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.

By Thomas Risse and Gregor Walter-Drop

"Entropa," a controversial artwork by Czech artist David Cerny: Where was Europe in 1989 and where is it now?

"Entropa," a controversial artwork by Czech artist David Cerny: Where was Europe in 1989 and where is it now?

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.


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