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The Fracturing European Union: Returning Schism Between Eastern and Western Europe

Map of Europe indicating the four member countries of the Visegrád Group

At the beginning of the 21st century, the European Union (EU) was expanding to encompass a much larger share of the continent than had previously been envisioned. The borders of the EU were moved eastward from central Europe to the borders of the former Soviet Union.

In fact, three former Soviet Republics, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, collectively known as the Baltic Republics, would become part of the EU as well.

The push to the east, began with the reunification of Germany in 1990. Not only would the former Communist part of the country be permitted to be part of the European Union, but would join the western military alliance known as NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization).

Map showing the division of East and West Germany until 1990, with West Berlin in yellow.

This development was facilitated by the thawing of the Cold War and the attempt by the Soviet Union to reform the stagnate economic and political structures that had existed for decades. Begun by former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev in 1979, the policy of perestroika called for a restructuring of the aforementioned.

Coming to power in 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev embraced this line of reasoning further and would add a new glasnost (openness). Together these twin policies, culminated in a rapid transformation of not only Eastern Europe, but the former Soviet Union itself.

The intention of Gorbachev was to bring about reform, but instead he would ignite forces that would bring about not only the end of the Communist bloc in Eastern Europe, but the dissolution of the Soviet Union itself.

The military alliance that united the former Communist nations in Eastern Europe known as the Warsaw Pact, was the product of the total domination of the region by the Soviet Union. Created as a counterweight to NATO in 1955, it would unwind with the nationalist political revolutions of 1989.

The Cold War (1945–90): NATO (in blue) vs. the Warsaw Pact (in red), the status of forces in 1973.

East Germany and Poland would withdraw from the Warsaw Pact in 1990. The following year, the remaining five nations of Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania and the Soviet Union would agree to disband. Albania had already withdraw in 1968, following the Pact invasion of fellow member Czechoslovakia that same year.

The dissolution of the Warsaw Pact was inevitable, with the overthrow of Communist governments throughout the region between 1989 and 1991. It had actually ceased to function, when member states failed to militarily intervene, during the violent Romanian revolution in 1989.

At the end of 1991, the Soviet Union itself would be disestablished and would disintegrate into 15 separate republics. Russia would remain by far, the largest and most powerful republic.

COMECON (The Council for Mutual Economic Assistance) had been the Soviet response to the European Union. Created in 1949, it would also disband in 1991. The economic pact had never been that successful in creating sustainable growth and was entirely too dependent as a whole, on the Soviet Union.

An East German stamp celebrating the 40th anniversary of COMECON in 1989.

In 1999, the new Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland would join NATO. They would be followed in 2004, by Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania and Slovakia. Albania would later be added in 2009.

These same nations would also move to become part of the European Union. Still fearful of a militarily resurgent Russia and the urgent need to grow their domestic economies more quickly, made it a logical foreign policy decision.

They collectively, made the assumption that a window of opportunity to more easily join, would later close. This would eventually prove to be a correct premise.

In 2004, the European Union saw its biggest enlargement ever. The Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia along with Cyprus and Malta outside the region, joined that year.

The Baltic States (in green) on a map of Europe.

Most troubling for Russia was the addition of the Baltic Republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. First they joined NATO, now the European Union. These two actions, firmly ensconced these three former Soviet Republics in the Western camp. The same could be said for all the other former members of the Warsaw Pact.

Austria, Finland and Sweden had already joined the EU in 1995.

In 2007, the nations of Bulgaria and Romania next became members followed by Croatia in 2013. This last addition, brought the total membership in the organization to 28.

During the same years a number of nations went further in their integration, by adopting the Euro as their domestic currency. This had become the common currency of the EU in 2002, when it replaced 12 national currencies.

Euro coins and banknotes of various denominations.

Slovenia would convert in 2007, Cyprus and Malta in 2008, followed by Slovakia in 2009. The Baltics would be next. Estonia in 2011, Latvia in 2014 and Lithuania in 2015. There are now 19 countries out of the total 28 EU membership, that use the Euro as their national currency.

The European Union at large however, has been beset by a number of serious challenges, since the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009.

There has been the corresponding debt crisis that has engulfed a number of countries within the bloc. These include Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain. A banking crisis was also felt in Cyprus and Italy. The former all required some form of a ECB (European Central Bank) bailout in the subsequent years.

Brexit campaigners outside Parliament in November 2016

In addition, a referendum in the United Kingdom last year, had a slight majority of voters preferring to leave the European Union. The present government has of yet, still not initiated the process of political withdrawal, that has become known as the Brexit.

The massive migration from the Middle East and North Africa that greatly accelerated in 2014, 2015 and 2016, added an additional strain on the cohesion of the bloc. Especially when a number of nations within the community, refused to accommodate any refugees, despite previous agreements on the settlement of people.

It has been the greatest movement of people, since the period following the end of World War II.

Schengen member nations are in blue, those countries obligated to join are colored gold.

This large influx of people escaping economic and political upheaval, has led to at least a temporary suspension in the Schengen agreement, for a number of nations. This had previously allowed the free movement of goods and people, within the countries that were part of the understanding.

Border controls and fences are being reimplemented all over the continent, as individual countries seek to regain control, over the movement of refugees from abroad.

The large migration of mostly Muslim people coming from outside of Europe and the rising incidences of terrorism, have resulted in some governments feeling forced to reassess the principles that were espoused under Schengen.

Barriers have already been constructed between a number of countries in Southeastern Europe, where the flow of refugees were concentrated both in 2015 and 2016.

Migrants along the Western Balkan route crossing from Serbia into Hungary, 24 August 2015.

Hungary was the first country to actively oppose the flow of migrants. It started with the building of a fence on the Serbian border in September 2015. The following month, this was extended to the border the country shares with Croatia. In March of 2016, Hungary would then create a barrier along the border with Romania.

The actions of Hungary of course, changed the migration of the newcomers from Serbia to Croatia and Slovenia. The latter would soon build its own barrier with Croatia, claiming it could not handle the sheer number of new arrivals.

Austria also subsequently refortified the border, it shares with Germany and it neighbors to the east and south.

Migrants at the Greek–Macedonian border near Gevgelija, 24 August 2015.

New fences would soon exist on the Greek-Macedonian border and the Macedonian-Serbian border.

The fear of further terrorist activity has already caused new controls at the border between Belgium and France. It has now been extended to all French land frontiers.

To stem the flow of migrants and to better get a grasp on who the arrivals actually are, border controls have been put in place on the Danish and German frontiers as well.

Today the boundary that Turkey shares with Bulgaria and Greece, remains closed due to a new migrant agreement between Turkey and the European Union.

Arrival of migrants in Dobova, Slovenia

Following the end of communism in Eastern Europe, the liberalism and market style reforms of Western Europe, were adopted in the East in a type of shock therapy. This sent the previously stagnant economies reeling. The idea was to move from centrally planned economies, into privatized free enterprise systems.

The transformation of the regions economies varied according to how quickly western style reforms were enacted in the individual countries.

Upon joining the European Union, the extensive aid that was provided along with the further restructuring that followed it was hoped, would allow a return to more rapid growth.

Location of Poland on a map of Europe.

Western Europe was speedily expanding east in the first two decades, following the end of communism. The most important prize was of course Poland, the largest country and economy in the region.

The Baltics Republics were among those most eager in adopting Western institutions, to strongly anchor their country to NATO and the European Union. As the tide began to turn in the opposite direction, the Baltics have unswervingly maintained their new western orientation.

The experience of the Baltics is becoming the exception, in the eastern parts of the European Union. There is a new schism developing in this region. Those nations that have resolutely become part of Western Europe and another group that are moving towards a more varied, complex relationship with the EU.

Russian President
Vladimir Putin

As previously stated, the Baltics as a group have become firmly entrenched with the West. Given their close proximity to Russia and recent moves by President Putin to reassert influence in what he deems the near abroad, they have few other options.

To the south is Poland. Since accession to the European Union in 2004, its GDP (Gross Domestic Product) per capita has doubled. The country was one of the biggest success stories in the bloc. The electoral victory of the populist Law and Justice party (PiS) in October of 2015, has begun to change Poland both domestically and its relationships abroad.

The new Polish leadership has rapidly consolidated power by appointing individuals in key positions loyal to the top politicians. They have also annulled appointments of constitutional judges and interfered generally, in the judicial system. In addition, there have been moves to silence critics of the new government in the media. More than 130 journalists have already been purged.

Sejm is the lower house of the Polish parliament.

This past December, the legislature passed a law restricting the freedom of assembly. Political maneuvers are even being used to enact provisions, that are limiting the participation and rights of members of the Sejm (Parliament) that are not in the PiS.

The European Commission has looked into whether these actions violate the rule of law. Already last April, the international credit agency of Moody’s has warned that ongoing activities of this sort, could make the country less attractive to foreign investors.

Poland is one of the nations which now refuses to abide by previous agreements concerning the recent surge in migrants, coming mostly from the Middle East and North Africa.

Bełchatów Power Station is a lignite-fired power station that produces 27–28 TWh of electricity per year, or 20% of the total power generation in Poland

PiS does not favor the EU common approach to climate change either. Instead the country has pronounced intentions, to further develop its coal resources to generate electricity. Power originating from coal, is already at a whopping 85% of the total.

The increased expenditures for social programs in Poland enacted by PiS is forcing the national budget deficit higher to 4%. This is above the agreed upon 3% across the EU. Earlier retirements, more health benefits, tax cuts, payments to parents with children, are all putting additional pressure on spending. An aging population alongside high emigration, is not good news for the long term health of the Polish economy.

Warsaw is the financial and economic hub of Poland. It is the capital and largest city.

There are fears by many leaders both within Poland and abroad, that two decades of democratic progress is now being reversed. Although domestic protest to the PiS has grown in recent months, the party remains popular, as a result of its nationalist stance and increased social spending.

The overall outcome for Poland is a drifting of the country away from Western Europe and towards a more nationalist, self contained society that is focusing inward. The country is now finding far more in common with its neighbors to the south.

South of Poland is the former Czechoslovakia, which would become two separate countries in 1993. These would be Slovakia and the Czech republic. The latter would be renamed Czechia in 2016.

Straka Academy, the seat of Cabinet in Prague, the Czech Republic capital.

Czechoslovakia culturally, had been part of Western Europe between the World Wars. As a result of geography, the country would end up behind the Iron Curtain after the Second World War. This made the nation an East European entity.

Although Czechia may yet gravitate towards Western Europe again, at present given the political developments within the country, it remains at the crossroads between these two regions.

Like Poland, Czechia and Slovakia, along with Hungary form the political alliance, known as the Visegrad. The group once worked to accelerate its members integration into the European Union. The recent move away from liberalism in all four countries, is now presenting Europe a real challenge.

The new unity among the group, make their policy positions far more pronounced.

Visegrad Group leaders’ meeting in Prague, 2015

New rules enacted in 2014, no longer allows a minority of nations in the European Council to block the wishes of the majority. This has made the governments in Visegrad more confrontational. Trust for EU institutions, has fallen in all four nations. This is true, even though the group gains substantial funding from the EU. It was still at 6% of Hungarian GDP in 2013, for example.

One unifying principle of all four nations, is their combined opposition to the acceptance of any more migrants. This is especially the case if they are Muslim. The anti-migrant viewpoint held by a growing majority in the region, is providing cover for the governments now in power, to further limit the opposition to their rule.

The also are in agreement for example, with their opposition to the climate change policies of Western Europe. The belief among Visegrad is that actions taken by the European Union as a whole, will lead to lower economic growth in Eastern Europe. This is because they are far more reliant on coal and lack the financial resources, to develop alternatives like renewables.

Viktor Orbán
Prime Minister of Hungary

In Hungary, Prime Minister Orban has become some sort of a spokesman for Visegrad, over the issue of migrants. His grab for even more authority, through new legislation concerning terrorism, indicates his skillful use of the issue for domestic audiences.

Orban has been in power since 2010. He began the move in the region away from Western Europe. Once in control, the party he represents moved quickly to limit the power of the constitutional court. Soon it would be filled with Fidesz party loyalists, which then allowed the transition to a new constitution. A change in the electoral system, would greatly assist the party in its 2014 re-election bid.

As in Poland, there was a move to strengthen government control of the media by various methods.

The influence of Visegrad on Bulgaria and Romania even further to the south, has been growing.

Breakup of Yugoslavia

In the dismembered former state of Yugoslavia, Slovenia and Croatia will continue to orientate more towards the West. Whereas Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia it seems, will remain part of the East.

After a foray towards western style methods, both Bulgaria and Romania are now reverting back to their traditional role in Eastern Europe.

Romania retains one of the most corrupt systems in Europe. The national elections held in December for example, returned some of the same politicians to power, that were forced out the previous year due to a number of scandals.

The winning ticket was the Social Democrats (PSD), who wanted to install their party leader Liviu Dragnea, who is presently serving a suspended sentence for electoral fraud. A 2001 law disallows his appointment by the president, to serve as Prime Minister. The reason being he has been convicted of a crime.

Boyko Borissov
Prime Minister of Bulgaria

The Socialist Democrat party won a vote of confidence in the Romanian Parliament, by a comfortable margin just this week.

Last November, the conservative Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov announced his resignation and early elections, after his party was defeated by the Socialists at the polls for the presidency. Mr. Borissov had been forced to resign once before. His government had been been brought down before by massive protests over rising electricity prices in 2013.

President-elect Radev wishes to change the pro-western policy of Borissov, to one that is far more pro-Russian. There are long standing ties between the Bulgarian Socialist party (the former Communist party) and Russia. The earlier decisions by Borissov to even cancel several major energy projects with Russia would likely be reversed.

Remains of the “iron curtain” in Czech Republic. The old border between East and West during the Cold War.

Still, Borisov has kept an independent course for Bulgaria. He recently turned down the idea of stationing a NATO naval force in the Black Sea, which would have been an additional Western response to the ongoing Russian involvement in Ukraine.

Despite the passage of time and the end of the Cold War, the divide between Eastern and Western Europe is roughly where it was in the 19th and the first part of the 20th centuries. The German-Polish border, is once again the dividing line between East and West as is the Czech-German frontier.

The same can be said with respect to the border that divides Austria from Hungary. The line continues south providing a demarcation between Slovenia and Hungary and Croatia from Hungary. It ends on the Croatian-Serbian and the Bosnian-Croatian border.

As is often the case in history, sustainable change may take far longer than may first be indicated.

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