COPENHAGEN – So far, Europe’s leaders seem to be mostly preoccupied with finding national answers to the global economic crisis. In particular, the leaders of “Old Europe” have been reluctant to open up their coffers for the countries of “New Europe.” If this attitude prevails, there is a grave risk that the European Project will become paralyzed. This will not only delay the restoration of economic growth, but will also have dire political consequences.
The European Union’s new members from eastern and central Europe have been hit much harder by the crisis than the old member states; they are also much less prepared to confront the situation psychologically and socially. Many were gravely disappointed when European leaders earlier this month rejected pleas to establish a special support program for them. Of course, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was right to point out that each country should be dealt with according to its situation. But she and her colleagues should have voiced clearer and more emphatic support for the new member states.
Emotions and expectations ran high when the new democracies from the former East Bloc joined the EU only five years ago. Until the crisis hit last year, the enlargement had proven to be a profitable business for Old Europe: high growth rates in most of New Europe injected energy into Old Europe’s sagging economies, much to the surprise of those who had predicted that enlargement would become an economic millstone around the neck of the established member states.
But then the financial system crumbled growth rates fell like a ton of bricks. The new democracies were shaken as public protests erupted in some of their capitals, and some governments have fallen. Expectations and confidence in democracy, the market economy, and the larger European project have suffered as well.
If this is allowed to continue, we might end up opening a Pandora’s Box, setting free the nationalistic and xenophobic ghosts of the past. Some of these democracies are very young and fragile. The optimism created by their peaceful return to a free and democratic Europe has been shattered to a degree that none of us could have foreseen.
This is where political leadership is needed. The leaders of the well established European democracies must explain to their own voters that enlargement has greatly benefited them, and that it will also be to their benefit to share the responsibilities and costs of steering the hardest-hit countries through the crisis.
There were always exaggerated claims that bringing in the new members would be a costly affair, just as petty and narrow prejudices blemished the willingness to open up Europe’s borders for “Polish plumbers.”
Any sober appraisal of what has actually happened since expansion would put the problems in perspective: when enlargement was agreed, the combined size of the ten new members’ economies roughly equaled that of the Netherlands. Today, after five years of much stronger growth among the newcomers, their combined GNP is somewhat smaller than that of the Benelux countries.
Thus, the sheer magnitude of the task of reviving these economies is not overwhelming. But the political consequences of failure to deliver a message of genuine European solidarity will be. This is, indeed, “the hour of Europe.”
I remember when this phrase was last used: in 1991, when the chairman of the European Council of Ministers visited what was still Yugoslavia and eagerly accepted the empty promises of Slobodan Milosevic and his clique that they were ready to accept European pleas for a peaceful resolution to the conflicts there. The chairman stated: “This is the hour of Europe, not the hour of the Americans.” As we all are embarrassingly aware, it was the Americans who had to produce the intervention that finally stopped the bloodshed in the Balkans.
But this time we Europeans cannot expect others to step in. Turning to the International Monetary Fund or others when it comes to pulling our chestnuts out of the fire will not bring us the needed confidence in the European project. So this must be the hour of Europe.
And that means that a clear message should be sent to those who are becoming doubtful about the EU’s worth: We are in this together. We will find common European solutions. Solidarity among members is not just something we talk about when the future looks bright and rosy.