to secure agreement among so many countries. While some Europeans may dream of rivalling the United States as a force in world politics, that is in practice impossible because the European Union is inherently unable to take decisive, coherent action in the way that the USA can, when it wants to.

Yet although the result is muddled, and rarely as good as it might theoretically be, the necessity of working in concert definitely has beneficial effects. It reduces prejudice and tempers the normally bitter language of national politics. It forces politicians and officials to think of the international dimension whenever they are contemplating domestic policy changes. It acts to suppress extremism and hasty action. It is not perfect, by any means. But it does, on balance, have a beneficial effect.

Now that almost the whole of Europe is inside the European Union, some people worry that the Union will become unworkable. I am more optimistic than that: the need to work together, and the institutional habit of doing so, will force countries to find ways to make such a large grouping work, even if it takes time. The Union´s great triumph in the 1950s and 1960s was to make the old European enemies, France and Germany, work together and avoid wars, and now the same effect is going to be spread across the whole continent.

Asians, looking at the EU, often conclude that such close co-operation would be impossible in Asia, such are the geographical and cultural differences, as well as political ones. But that is too pessimistic. It takes time. But the dream of Asia, right now, ought to be a dream of building institutional ways to oblige Japan, China and South Korea to work closely together and to avoid the bitter differences that often separate them. Other countries should be involved too. My personal dream, though, would be to see China, Japan and—yes—a unified Korea combined in an Asian union.