What Central Europe’s societies desired during the Cold War years was to be reunited with the rest of the continent. Due to the Yalta arrangements and the political situation in the world, this was not possible. However, once they achieved their freedom in 1989 and1990, they immediately started to catch up with Western societies in every field and every sector of life: from building a market-based economy to administrative reforms; from social reforms to learning the costs and benefits of liberty. In this massive process of socio-economic change, initiated in the late 1980s and the early 1990s, they proved to be very successful. Today, the states which joined the EU on May 1st are stable democracies with free market economies which respect human rights – all of which seemed unimaginable only 16 years ago.
In undertaking this enormous effort, Central Europeans have used each nation’s great potential to implement change. They have changed and keep on changing. In fact, they are evolving much faster than any Western European societies. On a social level, at the beginning of the 1990s Poland was often compared to Spain in the 1950s. The Poland of the mid-1990s was in a similar situation to France in the 1960s. By the end of the last decade, Poland’s social situation was comparable to the Spanish one of late 1970s. Today, with unemployment reaching 21% it is often compared to the Spain of the late 1980s and the early 1990s.
On a political institutional level and in terms of democratic stability, the Central European states caught up fast and, with few exceptions, reached the Western European level by the mid-1990s. As for European political integration, they will only now start to catch up after enlargement because, for centuries, they were not given the chance to experience any voluntary political integration. Their modern past suggests that political integration can be only enforced by a stronger power. It is still feared by some of the new European citizens that the European integration project will be, as the Soviet one once was, introduced by force. This is a signal to the leaders of the West, and in particular to Germany and France, to be very careful in their relations with those states, including Poland and the Czech Republic, so as not to alienate them from further European integration.
In less than two decades Central Europe has experienced the evolution that took Western European states over 60 years. It is true that on a socio-economic level those states have not yet arrived at the point where Western societies stand. Nevertheless, with the speed they have, in the years to come they will reach the same level as Western European societies. All they need now is a few years in the EU to learn that it is, indeed, “a good thing”. They need to learn by themselves that the Union does not seek to dominate anyone or to create wars against the smaller or less powerful. The new European citizens will also see that the costs of European integration are minor in comparison to the benefits it brings.
Once the societies of Central Europe see that not only is European integration a positive development, but that deeper political integration is needed for even more benefits, they will be in favour of the very idea of deepening the Union. Yet today, just a few days after enlargement, no one in Western Europe should expect the new countries to be strong supporters of a political union from day one since their societies do not yet know what it would mean and why would it be a better system than nation states.
Having said that, and taking into consideration the political, social and economic developments of the new EU member states over the past 15 years and their fast evolution, I would risk saying that in five to 10 years from today they will be more in favour of a federal Europe than Western European societies themselves. They may even take the initiative and become pioneers in building a true Union of Europe.
The waiting game?
But does this mean waiting when you don’t want to? Not at all. For those who seek political union in Europe today my advice is not to wait, but work. Convince your own societies that a politically united Europe would be more efficient inside and more powerful outside. Make federalism a topic discussed all over the continent. Tell entire societies about your plans and actions. Mobilise everyone. To keep long discussions short, act.
So I return to my original question: will Central European states object to a politically united continent? No. Why? Because they, as much as everyone else on the continent, are Europeans concerned about Europe’s future. If federalism is truly the answer to the challenges facing Europe, they will be supportive.