Any reform efforts must be as inclusive as possible towards central and eastern European states, where nationalist parties are gaining ground.
The east-west divide in the European Union has finally commanded the attention of policy-makers and scholars on both sides of the Atlantic. The 11 EU member states from central and eastern Europe (CEE) lie at a critical crossroads. Easternisation (the shift of economic power from west to east), the current transatlantic rift (especially in the Brexit aftermath), the declining relevance of Europe on the world stage and the global technological race all raise the question of strategic realignments.
With whom will Europe align itself to meet these challenges? This is an existential question for CEE states. Phenomena such as political backsliding, the emergence of illiberalism, populism and authoritarianism are present in central and eastern Europe but single-minded political explanations may be misleading. New faultlines appear in the EU, while the historical developmental divides between member states have hardly been resolved. They appear both within and among member states, along intergenerational lines and according to residence (urban/rural).
Many CEE countries have been recently labelled by the European Commission as ‘lagging regions’. However, despite the fact that CEE is still struggling with low incomes in some of its regions, high economic growth rates have been recorded in this part of the EU. In contrast, older member states in southern Europe (Portugal, Spain, Italy and Greece) have lagging regions marked by low economic growth.
EU-wide income inequality declined notably prior to 2008 but the Great Recession broke this trend and pushed inequalities upwards, both for the EU as a whole and across most countries. Also, according to recent evaluations, inter- and intra-generational mobility has stagnated or decreased in several member states.
Another example is capital cities, which are increasingly behaving very differently from rural areas in elections: as capitals remain predominantly liberal and cosmopolitan, the rural areas are increasingly turning to traditional, conservative and ‘illiberal’ values. The resulting polarisation within the different categories of the public across Europe and within member states is just as important as the traditional divides.
The socio-economic factors underpinning the east-west divide need further elaboration. First, it is true that there is higher economic growth in CEE countries (as a result of their participation in intra- and extra-EU trade). But their export-oriented economies, embedded as they are in the German manufacturing export base, make them vulnerable to any decline in global and EU trade.
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They have also experienced big population losses (through outward migration and demographic decline), so per capita figures obviously look better. Besides, for big countries such as Poland and Romania, the sub-national level is where we find divergence patterns with both national and EU averages, bringing up issues related to cohesion.
Secondly, while the structural factors driving the east-west divide are socio-economic, its consequences are far-reaching. The eastern frontier of NATO and the EU has a strong geographical and geopolitical dimension. Thus, its disruptive potential is higher for both the EU and the transatlantic world.
The EU’s relationship with the United States challenges the current status of CEE states. The recent proposals for an EU army and the commission recommendation on the international role of the euro in energy transactions amplify the geopolitical anxiety of CEE member states for whom the west has represented a homogeneous concept. Brexit and other developments in the transatlantic relationship have resurrected fears of CEE being caught in the crossfire of superpower confrontation.
Acknowledging the crisis of convergence in CEE is one step towards mitigating the feelings of economic and geopolitical anxiety of these states lying on the ‘unquiet frontier’ of the transatlantic world. Otherwise, their citizens might deepen their suspicion that they are not a ‘strategic periphery’ of the transatlantic world, but a mere periphery occasionally caught in great-power confrontation. As mentioned by Tomáš Valášek in a recent piece, to avoid a permanent split Europe could use a political force with the wisdom to recognise the dangers of divisive east-west rhetoric, and the courage to campaign on a message of unity.
How to move forward in unity? The main way out is to invest in efforts to overcome the development divide and the feelings of inequality and unfairness that it breeds, thus strengthening resilient pro-European attitudes. While this might be a long-term response to short-term outbursts of discontent, any integrationist agenda or political platform (see recent efforts by the French president, Emmanuel Macron, and the German chancellor, Angela Merkel) at the EU level should be as inclusive as possible towards CEE member states, whose nationalist parties are currently gaining ground.
Secondly, CEE member states should seek increased partnership in terms of energy, transport and digital infrastructure, to mention only the peak areas of intervention. In the face of Russian posturing and cyberthreats, CEE must seek security through interdependence.
This article was first published by EUROPP@LSE
Alina Bârgăoanu is a professor at the National University of Political Studies and Public Administration in Bucharest, currently affiliated with the Center for European Studies at Harvard. Clara Volintiru is an associate professor at the Bucharest University of Economic Studies.