Unity and rights and freedom - an ‘Ode to Joy’?

Article published on Dec. 1, 2003
community published
Article published on Dec. 1, 2003

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

14 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and Germany is still far from united. With enlargement to the East looming, does the EU face the same fate?

Question: What do you get if you cross an ‘Ossi’ (East German) with a ‘Wessi’ (West German)? Answer: An arrogant scrounger. A harmless joke, or proof that stereotypes about ‘Wessis’ and ‘Ossis’ are still going strong?

It’s 14 years since the wall came down, and yet the wall which exists in people’s minds is still standing. If the results of a Forsa-Institute survey published in August 2003 for the news channel N24 are to be believed, 62% of people perceive a marked difference between citizens of the former FRG and their neighbours in the GDR. This distinction is more common in the East then the West (with, respectively, 73% and 69% of those surveyed making such a distinction). But shouldn’t birds of a feather stick together? Why do both East and West Germans hark back to ‘the good old days’? What are the reasons for donning ‘red-tinted spectacles’? And can parallels be drawn between German unification, with its internal conflicts, and the imminent European expansion to the east?

No solution to the problem, rather - ‘problems with the solution‘

Public debate did not, perhaps, make enough of the fact that reunification would cause problems across the board. Overnight, East Germans found themselves confronted with issues such as unemployment and racism. In theory, they were free to travel and to consume, but in reality, that made little difference. Did the fall of the wall promise more than the problems and frustration it actually delivered? For West Germans too, the whole thing just seemed to involve one expense and worry after the other.

To the outside world, Germany appeared to take the moral high ground and adopt an air of superiority. Did the imposition of the western model imply that the East Germans had been living a lie for over forty years? After all, the feeling of being a second-rate citizen still exists amongst East Germans. That’s frustrating. Since the delay in harmonizing wages in the public sector has yet to be explained, in East Germany it’s left to the man on the street to draw his own conclusions. Factors like these run the risk of triggering a popular yearning for the past - the donning of red-tinted spectacles. To shun reality in this way is not without its dangers, because of its tendency to play down the inhumane side of the GDR system; it prevents the possibility of the two sides ever being truly reconciled.

Parallels between German reunification and the accession of the Eastern European states

Germany’s reunification experience could offer a valuable lesson to help deal with enlargement to the East - and some of its inevitable problems - in a more enlightened way than is currently the case. But, unfortunately, people don’t seem to learn from their mistakes. That’s why it’s particularly problematic that Germany and Austria have demanded that the principle of the free movement of peoples, one of the four freedoms of the EU internal market, should not apply to member states for a period of seven years. The fear that Germany and Austria will see their labour markets swamped with Eastern European workers, leaving them with higher levels of unemployment, surely goes some way to explaining their demand. But to what extent can a two-tier system such as this provide the basis for a joint project? Doesn’t it just prove that the law of the jungle still prevails? it’s also worth pointing out that the seven year transition period proved entirely redundant in the case of Spain, Portugal and Greece during the accession of the Mediterranean states in the 1980s; the dreaded mass migration of people from south to north failed to materialize. Why, then, do we consistently fail to learn from the past?

A ‘GDR-Effect’ in Europe

If the current member states remain aloof, and fail to make a commitment to communal projects, such as a communal social policy, which fully recognised candidate countries, then, in just a few years, we could see a repetition of the ‘GDR-Effect’ in Europe. The fact that surveys are showing that in many countries support for EU membership is diminishing should be taken as a warning and as a spur to action. According to media coverage of the negotiations, it’s not just people in the candidate countries who see the EU as a two-tier society. We shouldn’t forget that for many countries it’s just 10 years since they were liberated from oppression by a higher authority: memories are still vivid, and there are scars which have yet to heal. The way that EU-membership is currently being packaged, it’s quite possible that the fear of oppression could resurface, albeit this time from the West.

In order for a country to become a member of the EU, several criteria must be met. Among these are democracy and the respect for the equal rights of citizens. If the EU wants members to adhere to these demands and expectations, then the EU must follow suit or risk losing credibility.

Like the EU, Germany in 1990 expanded its borders to the East. But on that occasion, policy and a majority of the West German population failed to recognize the East as an equal partner. People’s first instinct was to reach for their calculators and work out the cost of reunification, and who stood to gain. It’s for German and European policy to ensure that these mistakes are not repeated during enlargement to the East. European reunification depends upon it.