eOver the next few weeks, voters will go to the polls for various elections in Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Romania. Observers on both sides of the Atlantic will be following the elections closely. The results—and the manner in which the elections are conducted—will provide a look at the mood in Eastern Europe at a moment of almost unprecedented upheaval across Western Europe: The new European Commission under President-elect Ursula von der Leyen is still finding its feet, the Brexit saga seems no closer to resolution, and a darkening economic outlook threatens to further fan the flames of populism.
Some commentators argue that Europe’s east-west divide has never been wider. In the western corner we have the pro-European leaders, led by France’s Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s Angela Merkel, who push for deeper European integration and promote multilateralism to a world that appears to have fallen out of love with the idea. In the eastern corner, figures led by Hungary’s unpredictable and charismatic Viktor Orban position themselves as the champions of nationalism and blame Brussels for everything from the migration crisis to the erosion of what they label as traditional family values.
In part, these stances are simple political posturing. They are attempts by national leaders to try to replicate at the European level the us-versus-them electoral strategy that brought them into power at home. The relationship is symbiotic—Orban and his team need complacent European elites to play the role of scapegoat, and Macron and Merkel need nationalist boogeymen as a foil for their own cosmopolitan vision.
In reality, however, the European Union is faced with a chasm that runs much deeper than short-term political expediency. There is a structural difference in the way the pre-2004 and post-2004 member states think about Europe. The former see Europe as a means for amplifying their presence and power on the global stage. The latter used to see Europe as a means of salvation but now increasingly see it as a national existential threat.
This chasm, which shapes every facet of Europe’s political landscape, has deep historical roots.
Since 1914, two ruinously expensive world wars, the long process of decolonization, and the emergence of new powers have put an end to the era in which Western Europe could impose its conception of civilization on the world. At the heart of the European project was the desire to reverse the process of national geopolitical decline. The founding member states understood that as solo actors they were condemned to irrelevance. They saw that they must work together if they wished to continue as actors, rather than witnesses, in a fast-changing world.
The recent history of Central and Eastern European nations has been profoundly different. They have suffered and occasionally even disappeared under the domination of a succession of empires including, most recently, the Nazis and the Soviet Union. These horrors and tragedies remain fresh in the national memory. The Katyn massacre, a mass execution of Polish military officers and intelligentsia by Soviet security services; the Soviet crackdown on the Hungarian revolution; and the Prague Spring instilled the unshakeable belief among Eastern and Central European nations that—to use the words of the Czech writer Milan Kundera—their “very existence may be put in question at any moment.”
In the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the EU was seen as a potential guarantor of security and stability for Eastern Europe, as well as a route to economic development. In the years since accession, however, some have begun to perceive the project as predatory—a tool used by Western European member states to impose their political views on their European neighbors. This sentiment is particularly noticeable around sensitive flashpoint issues such as the migration crisis, or when the west champions liberal social policies that may be perceived as undermining traditional cultural practices. Many in Eastern Europe have come to feel that they are treated as second-class citizens—that they are rule takers, rather than equal partners, in the European project, and therefore that their security cannot be guaranteed.
The sense of existential vulnerability is only exacerbated by current high levels of youth emigration out of these countries. For instance, as many as 3.4 million people, most of them young, emigrated from Romania between 2007, when it joined the EU, and 2015. This represents 17 percent of the 2007 population. Contrary to France or Germany, each Central and Eastern European member state perceives itself as a small and perhaps shrinking nation and, to again quote Kundera, “a small nation can disappear and it knows it.”
The difference in eastern and western perceptions of the EU has profound ramifications for the future of Europe. Nationalist leaders in Central and Eastern Europe depict Brussels as the new Moscow, tapping into the widely held fear that the EU is merely the next in a succession of powers that have threatened their ability to determine their own future.
Denying or underestimating the importance of this divide would be a fatal mistake for Western European leaders. Rather than haranguing and demonizing leaders who do not share their particular vision for the future of the EU, they should try to understand the fears of their citizens and to reconcile the two different perspectives.
The starting point for such efforts must be greater mutual understanding. Part of it must be bilateral; all member states, but particularly Western European countries, should invest more in diplomacy within Europe. More focus should be placed on understanding the history and perspectives of other states, while simultaneously winning allies that can help contain the dangerous illiberal trend evident in some countries.
Multilateral action is also key, however; member states should support EU-level projects that have the potential to create bridges between countries. One promising example is a European army, which is supported—although for different reasons—by both Macron and Orban. Increased understanding and cooperation is the only possible route to writing a new European narrative that could reconnect EU citizens with the European project.
The United States, meanwhile, needs a strong and united European partner more than ever, but the Trump administration has shown an unfortunate proclivity to exploit antagonism between member states. During Orban’s visit to the White House in May, for example, U.S. President Donald Trump described immigration issues in Europe as “tremendous” and ascribed this to the fact that other European leaders had formulated their immigration policy in “a different way than the [Hungarian] prime minister.”
Since the end of World War II, the United States has been Europe’s closest ally—and greatest source of influence—precisely because it has systematically supported European integration. The history of the United States and its current position give Washington a unique ability to mediate differences that exist among Europeans, rather than exacerbating them. It should, for example, use its strong relationships with leaders such as Orban and de facto Polish leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski to remind them of the importance of respecting core EU values and the rule of law. But it should also call out attempts by larger western states to use their greater economic and political influence on the European stage to prioritize national self-interest over that of Europe. Washington could also be vocal in its support for deeper European cooperation in the fields of security and intelligence, which would be strongly in the interest of U.S. national security.
The east-west binary is, of course, overly simplistic. Eastern Europe is a large and complex region, and observers of the forthcoming elections should resist the urge to generalize across countries. If the results are not what the west would have hoped, it will be vital to avoid unnecessarily antagonistic rhetoric. Western Europe must of course remain true to its values in standing against illiberalism, but it should also see the new political landscapes as an opportunity for starting conversations, building bridges, and rewriting narratives. Leaders have long paid lip service to the idea that the strength of Europe is in its diversity. It’s time they began to act as though they believe it.