For some in western Europe, the May Day commemorations of the EU’s big-bang enlargement seem to have been a slightly unpleasant experience – a reminder of a historic blunder. By allowing Central Europeans into the EU in 2004, the French and the Dutch and the Germans altered their own way of life, bringing a harder element to their normally consensual cooperation and – worst of all – being dragged eastwards into a world of geopolitics.
“Europa was seduced” some westerners now complain. Europa, you’ll recall, was the innocent princess carried away by a white bull – a bull that later turned out to be a rather randy thunder god. Western Europeans feel a little like that innocent princess: they were swept up in the 1990s by easterners who declared a desire to adopt their advanced way of life. Ten years on, those promises have palled and the easterners have turned out to be unreformed Cold Warriors.
These tensions are neatly detailed in essays like the one published here last week (“How the EU’s ‘big bang’ enlargement changed foreign policy”). We should have been sceptical about those easterners from the start, it is increasingly suggested: easterners saw EU membership as nothing but a supplementary security guarantee after NATO. Moreover, their retrograde mind-set was clear already in 2003 when they broke the EU’s unity over Iraq and followed America into war.
And, because we did not heed the signs back then, we are now paying the price: eastern members’ old-fashioned geopolitical mind-set has reawakened the Russian bear. Worse: since the crisis in Ukraine flared up, the easterners have actually started questioning years of progress within the EU when it comes to taming nationalism and sovereignty, not to mention modernising European energy systems and, of course, promoting political cohesion.
But is this true? Were the dainty princesses of the West really taken for a ride by a bunch of thunder gods from the East? Reality is seldom that simple. Indeed, western Europeans may be reading history all wrong. The Europa story, remember, is an ancient and retrograde one. In the original telling, it was actually the thunder god who was seduced by Europa and her beauty, not the other way round. So too the EU’s eastern members seem to have been seduced by the EU.
To begin again at the beginning: easterners were not motivated to join the EU by a desire to seek shelter from an unreformable Russia. They applied because they were seduced by the idea that the West provided a solution to the problems of their troubled neighbourhood. The distinction is important: they were not cynically exploiting a bunch of western European loud-mouths, they were genuinely buying into a narrative about the End of History and unstoppable Western liberalism.
For that reason, the 2003 Iraq war should have been an early warning sign for the EU’s newcomers. It showed that the West was no longer “The West” of Cold War victory – a unified and expansionist bloc – but an increasingly inward-looking and tiered club. It was a lesson they learnt the hard way over the next decade: easterners may have joined the EU but it would be years hence before they could truly join Europe’s complacent core.
Now, in 2014, easterners are watching with disappointment as Western Europeans once again scale down their ambitions. Westerners are reassessing the norms and way of life that they once promoted as “universal”. Perhaps our post-nationalism is only applicable to established democracies of the West, they suggest. Perhaps our energy transformation is only applicable to rich countries like us. Perhaps Hungary and Romania are simply of the wrong mind-set for all this.
From an eastern perspective, therefore, it is actually the introversion of their western neighbours which has revived geopolitics in the east and undermined their own investment in the post-modern ways of the EU. Easterners may have been quick to tell the French or the Germans “I told you so” when Russia annexed Crimea, but the truth is they did not predict any of this. Rather, they had made a genuine investment in the EU as a solution to their problems, and are increasingly worried it does not in fact offer one.
So: Europa seduced? It most certainly did. And now it bears a responsibility to the enfeebled thunder gods in the East.