New and True Europeans

The fiasco of the European Union’s summit in Brussels has brought into sharp relief differences in attitudes between most new member countries from East Central Europe and the “old” members. Perhaps surprisingly for many, such differences were not played out according to the expected script, in which the new members would be ruthlessly pragmatic, and demanding as much EU money as they could get, while most Western countries would in the end tone down their national egoism in favor of the decades-old ideals of European integration.

In the end, it was the EU’s eastern flank—the supposedly money-hungry and immature democracies—that called most loudly for a compromise in the name of salvaging political integration, while most of the old European democracies ruthlessly fought for their own “national interests.” In view of some big countries’ intense national egoism, the failure to agree on the EU’s 2007-2013 budget could have ominous political consequences for Europe.

Statements by new EU members’ leaders at the summit indicated that they were aware of such a possibility. They were worried about the EU’s future—certainly more so than their Western counterparts. Some warned that the rejection of the European Constitution in the French and the Dutch referendums, combined with the summit’s decision effectively to suspend the ratification process and its failure to agree on EU finances, could trigger a serious political crisis in the EU.

This is why most new members were ultimately willing to support Luxembourg’s proposed compromise, under which the budget would be only 1.06% of the EU’s overall GDP and Great Britain’s annual rebate would be frozen at €4.6 billion. Indeed, just before the ultimate collapse of the talks, five new members, including the Czech Republic and Slovakia, agreed to an even more radical plan, under which the budget would be only 1% of the EU’s GDP.

Cynics may argue that the new member countries could afford to make such concessions because they would end up with hefty EU subsidies anyway. The net contributors to the EU budget were the ones who stood to lose the most. Viewed in strictly economic terms, it is not surprising that Great Britain would not give up its rebate, while France would reject attempts to cut farm subsidies.

But what is surprising is that it was the old, experienced European democracies that so blithely ignored the political dangers stemming from the potential revival of intense nationalism on the European continent, while it was the new, inexperienced democracies from Europe’s east that called for caution.

Perhaps this was because the eastern countries’ attitudes are more driven by recent historical memories and experiences. In a mere 15 years, all of these countries have endured economic and political changes unprecedented in their scope and speed in the history of Europe. For most of these countries, EU membership was not merely a ticket to economic prosperity, paid for by rich EU old-timers. On the contrary, they knew that they would have to do most of the work themselves—albeit under EU guidance and with the help of EU know-how.

Perhaps this is one reason why many in East Central Europe believe that EU funds, while helpful, are less important than being part of a united Europe, with the expanded opportunities that its common rules imply. Moreover, the EU offers the small countries sandwiched between Germany and Russia a degree of political stability and security that they never had in modern history. The rest they can manage on their own.

In contrast, West European states do no longer seem so concerned with the political dimension of European integration. They take it for granted and are more concerned with their domestic constituencies. Perhaps understandably, most citizens of West European states—accustomed to the political stability and economic prosperity of the last several decades—do not want to give up the benefits that the European integration process has brought to them.

The French, for example, do not want to lose farm subsidies, just as they are not eager to give more money to the new members, whose reformed economies are taking away French jobs. British leeriness about giving up the EU rebate in the face of what is perceived as French egoism is equally understandable—despite the fact that this stance harms the enlargement process, which Great Britain otherwise supports.

Even so, East Central Europeans, who are still recovering from the terrible political calamities caused by Europe’s historical demons, find the intensity of their Western counterparts’ national egoism a bit frightening. Europe’s history is full of catastrophes that were produced by the shortsightedness of national political elites. How many times have European leaders thought they had things under control, only to unleash the demons again?

This is not to suggest, of course, that just because the EU cannot agree on a budget or a constitution Europe is approaching yet another historical calamity. But caution is in order, and the political elites of big national states, in particular, should ponder whether they are not overplaying their hands once again. Although the collapse of the common currency area owing to political squabbles seems unlikely at this point, it cannot be ruled out entirely. Obviously, we also cannot completely rule out the possibility of a subsequent weakening or disintegration of Europe’s common political structures.

For the small, economically still-fragile states of East Central Europe, a Europe of national states, once again fighting ruthlessly for their own interests, is a nightmare. But it should be a nightmare scenario for all European states. Perhaps those in the West should listen more to their new partners. By agreeing to significant compromises, the leaders of some new member states were, among other things, trying to show that rekindling strong national egoism in Europe is a dangerous, if not uncontrollable, game.