Europe after Thirty Years, a Long Chapter of Misperceptions?

The EU acquired 11 new member states and never really took the trouble to understand what these new member states were about. Indeed, there was a lingering suspicion that they were deviant in some way.

What actually happened in 1989? Obviously, it was the end of the Soviet-type system, the political monopoly of the party, the nomenklatura and the formal language of Marxism-Leninism. For many, especially in the West, the story almost ends there. The one addition in the Western version is that communism ended because the West, the US above all, overthrew it. So, in the eyes of some to the west of the Elbe, Central Europe owes the West a debt of gratitude. And this justifies the moral and political superiority with which the West has tended to treat its newly acquired East.

There is much that is questionable about this narrative, notably that it entirely screens out the local actors. Some will grudgingly accept that Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika may have had something of a role, but the Polish Round Table, the Velvet and Singing Revolutions, the Hungarian insistence that 1956 was not a counter-revolution (as the communists insisted), but a national uprising, the demonstrations in Leipzig, in Prague, and the events in Romania in December 1989 are screened out as marginal or irrelevant. They certainly disturb the Western narrative.

So, can we agree that perestroika was a necessary condition of 1989, the role of the West as an alternative was a helpful condition, but what the Central Europeans themselves did was a sufficient condition?

The Central European narrative, that the end of the Soviet-type system was largely—not entirely—endogenous has perforce a lower status in the Western hierarchy of events. This lower status tends to obscure two processes. One of these is the agency of the Central Europeans and the other is that what happened was national emancipation—the nation in question very much with an ethnic content. “Let Poland be Poland” or some of the Estonian texts sung in 1989 illustrate this proposition, as does the Hungarian concern for the ethnic Magyars in the neighboring states (cf. József Antall’s statement that he was the Prime Minister of 15 million Hungarians “in his soul”). This did not go down well.

The Central European narrative, that the end of the Soviet-type system was largely—not entirely—endogenous has perforce a lower status in the Western hierarchy of events.

The Central European Dilemma: How Much do we Absorb from the West?

The trouble was and is that the West assumed moral and political superiority over its East and laid down various non-negotiable conditions for acceptance into the European “club”. Some of the problems that disturb the relationship today stem from this inauspicious beginning. Was there really nothing positive in the Central European cultural capital? Was there anything to be said for a westward enlargement of Central Europe? Not really, was the answer.

So in 2004 and thereafter, the EU acquired 11 new member states and never really took the trouble to understand what these new member states were about. Indeed, there was a lingering suspicion that they were deviant in some way. After all, the Copenhagen conditions were never thought to apply to the EU-15, only to the recruits; “apprentice Europeans” may be a better term.

The EU acquired 11 new member states and never really took the trouble to understand what these new member states were about. Indeed, there was a lingering suspicion that they were deviant in some way.

Apprentices are expected to absorb what the master instructs and the instructions were, “imitate us”, change your institutions, your procedures, your legislation. But imitation is never complete. Imported ideas change when they cross a cultural boundary and can give rise to “forms without content”, formele fără fond, as Romanian puts it. In this somewhat paradoxical way, 1989 and then EU membership revived the age-old Central European dilemma: how much do we absorb from the West? Is the West really superior? Are there local qualities that take priority? How much mimesis? Are we engaging in a process of self-colonization? There is no answer to this, other than the observation that the West policed its East carefully and was backed up in this by the local zapadniki. Nothing new there, of course.

But this very questioning, which only emerged slowly after 2004, encoded a certain danger for the West. Not such a long time ago, democracy was defined as government by the consent of the governed. Such systems were democratic as such, without being liberal. There was a separation of powers of course and the judiciary was expected to uphold the rule of law. The political field was mostly inhabited, however, by the voters and their elected representatives. What was absent were the burgeoning intermediary institutions—civil society, NGOs, think tanks, lobbies, advocacies—which were in the business of acquiring ever more power over political decision-making. As were the newly instituted Constitutional Courts.

Central Europe adopted some of this, but with their very recent national emancipation in mind, coupled with the West’s condemnation of their ethnic identities, the dislike of the moral superiority of their local Westernizers, political forces began to build on this multifaceted ressentiment. The outcome was a political realignment, the rise of parties that built on nationhood and rejected some of the liberal package—only some, far from all.

Yes, GDP per capita has gone up markedly in the EU-11, but there has been no catching up, so one of the implicit promises of 1989, that Central Europe would be on equal terms with the developed West, has not come about.

But this was quite enough to bring down the wrath of the liberals on their collective heads. These forces were thoroughly deplored as “populists” and this is where we stand today. Central Europe is demonstrating that liberalism is not a necessary condition of democracy. No wonder the West is fulminating.

The Region is Caught in the Middle Income Trap

There is still more to it, however. EU membership has had its drawbacks, even if these are seldom admitted in the hallowed corridors of Brussels. Yes, GDP per capita has gone up markedly in the EU-11, but there has been no catching up, so one of the implicit promises of 1989, that Central Europe would be on equal terms with the developed West, has not come about. Instead, there is mounting evidence that the region is caught in the middle-income trap; we run very hard to be able to stay in the same place. To make matters worse, the level of capital exports is uncomfortably high—about six percent of GDP in the case of the Czech Republic and Hungary, over four percent for Poland and Slovakia. To these should be added the immense export of human capital. According to IMF figures, about 20 million people have left the EU-11 and thereby presented the West with a subsidy of c.€200 billion.

If the West, as argued, has never really bothered to learn about Central Europe, the reverse is also true. Central Europeans have constructed two imagined Wests. One is positive, the source of progress, moral and technological superiority and is “on the right side of history” (wherever that may be). The other is the reverse of this, the dismissal of a dubious, culturally colonizing West that has never really abandoned its imperial dreams and while it may be captive to post-colonial guilt for its extra-European past, it treats its eastern half in much the same way as it did its colonies, as the target of a civilizing mission; although there are no massacres of the “natives”. Both of these are caricatures, of course, but they contain a kernel of truth or more.

Looking at the West-East relationship today, it is best understood as a so-called “wicked” problem (no moral condemnation)—a problem with no ready solution. Strictly speaking, these should not exist in the world of Enlightenment rationality, but in the real world, they do. Is there a way out? Yes, but that would demand a great deal of rethinking and reappraisal, by all the parties. Will this happen? Maybe, but best not hold your breath.

György Schöpflin

was born in Budapest in 1939 and lived in the UK from 1950 to 2004. He worked at the Royal Institute of International Affairs (1963-1967) and the BBC (1967-1976) before taking up university lecturing at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University of London (1976-2004), including as Jean Monnet Professor of Politics and Director of the Centre for the Study of Nationalism. His principal area of research is the relationship between ethnicity, nationhood and political power, with particular reference to post-communism. Professor Schöpflin was elected a Member of the European Parliament for Fidesz-Hungarian Civic Union, a member of the Group of the European People’s Party (Christian Democrats) in 2004 and re-elected in 2009 and in 2014.

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The Powerless Are Tired: 1989–2019

This issue provides not only a retrospective look at the last 30 years but also reflects current challenges for the Visegrad group. That found its purpose in the dismantling of liberal democracy, unfortunately for all its citizens. Read the brand new Aspen Review.

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