Friday 30. July 2021

The crisis in Europe: upheaval or new start?

In the coming months, EuropeInfos will be publishing a series of articles that seek to understand the new rifts between West and East Europe.

Relating to Europe, last year’s crises – Ukraine, Greece, refugees and terror – are like a magnifying glass that makes the continent’s faults, cracks, rifts and chasms all the more visible. Old certainties suddenly seem worthless, and their loss triggers fear and uncertainty.

New ideas are emerging, but their contours are still vague.


In the coming months, EuropeInfos will be following these developments in a series of articles. Different authors have been asked to describe their positions in detail, and discussion is welcomed.


Understanding the rifts between West and East

A rift between the old and new Member States of the European Union has become painfully clear, especially as a result of the failure of the solidarity between the Visegrad states during the distribution of the refugees among Member States. Those countries who accepted refugees during the Cold War from Hungary (1956), Czechoslovakia (1968) and Poland (1981) found it particularly hard to understand the fundamental refusal to admit refugees. Had they forgotten their own histories? Where did this ingratitude come from?


In a brief but pointed essay, Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev stated a number of reasons for this categorical refusal: there is a feeling that they themselves are underprivileged and badly done by in comparison with the older Member States. The primary aim of EU membership is to achieve the same standard of living as Western Europe after years of deprivation.


It is the “demographic deficit” – the fact that many young people have left the new Member States and gone elsewhere to find work and home – and the associated fear that they will eventually lose their own identity or vanish from history.


The refusal to admit foreigners is also the result of a lack of curiosity – in contrast to the countries of Western Europe these states have had no colonies and have traditionally focused inwards rather than outwards, before being locked away behind the Iron Curtain for 40 years. Foreigners came to these countries as students or workers, but as symbols of the “brotherly internationalism” of the Communist regime and therefore not especially popular. Integration into the European Union under the conditions of (almost exclusively liberal market economy-oriented) globalisation is overtaxing the people.


An undivided history

In the wake of expansion the mutual, undivided history of European countries has not been successfully put forward as a topic for discussion. For many new Member States, recalling their own history, their re-won (national or state) independence and reinsurance through NATO are of greater importance than belonging to the European Union. At the same time, people in Western Europe know almost nothing of the history of Central and Eastern Europe. The political and historical events since the end of the First World War have been evaluated differently in East and West. The decline of the “old world” for one means a national (re-)birth for the other. Freedom in 1945 for one means the start of oppression that lasted more than 40 years for the other. This national identity and understanding is still in people’s minds and controls their mutual ideas and thoughts.


It would be unfair to blame this rift on the new Member States alone. The interest of the old Member States in the new Member States has often been purely economic and has not applied to the people but to potential markets. Their citizens were welcomed as underpaid harvest workers, as cheap care workers, as additional labour in professions where there were insufficient home-grown specialists. But at the same time resentments grew against the “Polish plumbers” and all those who often worked faster, more reliably and for lower wages than the equivalent tradespeople from the host country itself.


It will take several generations for these developments, which have arisen over 75 years, to be reviewed, reevaluated and understood. With its new series of articles and discussions, EuropeInfos intends to make its own contribution to this essential process.


Michael Kuhn



Translated from the original text in German

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Note: The views expressed in europeinfos are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Jesuit European Office and COMECE.