Fifteen years after Europes big-bang enlargement, the EU still feels like two halves rather than a whole.
Many Western Europeans still refer to the Central and Eastern European member states that joined in or after 2004 as “new,” implying a failure to become fully “European.” The Central and Eastern European countries, for their part, are increasingly less inclined to fall into line, with some, such as Hungary, making a virtue of rebelling against the EUs status quo.
The situation has crippled the EUs ability to respond to challenges to the rule of law in the region, effectively leaving its democrats out in the cold and exacerbating a worrying trend: Populists are on the rise in the region, and Western Europes response to domestic issues in their countries risks boosting them further.
The feeling that the EU treats the post-2004 accession states as second-class citizens and fails to take them seriously is a major part of the appeal of Central Europes populists. This isnt just something people in the region, far from Brussels, believe. Its a common refrain among senior, accomplished EU officials from Central European states too.
So, how did we get here? Some of the responsibility can reasonably be laid at the feet of the accession states.
Far too many myths still plague Western-Central European relations.
Many of their governments stayed stuck in a rule-taking mindset even after joining the EU; they became comfortable in their role as passengers rather than taking the wheel. Their lack of agency inevitably led to a backlash at home. It didnt help that when governments did speak up — to oppose proposals for mandatory quotas on asylum seekers during the migration crisis, for example — the language they used bordered on racism.
And yet, the “older,” more established EU members are partly to blame, too.
In earlier rounds of enlargement, diplomats from Austria, Spain or Portugal were “chaperoned” by older states, who taught them the ropes when their countries joined the club. This didnt happen in 2004, or afterward. Some new members quickly became accustomed to the thorny task of co-writing EU rules and policies, others did less well. Considering the steep learning curve, its hardly surprising some gave in to feelings of inferiority and, eventually, rebellion.
In hindsight, its easy to see that both parties underestimated just how different the 2004 enlargement process would be from previous rounds. In the past, enlargement was mainly about bringing in countries from the same Western political bloc — people had traveled to each others countries, knew each others traditions and histories in a way that is simply not true for the ex-Soviet bloc states.
Addressing the unfamiliarity that still holds back East-West relations will be a generational project.
That sense of otherness matters: Were more inclined to be patient, seek common ground and make compromises with members of the same family. Outsiders, on the other hand, are prone to be treated with suspicion and prejudice. In the standoff between Brussels and members of Central Europe over the rule of law, its clear which approach is in play.
Far too many myths still plague Western-Central European relations. What many misunderstand is that the Read More – Source