international analysis and commentary

Central-Eastern European identities and the EU’s polity


Even though their countries have been members of the European Union for a good decade now, Central and Eastern European elites are yet to find the right balance between self-assertion and compromise. Upon the end of Soviet rule, countries in Central and Eastern European embarked on the road to the EU as they simultaneously celebrated their newly gained independence.

Their yearning for Europeanization notwithstanding, these countries shared crucial experiences of oppression and the recent fulfillment of long-standing aspirations to national sovereignty. These priorities have left little room for excitement about broader transnational projects and international arrangements. This now risks undermining the European project as a whole.

When ten countries joined the European Union in May 2004, most of them from Central and Eastern Europe, the canonical version of European integration emerging out of the ashes of WWII became in urgent need of modification. Since 2004, the European Parliament has exceeded reasonable expectations in accommodating the historical perspectives of the new member states. However, this doesn’t seem to be enough for Central and Eastern Europeans, who have continued to cherish a profound sense of their victimhood and exclusion.

There is a profound and often unacknowledged ambivalence at the heart of such attitude. Though it may seem to express pride, it tends to be employed when one’s status seems uncertain. Those who articulate these positions aim to legitimize their membership in a wider community from a position of inferiority while asserting their moral superiority.

Since the specific Central and Eastern European experiences of the postwar period have been officially acknowledged, Brussels’ argument goes that the gap between the two halves of the continent has been closed. Nonetheless, as Central and Eastern Europeans are quick to point out, mutual knowledge between the West and the East of Europe remains highly asymmetrical. Due, above all, to school curricula, including the widespread teaching in Central and Eastern Europe of languages such as English, German, French and Spanish, people from this region can relate to the Western European identity much more immediately than the other way round.

Furthermore, due to the rather limited economic opportunities they find in their home countries, and to their countries’ integration in the wider European economy, in a matter of just a few years young Central and Eastern European professionals have become practically as Europeanized as their Western European counterparts. At the same time, they tend to be less globalized.

Finally, the recognition of different legacies may have officially closed the gap between older and newer member states. However, the real cultural and historical significance of the wave of European Union enlargement in 2004-07, and of the contributions by Eastern and Central Europeans to the overall European identity, has all too rarely been discussed. Below the level of official declarations, the de-provincializing of Western Europe within Europe, which Central and Eastern Europeans so avidly desire, is in many ways still in its infancy. In awareness of post-colonial realities, Western Europeans have often shown greater eagerness to provincialize Europe in the world than to de-provincialize Western Europe by opening it to the Eastern half of the continent.

A sensible starting point to such discussion would be the recent rise of Poland to middle power status, which has increasingly enabled Polish representatives to assume the role of spokespersons for Central and Eastern Europe as a whole. The mainstream Polish perspective on the shared Nazi-Soviet responsibility for the beginning of WWII and on the ensuing consecutive foreign occupations by two totalitarian powers could thus exert a notable impact. The basics of this vision have been, rather self-servingly, shared in influential Central and Eastern European circles outside Poland. This has yielded a seemingly all-regional ambition to depict Nazism and Communism as evil twins and Central and Eastern European countries as the victims of history’s most vicious imperial projects.

However, this basic formula – which may be summarized as economic development, successful democratization and increasing integration after the terrible crimes of WWII in the West and back-to-back occupation by totalitarian empires in the East during and after the conflict – is simplistic. It effaces rather than illuminates basic facts: for example, that Croatia, Hungary, Romania, or Slovakia may all have been under Soviet-type rule but they played relatively autonomous roles on the side of Nazi Germany during WWII.

By largely accepting the dominant view in the region, however, Europe has ironically yielded to the kind of perspectives that are preferred by nationalists in several Central and Eastern European countries. Due to the special weight of Poland and the benevolence of Western Europeans eager to reconcile many different interpretations of history, the laudable goal of consensus building actually made right-wing revisionism of Baltic and Southeast European history appear much less controversial than they would otherwise have been.

As British historian James Mark convincingly argued, the cushioned exit from communism of many countries in the region has strengthened the sense of unfinished business and radicalized the anti-communist impetus over time. The newer EU member states have proven eager to participate in the “memory boom,” creating well-funded institutes of remembrance where suppressed truths about recent history were to be recovered. What has often been underestimated in the midst of all this newly found enthusiasm for remembrance is that for younger Europeans the threat of social catastrophes and the desperate need to avoid continent-wide self-destruction are no longer deeply felt.

Although anti-Communism has become a key element of current European identities, critically minded members of the younger generations in Central and Eastern Europe tend to see it as little more than a discourse legitimating contemporary elites and their choices. Without an attractive and realistic vision of the European future – one in which Central and Eastern Europeans feel they are full partners to their Western European counterparts and not junior associates – the prevailing sentiments among new generations may well be a sort of radical skepticism and political indifference.

True European integration depends on the liberal democratic spirit of all the EU citizenry and on the search for a middle ground between national identities and continental values and goals. Recent developments in Central and Eastern Europe have sent a sharp reminder that fostering a liberal democratic spirit is an often-arduous process, which even the simplest of tricks could damage. In early 2016, just when the young people across Europe have grown tired of hearing how their ancestors had to fight for their liberties, the liberal Europe that resulted from those fights and that we cherish is threatened once more. Past experiences might suddenly offer vital lessons again.