Emmanuel Macron’s election as president of France received few more rapturous welcomes than that given by Sylvie Goulard, a liberal French politician in the European Parliament and ally of the 39-year-old new head of state. “Finally! Finally, Europe and France reconciled!” Ms Goulard enthused. “What a symbol — a young president, focused on the future, entering the Louvre of the kings of France to the sound of the European hymn.”
The official reaction in Poland was distinctly more tepid. In a letter to Mr Macron, President Andrzej Duda expressed the hope for a Franco-Polish dialogue “built on principles of mutual respect for equal states and free peoples”. Less than a week earlier, Mr Duda had told Polish television in even frostier language that, should he win, Mr Macron would need to work hard to regain Poland’s trust in France.
The contrast between the warmth with which western Europe greeted Mr Macron’s victory and the more muted response in parts of central and eastern Europe underscores a widening gap between many of the older EU states in the west and newer ones in the east.
There is no neat line that divides Europe down the middle, but clashing national interests, values and visions of the future create the risk that some countries in each half of the continent will drift in opposite directions, endangering the EU’s unity over the long run.
The frictions between west and east are part of two emerging trends that disturb the European politicians who still invoke the objective of a “Europe whole and free” outlined by former US president George HW Bush in May 1989, as the cold war drew to a close.
Rebel inside the EU: 1. Viktor Orban
A conservative nationalist, he has served as prime minister of Hungary since 2010 and has proclaimed the creation of the EU’s first ‘illiberal democracy’. He has been criticised in Brussels for policies that crack down on the courts, the media, academia and civil society.
The other trend concerns Albania, Macedonia, Serbia and other Balkan countries that aspire to EU membership. They remain a long way from entry because of an expanding list of woes, including occasionally violent ethnic tensions, political instability, weak state administrations, economic fragility, corruption and organised crime.
Few experts on the Balkans think that a repeat of the 1990s wars in former Yugoslavia is likely any time soon. However, Dimitar Bechev, a University of North Carolina fellow, cautions that trouble could lie ahead in “the west’s growing disenchantment in the area, coupled with the region’s stagnation and democratic backsliding”. Such developments, if unchecked, may condemn the Balkan states to a marooned existence outside the EU, prey to Russian influence and tempted into nationalist projects aimed at redrawing borders.
Darkening clouds over the Balkans and the EU’s west-east differences are related phenomena. Each reflects frustration among western European political elites with the near-paralysis over the past 10 years of the EU integration process. Inclined to pile much blame on alleged troublemakers and laggards among the EU’s eastern states, the westerners display an unwillingness to compound their difficulties by speeding up membership for the candidate states of south-eastern Europe.
Rebel inside the EU: 2. Jaroslaw Kaczynski
A former prime minister, the 67-year-old leader of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party is the driving force in the rightwing resurgence in the country over the past year. His political outlook mixes traditional Catholic values, Euroscepticism and mistrust of Germany and Russia.
Kersti Kaljulaid, president of Estonia, which will assume the EU’s six-month rotating presidency in July, is among those in the former Soviet bloc who are eager to uphold the EU’s unity and regard eastern enlargement as an epochal success. “All those who joined are better off, and so are almost all of the original member states,” she told the Financial Times.
Mr Macron has promoted a strongly pro-Europe platform during the French presidential elections, but internal tensions within the EU also rose to the surface during his campaign.
Poland’s conservative nationalist government was angered when he criticised its adherence to EU standards of democracy and the rule of law. He even compared Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Poland’s de facto leader, with Vladimir Putin, the authoritarian Russian president who is a bogeyman to most Poles.
Mr Macron vowed punitive EU-wide action, within three months of taking office, against Poland and Hungary. The government of Viktor Orban, prime minister, who prides himself on building an “illiberal democracy” in Hungary, drew fire from Mr Macron and other western Europeans because it had just passed a law that threatened the closure of the Budapest-based Central European University, a bastion of regional academic independence.
The unifier: Kersti Kaljulaid
A former member of the European Court of Auditors, she became president of Estonia last October. Conscious that her small country borders Russia, Kaljulaid stresses the need for EU and Nato unity as the guarantee of Estonia’s independence.
Thomas Nord, a Bundestag deputy who chairs the German-Polish parliamentary group, contends that Mr Macron’s warning of EU sanctions is probably hollow. “All you can do under EU treaties is to suspend a country’s voting rights, but this would be like dropping an atom bomb. And what would be the impact on the nationalists if you took this step? It might backfire and benefit them,” he told the FT.
Other politicians in Berlin say that, despite its dismay at the Warsaw government’s behaviour, Germany will strive to avoid punishing Poland. More than 70 years after the Nazis’ second world war atrocities, modern German leaders still feel a moral responsibility towards the Polish nation. Moreover, as Germany’s largest eastern neighbour and the anchor of central and eastern Europe, Poland deserves German patience and understanding, they say.
Yet Mr Macron was giving voice to widespread impatience in Belgium, France and like-minded western states with easterners such as Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland and Romania. To varying degrees, the latter group stand accused in western eyes of dabbling in populist nationalism, treating core EU values in a high-handed manner, being riddled with corruption and offering minimal co-operation on Europe’s refugee and migrant crisis. Paul Magnette, premier of Belgium’s Wallonia region, struck this chord in February when he demanded that Brexit — Britain’s exit from the EU — should be followed by “Polxit, Hungxit, Romaxit and Bulgxit”.
Fear of a two-tier EU
Now, seizing on the opportunity presented by the pro-EU Mr Macron’s election victory, a western-led group of states may be gearing up for a burst of integration among themselves. If most former communist countries that entered the EU between 2004 and 2013 decline to join them, they will go ahead anyway. The grounds for such a step were laid out in a March European Commission white paper, which suggested defence, internal security, taxation and social policy as areas where those countries that want to co-operate more closely should be free to do so.
The Serbian hardliner: Aleksandar Vucic
Elected president of Serbia last month, he is a former radical nationalist who has since expressed shame over Bosnian Serb war crimes. Vucic often plays the Russia card as he moves Serbia towards the EU.
However, more ambitious ideas, such as Mr Macron’s call for a eurozone finance minister, may be empty fantasies for the present. Jean-Claude Juncker, the commission’s president, observed on May 9 — Europe Day — that a supranational finance minister would take the bloc into “a very dangerous forest”, because the proposal touches on sensitive questions of national budgets, democracy and accountability.
He might have added that German support for such French initiatives is certain to be conditional on Mr Macron’s success in implementing his campaign promises of pro-business measures, labour market reforms and an overhaul of the public sector. Still, Herman Van Rompuy, the former EU president, says that if Mr Macron makes progress, Germany should develop joint plans after its September parliamentary elections.
Mr Van Rompuy favours a Franco-German move to permit more room for public investment and social spending in return for more strictly applied fiscal rules on other areas of expenditure. Viewed from non-eurozone capitals, even such limited initiatives aimed at strengthening the euro area contain the potential to separate the west from much of the east — especially because Brexit will deprive non-euro countries of their strongest spokesman.
Fear of a two-tier EU explains why leaders of the Visegrad four — the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia — met in March to demand “fair treatment” for all member states, They also warned against “discrimination based on the currency” and proposed more national controls over the EU’s political and legislative processes. Yet, only four days after the Visegrad summit, the leaders of France, Germany, Italy and Spain endorsed a “multispeed” Europe.
The former fighter: Hashim Thaci
A former guerrilla commander and prime minister, he was elected president of Kosovo by the parliament last year. He has warned that the failure of Kosovo to enter the EU will boost support for the creation of a ‘Greater Albania’.
“A Europe of different speeds is necessary, otherwise we will probably get stuck,” said Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, at the meeting in Versailles. “If Europe gets stuck and doesn’t develop further, then this work of peace may run into danger faster than one might think.”
Poland, which will be the fifth-largest EU state after Brexit, was conspicuous by its absence from Versailles. On European defence, however, it is a prominent voice. Like other central and eastern Europeans who once languished under Moscow’s overlordship and now belong to Nato, the Poles are in no hurry to leave the US security umbrella for the sake of some hazy western European ideal of self-reliance in defence.
“It will not be easy to revise the military priorities of the EU. Some European countries, ie the eastern ones, are actually more loyal to Washington than to Brussels,” says Beda Romano, an Italian commentator on Europe.
Support for membership
In the Balkans, the fundamental questions are what appetite remains in western European capitals for another round of EU enlargement, and what will happen to south-eastern Europe if it turns out that the bloc’s expansion ended with the admission in 2013 of Croatia. In a region that once lay across the Habsburg-Ottoman frontier, the danger for states on the old Ottoman side is that the indefinite postponement of EU entry will cause public support for EU membership to wane, already fragile democratic institutions to crumble and political tensions to increase — as has happened in Turkey.
The EU keeps alive, just about, the formal procedures of EU entry for Balkan states. Montenegro has opened 26 of the 35 “chapters”, or policy areas, required to qualify for admission. But it has completed only two. One year ago, an EU association accord for Kosovo came into effect, putting the former Serbian province on the road to membership. However, Kosovo cannot join the EU until the bloc’s governments are satisfied that it has achieved full reconciliation with Serbia. Moreover, five EU states refuse to recognise Kosovo as a sovereign state, nine years after its declaration of independence.
The region’s pivotal state is Serbia, where Aleksandar Vucic was elected on April 2 as president. The EU appears to regard Mr Vucic as a useful strongman, who deserves support because he is sincere about Serbia’s European future and will limit Russian influence in the Balkans.
“Serbia is on the path towards the EU,” says David McAllister, a German member of the European Parliament.
If so, it is a long journey, with no guaranteed date for its end. It promises to be an even longer path for Bosnia-Herzegovina, a weak state where sections of the political class manipulate ethnic rivalries as artfully as their predecessors did a generation ago.
The Balkan troubles are simmering just as western Europe is experiencing a resurgence of hope about its future as a result of Mr Macron’s election. But modern European history holds cruel lessons. It was in February 1992 that EU leaders signed the Maastricht treaty, optimistically launching what they saw as the next big stride towards European unity. It was in April 1992 that the Bosnian war broke out, costing more than 100,000 lives.
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