After the Fall of Wall A Report Card on Post-Cold War European Integration

Twenty years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, it is time to take stock. Have expectations been fulfilled? Not entirely. Europe has lagged in bridging the continent's divisions, establishing a common foreign policy and fostering legitimacy for European integration.
Von Thomas Risse und Gregor Walter-Drop

The year 2009 is a one of remembrance for Europe. It has been two decades since the democratic revolutions of 1989, a major turning point in both European and world history. This anniversary year provides an opportunity to reflect upon the last two decades: Where was Europe in 1989? What has been accomplished since then, and where are the political deficiencies that still need to be addressed? What challenges still exist for world politics, and what role can Europe play in addressing them?

The transition from the 1980s to the 1990s was a "moment of hope," during which almost everything seemed possible: the worldwide spread of human rights, democracy, and wealth; and for Europe, nothing less than the transformation of the Western European integration into a real union for the entire continent. Twenty years later, we are fortunate to live in a Europe that is very different from that of 1989. For the first time in its history, Europe is largely at peace. The continent has eliminated its nuclear arsenals. Even the Western Balkans, wracked by bloody ethnic-nationalist wars for much of the 1990s, are now relatively stable.

However, 2009 is the year in which the "post-Cold War" world will definitively come to an end. With the collapse of the world's financial markets, the neoliberal triumphalism of the post-Cold War decades has been deflated for good.

Success Story

Let us begin with NATO, the Western military alliance celebrating its 60th anniversary this year. It has helped integrate many of the new democracies of Central and Eastern Europe into the Western fold and it has become an anchor of stability for many of them. At the same time, the alliance has evolved from a defense alliance into a United Nations "subcontractor" that is dispatched on international humanitarian peace missions and interventions. Also, in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, the transatlantic alliance has managed to adapt to the challenges of transnational terrorism.

The majority of post-communist European states have become consolidated liberal democracies with market-based economic orders. This was a profound systemic transformation that was linked to massive social and cultural disruptions. Nonetheless, it has been achieved mostly peacefully -- with the important exception of the Western Balkans.

Another aspect of the success story of the past twenty years has been the expansion of European integration -- especially the eastern expansion of the European Union, which has contributed significantly to the consolidation of the continent's new democratic and market-economic order. The unprecedented wave of accessions has created enormous challenges for the European Union. But it has also shown that a union of 27 member states remains capable of taking action and making decisions.

Through the completion of its internal market and the introduction of a common currency, the European Union has become the world's largest economic territory. Ten years after its introduction, the euro has become the world's second largest reserve currency, after the US dollar. So far, the common currency has even passed the test posed by the world financial and economic crisis. Alongside the euro, the Schengen Accord, which eliminated boundaries to trade and movement between 22 EU countries, as well as Iceland, Norway and Switzerland, would probablybe identified by most EU citizens as the most welcome achievement of European integration.

Finally, starting from the 1990s, Europe also began to play a bigger role on the international stage. Without the European Union, ongoing negotiations over international climate change would have stalled long ago and the 1997 Kyoto Protocol would never have been achieved. Europeans were also instrumental in improving the international protection of human rights. The Rome Statute of 1998, which established the International Criminal Court, was ratified only because of the committed engagement of the European Union -- and against the express wishes of the United States. In addition, the European Union also actively promotes policies to export democracy and human rights to other regions of the world.

A Reality of Division

And yet, despite all of Europe's success stories over the last 20 years, one can not overlook its shortcomings. Let us take a closer look at three of them: the continuing divisions of the continent, the failed pursuit of a common foreign policy and the dwindling legitimacy of the European project.

The reality of the expanded European Union is a far cry from former German Chancellor Willy Brandt's suggestion that "what belongs together is growing together." There is still a considerable gap in wealth between the "old" and "new"member states. Especially worrying is the fact that the lower classes in the new member states, compared to similar groups in the old member states, are significantly further from the average European standard of living. Measurements of relative poverty within the individual member states obscure the new dimension of poverty which exists in the Union today. Similarly, high rates of growth within some ofthe new member states should not lead us to believe that the generation of wealth has reached all members ofsociety. The middle class is growing very slowly in most of these countries.

And despite the expansion of NATO and EU membership, there are still major political differences between Western and Eastern Europe. Of course, the new EU member states have stable democracies. But they also sometimes harbor deficiencies that depart vastly from the Western European ideal. These countries often feature unorganized and unconsolidated groupings of political parties; radical and sudden changes in government; a detached political elite with a penchant for populism; and a media landscape with only a limited capacity to hold the political establishment accountable.

On top of this, there are significant structural weaknesses of civil society in these countries -- a particularly tragic deficiency, as it was precisely the region's civil societies that played such a vital role in bringing down the communist regimes. It is the liberal elites from 1989 who have now become the targets of political attacks, because they achieved the peaceful transformations of their societies only by making concessions to the former communist elites concerning their accountability.

Finally, one can also observe a drastic cultural division in Europe. Eastern and Western Europe interpret Cold War history very differently. The varied life experiences have repeatedly led to political tensions over questions of peace and freedom, and in debates between the merits of human rights and realpolitik. Relations with Russia are, of course, still the cause of virulent tensions between the two halves of the continent. But there is a similarly tense debate in Europe over relations with the United States, one that remains fundamentally unchanged by the recent American presidential election. We will all surely hear much this year about how the divisions in Europe have been overcome. That sort of rhetoric, however, only obscures the existing differences between the member states, many of which have significant political consequences.

Europe's Most Tragic Failure

When it comes to a common foreign policy, Europe's most tragic failure was its long hesitation to intervene in the former Yugoslavia, where the continent's first genocide since the Holocaust took place during the 1990s. It was only in 1995 that the European Union decided to intervene militarily in Bosnia and Herzegovina -- and then only under the leadership of the United States. The Europeans finally became more active in Kosovo in 1998-1999. And only with the 1999 Stability Pact for South Eastern Europe did Europe offer the people of the former Yugoslavia a realistic plan that could lead them to EU membership.

But the deficiencies of European foreign policy have also been exposed in the European Union's handling of the genocides in Africa, both in Rwanda in 1994 and in present-day Darfur. The European Union and its member states were very active in expanding the protection of international human rights; they have also given their support to the international principle of the "responsibility to protect," which offers protection from genocide and massive human rights violations to the populations of all countries. But, in the past 20 years, whenever these words had to be backed up with actions, Europe has been content to let other countries, especially the United States, take the lead. At the same time, the Bush administration has left behind not only various disasters in international relations, but alsoa vacuum in global leadership. President Barack Obama will need years simply to restore the legitimacy of American foreign policy. In the meantime, Europe will be urgently needed to help fill the leadership gap.

And finally, there are the issues surrounding the legitimacy of the European project as such. Since 1992,when a French referendum over the introduction of a common currency nearly failed, it has been clear that the era of "permissive consensus" has come to an end: In other words, most Europeans are no longer willing to passively and silently accept European unification. Underscoring that point are the French and Dutch rejections of the 2005 constitutional treaty and the Irish"no" to the Lisbon Treaty in 2008.

The question of legitimacy is not restricted to intra-EU policies. Polls show that Europeans are very skeptical of their countries' engagement in world politics. Public approval for peacekeeping and reconstruction in Afghanistan is dwindling throughout Europe. We will soon have alegitimacy crisis for the whole of European foreign and security policy. It will not be long before populists on the far left and right draw political capital from this situation.

The political elites in Europe have not yet responded to these problems. There have been no significant public debates; neither about the euro, EU expansion, a proposed constitution, nor the European Union's responsibilities in the Balkans and Afghanistan. Instead, Europe's political elites have remained silent. EU policies are determined, following the pre-1989 Western European tradition, by a cartel of political elites that is insulated from the democratic public. The more that Europe lacks the acceptance of its citizens, the harder it will befor the Union to meet the coming geopolitical challenges.

A Lack of Political Will

The international security situation looks much different today than it did in 1989, but it is no less precarious. The era of classic wars between states was already long over when the events of Sept. 11, 2001, made clear that non-state violence -- everything from transnational terror networks to local warlords and rebel armies -- would be the paramount security problem of our day.

It is hardly the only security problem though: there is an array of weak and failed states in which mass misery and violence are facts of life, and genocide and ethnic cleansing are possible at a moment's notice. That description applies to states around the globe -- from Columbia, to Central Africa, to Iraq and Afghanistan, all the way to Myanmar and Papua New Guinea. Nuclear proliferation is likewise less an inter-state security issue than a problem linked to the will of authoritarian regimes to maintain their hold on power. All three of these challenges -- non-state violence, failed states, and nuclear proliferation -- meet in the Middle East. And of course, the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians has served as an additional obstacle to peace and stability in the entire region and beyond.

Europe can help solve these problems, but until now it has lacked the political will to capitalize on its potential. The assumption that the European Union lacks competence in foreign and security policy is misguided. For nearly a decade, the European Union has had access to the entire spectrum of institutional capacities -- including military capability -- that is necessary for active participation in global politics.

It is an equally unconvincing argument that the 27 member states are simply too difficult to coordinate to actively engage in international politics. On the contrary: the foreign and security strategy of the European Union is remarkably consistent and coherent, from effective multilateralism, to peaceful conflict resolution, to addressing the problem of fragile statehood. Europe only needs to match its words with action. Member states need to abandon their vain attachment to national prerogatives and speak with one foreign policy voice. Here the largest member states -- Great Britain, France, and Germany -- have often been the biggest hindrance.

Examples are plentiful. With respect to Afghanistan, thenew American administration seems willing to adopt the European proposal for a strengthened stabilization and reconstruction program. At the same time, it is clear that if such efforts are not secured militarily, it will not be possible to give priority to development work or to the support of democracy and human rights. But Europe -- andGermany, above all -- has shown itself reluctant to discuss the commitment of further military resources.

The second example concerns the Middle East. Until now, the European Union -- despite its inclusion in the Middle East Quartet -- has always been reluctant to propose solutions to the conflict between Israel and Palestine. Instead, Europe has essentially hidden behind the United States. Now, after eight years of the Bush administration, America has lost nearly all of its credibility, and it is going to be a while before President Obama can do anything to significantly reestablish it. There is a need, in other words, for the European Union and its member states to play a larger role -- not least, because the European Union has pro-Arab as well as pro-Israeli positions represented in its institutions and among its member states. The European Union could credibly serve as an honest broker in the region -- if it only wanted to.

But if Europe remains as uncoordinated as it was during the latest war in the Gaza Strip, the participants in the Middle East conflict can easily play the Europeans against one another. That is why it is imperative for Europe to clearly address a series of tough political and strategic questions: What might an international guarantee for the two-state solution look like and what kind of role can Europe play in making that effort a success? How can Israel and Palestine be brought closer to the European Union and NATO so as to de-escalate the security conflict in the region? What kind of security guarantee can Europe make to Israel to respond to the challenge of a potentially nuclear-armed Iran? And who should be responsible for representing Europe in the Middle East in the first place?

The Call for a 'Social Europe'

Globalization has been the central economic marker of the post-Cold War world. This applies to the economic integration of the former East bloc into the European Union, as well as the rapid economic growth in Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, as well as in Vietnam, Indonesia, South Korea and Mexico. Even though the immediate future will be marked by the effects of a severe financial crisis, it is still likely that the broad process of globalization has reached a stage that is irreversible.

While financial markets will undoubtedly function differently than they have until now, their globally networked structure will not change. International networking and division of labor will continue apace, as will international competition, the detatchment of businesses from their national bases, and the acceleration of the production and work cycles.

Thus, the transformation of its "social state" model will remain one of Europe's central challenges. But it will also have to develop measures to dampen worldwide and regional crises and to regulate economic globalization. The era of the G-7 or G-8, in which the western industrial states (and Russia) could keep to themselves, is over. There is no alternative to a G-20 that systematically includes developing nations from all regions of the world into the process of global governance.

Unfortunately, the countries of the European Union allow themselves to be played against one another yet again -- especially along the economic fault line between old and new member states. Europe's answer to the economic and financial crisis is not encouraging. Instead of a coordinated reaction of the EU member states, national measures have taken priority. Even Germany -- despite all its pro-European rhetoric -- has shown little appetite for cooperation.This failure is particularly frustrating in light of the fact that Europe has the world's best institutional capacity to develop integrated answers to crossborder economic challenges.

In addition, there is still a clear asymmetry between negative and positive integration, as political scientist Fritz Scharpf diagnosed in the mid-1990s. The creation of an internal market continues to trump the development of economic and social policies that can steer and correct that very market. It is no accident that the call for a "social Europe" is getting ever louder. The inability for European governments to coordinate their responses to the financial crisis has contributed to the legitimation crisis of European integration.

Wasted Opportunities

The post-Cold War era is over. Europe has no choice but to orient itself to the challenges of the future. Before anything else, the European Union needs to gain the approval and trust of its own citizens. The failed referenda pose less of a threat to Europe than does the continent's growing Euro-skepticism and the silence of European elites in the face of criticism "from below." Those who are believers in Europe and European unification must actively take on the challenge of convincing others.

Europe already possesses institutions that can compensate for the disruptions of globalization through integrative policies. They can also participate substantially in the shaping of global economic relations.The financial crisis has shown that global financial oversight is insufficient: the European Union should play a central role in supplying it. And finally, Europe has the capacity to be an important actor in questions of international peace and security. But the European Unionand its largest member states have to want to use that potential.

The deceased politician and scholar Peter Glotz, just several weeks after the end of the fateful year 1989, wrote in this very publication that "the decisive question of the next decade will be whether the European elites manage to overcome the narrow categories of the nation state. ... In Europe, the nations are too weak to engage in global politics; at the same time, they are strong enough to prevent the development of an effective supranational European politics." Twenty years later, those observations have unfortunately lost none of their truth.

Thomas Risse is director of the Center for Transnational Relations, Foreign and Security Policy at the Free University Berlin. Gregor Walter-Drop is a research assistant at the center.
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