LONDON: What is Europe's future: integration or disintegration? I was invited to address this question at the Central European University in Budapest last month before an audience of 60 newspaper editors from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Naturally, I objected to phrasing. Are integration and disintegration the only alternatives for Europe? There are plenty of other false dichotomies: centralisation or decentralisation; uniformity or diversity; rigidity or flexibility. Or, more dramatically: imperial oppression or national liberation.
A shocked murmur went round the audience with these words. East Europeans have been fighting for generations for national liberation -- not only from the USSR, but from the Nazis, Hapsburgs, Ottomans, Kaisers, Tsars, Mongols and the other European empire-builders going back to Charlemagne. Of course, the European Union is infinitely more benign than any of these earlier efforts to unite Europe. It is liberal, prosperous, more or less democratic, and peaceful. But does this imply that people who struggled for centuries for the right to call themselves Hungarians, Latvians or Poles will suddenly think themselves Europeans? Is this true even of the French and Germans?
No. France, Italy and Spain, to say nothing of the Scandinavian countries and Britain fight ruthlessly in the European Union for their national interests. The Brussels bureaucracy is riddled with national quotas and politicians return from Brussels speaking of victories or defeats like generals returning from a never-ending war. Even in Germany, where pan-European idealism is universal, the EU is popular because it seems a natural extension of the new Germany's benevolent ideals: an orderly, regulated, federal system of social partnership modeled on the postwar German state.
Everybody is familiar with the jostling for power in Brussels among west European nations, but as Eastern Europe emerges from economic crisis, its people will begin asserting their national interests over those of the EU. Already central Europeans are more open in expressing national aspirations and demanding that the EU adjust to suit them, and not just the other way round. Countries like Poland, where unregulated small businesses are generating nearly all the new jobs and growth, worry about the costs of Brussels regulations. As they build up their export potential and seek expanding markets, east Europeans become disillusioned with Europe's economic sclerosis. And in foreign policy, they cannot ignore the contrast between Europe's abject failure to bring peace to Bosnia with America's dramatic success.