Fifteen years after the EU’s big bang enlargement, one would expect the dividing line between old and new (or post-communist) member states to have faded away. But according to media reporting and academic commentary, the opposite appears to be the case. Since the Polish parliamentary election in 2015 and the refugee crisis of 2015–2016, the rift seems to have widened again and is often perceived to be one of the biggest challenges for the cohesion of the EU.

This perception of growing estrangement is beginning to lead to a reevaluation of the enlargements of 2004, when ten mainly Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries joined the EU, and 2007, when a further two became members. What used to be considered a historic achievement is now often viewed more critically. Many in Western Europe now think the EU was extended too far and too quickly, and some are nostalgic for the earlier “Carolingian” union.

Unlike the North-South divide, which dominated EU politics during the financial crisis and set the Northern creditor countries, with their insistence on fiscal discipline, against the Southern debtor states demanding solidarity, the East-West divide lacks a single focus.

Stefan Lehne
Lehne is a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe in Brussels, where his research focuses on the post–Lisbon Treaty development of the European Union’s foreign policy, with a specific focus on relations between the EU and member states.
More >

How to deal with refugees and migrants may be the most politically divisive item. But the crisis of democracy in Hungary and Poland and rule-of-law deficits there and in other Eastern countries are also major factors of alienation. And there are disputes about the financing of structural funds and agriculture, the mobility of workers, environmental standards, and food quality.

Frustrated about a perceived lack of commitment to integration from the newest member states, some Western politicians have pushed for a two-speed Europe, in which the willing and able (Western) countries could move ahead, leaving the rest in an outer circle. Some of their counterparts in the East see their countries as victims of persistent discrimination. They complain that the West wishes to turn the CEE countries into permanent rule-takers and denies them a fair deal, which would enable economic convergence.

Disappointed expectations, blame games, and prejudices on both sides play as important a role as clashes of real interests or disagreements on substance. In this situation, it is helpful to unbundle some of the key assumptions underlying the divide and check each one’s validity.

Myth 1: Two Opposing Factions

The first misconception is that Eastern and Western Europe have turned into discrete camps divided by many issues.

In reality, the CEE countries are not a single bloc but are about as diverse as other regions of the EU. As political scientist Jan Zielonka has convincingly demonstrated, Europe is a complicated maze with many fault lines that defy any simple categorization.

Apart from their common history as parts of the Soviet empire and their relatively low per capita incomes, the CEE countries have little in common. Russia is seen as a threat in Poland and the Baltics but not in Slovakia or Hungary. Slovenia, Slovakia, and the Baltic states are eurozone members, while the others still have their own currencies. Most—but not Bulgaria or Romania—are part of the Schengen passport-free travel space. The Baltic states have a Northern identity and cooperate closely with Scandinavian countries, whereas the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia have their own club, the Visegrád Four (V4). That quartet is often divided on the issues but—at least since the migration crisis—is often misperceived in the West as representing all the CEE countries.

Apart from the special case of migration (see below), there are few issues where the interests of the CEE countries are well aligned. One is the shared interest in a well-funded EU cohesion policy that can reduce the gap in economic development among member states. As Greece, Italy, and Portugal take similar positions, the CEE states are not alone in this stance.

Because average CEE minimum wages amount to one-third of the eurozone average, there is a tendency in the West to combat so-called social dumping by restricting the mobility of workers. Resisting such efforts is another common interest of post-Communist countries. But as the negotiations on recent EU employment legislation, in particular on posted workers and the mobility package, have shown, the interests of the CEE countries often diverge when it comes to specifics. Hungary and Poland ended up taking a very tough line, whereas others showed considerable readiness to work with Western Europeans on compromise solutions.

For relatively poor countries, high environmental standards are costly and reduce their competitiveness. Studies indicate a certain clustering of CEE voting on these issues, but again interests diverge. Poland is keen to protect its coal mines, while Hungary and Slovakia have their important car industries to consider. Consequently, there are few common positions and there is hardly any voting as a bloc. Particularly the Czech Republic is an outlier that often votes for higher standards.

Myth 2: Incompatible Views on Migration

The second assumption is that fundamentally different attitudes between East and West on migration make progress on relevant EU policies impossible.

Central and Eastern Europe used to be the most ethnically diverse part of the continent. But as a consequence of mass murder, expulsions, and changes of borders during World War II, these countries are now ethnically more homogeneous than most other regions of Europe. During decades of Communist rule, the region’s populations lived in relative isolation, while Western European countries took in hundreds of thousands of immigrants, partly as a result of decolonization and partly by recruiting large numbers of guest workers from Turkey and other countries. In more recent years, while high immigration continued in the West, some CEE countries also experienced significant inflows, but mostly from regional neighbors such as Ukraine and the Western Balkans.

The CEE countries’ different historical experience explains to a large extent why ethnic and religious diversity is perceived more negatively in these societies than in the globalized Western European states. But as political scientists Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes have pointed out, this is only part of the explanation. The rapid aging of these countries’ populations, their low birth rates, and the massive emigration to the West create anxiety and fears for the future. And this demographic angst opens up opportunities for politicians to present the specter of mass immigration of Middle Eastern and African people as an existential threat to the nation.

It is therefore unsurprising that the response in the CEE countries to the great influx of refugees from the Middle East and North Africa in 2015–2016 was quite restrictive. While Germany, Sweden, and some other Western European countries opened their borders, CEE countries tended to close theirs or—when the refugees had already arrived—encourage them to move on to other states as rapidly as possible.

Some CEE countries also became prominent opponents of any proposal to distribute the burden of hosting refugees more equally among member states. The EU Council decision in 2016 to introduce obligatory quotas of migrants for each state backfired, as it just aggravated the ill feelings about the issue. Certainly, a number of Western European countries also disliked schemes for redistributing refugees and some Eastern governments signaled a willingness to compromise. Still, the fight over burden sharing, which blocked reform of the EU asylum system, was widely perceived as the main battleground between Europe’s West and East.

In the last three years, the situation has changed. As Western European states have also adopted much more restrictive policies and the number of new arrivals has diminished, the difference between East and West is now much smaller than it used to be. The reluctance to give up national sovereignty to develop stronger EU structures and policies is widely shared today. And more modest reforms are impeded not by the East-West divide but by the positions of individual populist leaders who prefer to exploit the issue for domestic purposes rather than solve it. Italy’s Interior Minister Matteo Salvini is as much of a spoiler in this respect as Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

Myth 3: Deficient Rule of Law

The third myth is that the CEE countries suffer from endemic rule-of-law deficits that threaten the functioning of the union.

In truth, no EU member state is entirely free of rule-of-law challenges, but in recent years the focus has clearly been on the CEE countries’ record in this area. Essentially, there are two types of problem.

For the most part, issues result from weaknesses in governance that in some cases go back several centuries. Where no effective state institutions existed throughout much of history, as in many parts of the highly decentralized Ottoman Empire, it will take considerable time to create the required institutional capacity. Similar problems in southern Italy or Greece show that such challenges are not unique to CEE countries. But for them, the legacy of four decades of Communism is certainly an additional handicap.

It was overoptimistic to assume that the EU accession process would remedy these deficits within a few years. But in fact, some CEE countries such as those in the Baltics and, initially, Poland have made rapid progress, whereas others are lagging behind. Weak judiciaries and high levels of corruption are certainly problematic for the EU, not least because most of these countries receive a lot of EU aid. But there is hope that over time, the situation will improve as it has in other CEE countries. The real challenge for the EU is to develop incentives to support this process and sharpen the instruments to combat fraud and corruption.

Much more serious are situations when the problem is not the legacy of weak state structures but the conscious effort of a governing party to entrench its rule by dismantling constitutional checks and balances, curbing the independence of the judiciary, and reducing the space of independent media and civil society. Hungary and Poland are currently drifting in this direction. To a more limited extent, this is also true for Romania, where the ruling party is trying to roll back the anticorruption reforms of earlier years.

Such behavior creates serious problems for the EU, particularly as it so far lacks effective remedies to deal with such situations. Nothing has tarnished the image of the CEE as much as these developments. However, there is no justification to conflate the behavior of a few governments with the democratic and rule-of-law standards of the CEE countries as a group.

Myth 4: Opposing Stances on Integration

Another belief is that different attitudes to European integration in Western Europe and in CEE obstruct the EU’s further development and risk its fragmentation.

Yet studies have shown that contrary to earlier expectations, the accession of the post-Communist countries has not reduced the EU’s legislative productivity or slowed its decisionmaking. Moreover, the European Commission’s Single Market Scoreboard, which measures each member state’s transposition of EU law into national law and number of infringement procedures, indicates no significant difference in the performance of Western European and CEE member states. With the exception of some elements of migration policy, the CEE countries have also been on board for the current commission’s reform priorities, ranging from the energy union to the digital internal market. But despite all this evidence that the integration of the CEE countries into the EU has been remarkably successful, many observers still note a distinctly different approach to the EU in the post-Communist states.

Certainly, the rationale of integration in the 1950s, focused on locking France and Germany into a common framework that would make a new war impossible, was alien to countries that at the time experienced forced integration into the Soviet empire. Once the CEE countries had regained their national sovereignty in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the region’s political elites quickly aimed at joining the EU and NATO. But they were hardly motivated by any federalist philosophy of overcoming the nation-state by sharing sovereignty at the EU level. As Krastev and Holmes have shown, joining Western institutions was primarily perceived as a return to normality and as the pathway to security, prosperity, and freedom.

However, over past decades, the EU’s treaty commitment to an “ever closer union” has weakened in Western Europe, and disagreements particularly on the monetary union have hampered the leadership of France and Germany in driving reforms.

Until recently, it was hard to see the CEE countries as a major obstacle to deepened integration. But this perception has changed as a result of the arrival of illiberal governments in Hungary and Poland. These governments propagate a much looser union, which still provides economic benefits and funds, but in which powers are shifted back to the member states and EU institutions no longer constrain the internal exercise of power. From their point of view, the West has betrayed the true European values and thereby lost its legitimacy to provide a model for the new member states. Or, as Orbán has put it, “Back in 1990 Europe was our future, but now we are Europe’s future.”

Such rhetoric, while not representative of the views of most CEE countries, nonetheless affects public and elite opinion in the West. In particular, it fuels interest in models for differentiated integration as a way of moving forward despite the reluctance and resistance of some member states. There is something unreal about this debate, however: neither do Warsaw or Budapest have actual plans for scaling back integration to a more comfortable level, nor are there any concrete proposals for EU integration in a smaller circle. The result is just bad blood and the perception of deepening East-West divisions.

Myth 5: Discrimination Against the Newcomers

The final misconception is that fifteen years after joining the EU, the CEE countries remain the poor relations in the European family, with the older members continuing to run the show and protecting their advantages.

According to an expert survey by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) in 2018, Germany and France are seen as by far the most influential member states, followed by the Netherlands, the UK, and Italy. Poland came sixth and Hungary eighth; the other CEE countries all featured in the lower half of the table. For anyone with experience in EU institutions, these results come as no surprise. Germany and France have always been at the heart of European integration, and after Brexit their preeminence will possibly increase. Italy and Spain for internal reasons are currently punching below their weight, whereas the Netherlands has recently shown great skill at coalition building.

In terms of political influence, there is no West-East divide but rather a core-periphery constellation. Size matters. Of the CEE countries only Poland has the critical mass to be among the bigger EU players, but the EU-skeptical policies of the current government have weakened the country’s clout. The other CEE countries can draw comfort from the fact that nations like Austria, Finland, Ireland, or Portugal also find themselves at some distance from the EU’s center of gravity.

This does not mean that smaller member states have no influence, but they have to lobby harder and develop intelligent strategies to achieve their objectives. The solidarity the EU has shown with Ireland over its concerns in the Brexit negotiations demonstrates the high value of EU membership for a small and peripheral country that knows how to play the game. It is clear that the CEE political elites and administrations still have some catching up to do in this regard.

There is thus no systematic discrimination of the post-Communist member states. However, from time to time, the EU’s core powers behave in an insensitive manner. A case in point was the Versailles summit of France, Germany, Italy, and Spain in June 2017 that endorsed a two-speed Europe and prompted considerable irritation in the East. A lot of resentment was also caused by the decision to relocate the London-based EU agencies after Brexit to two wealthy Western European cities, Paris and Amsterdam, despite of a number of candidacies from CEE countries, which do not yet host any such agencies.

For many people in the CEE countries, EU accession came with the expectation of rapidly reaching the living standards of Western Europe. And in fact, a good deal of economic convergence has been achieved. By 2017 half of the newest member states had already overtaken the two poorest old member states, Greece and Portugal, in terms of GDP per capita. Projections for coming years suggest that growth will remain higher in the new member states than in the old, but there are indications that the rate of convergence is slowing. And, of course, the overall gap in income between East and West remains substantial.

Particularly worrying is the fact that social convergence (pensions, benefits, social security nets) has lagged behind. This can undermine the economic performance of these countries in the future. More social dialogue and more social investment are therefore crucial. If some of the CEE countries are decoupled from the EU’s social and economic development, while many of their well-educated younger citizens depart for Western Europe, an anti-EU backlash will be unavoidable.

As many CEE countries receive resource transfers through the structural funds in the order of 3–4 percent of GDP, cohesion policy has helped significantly in enabling economic convergence. In the current negotiations on the EU’s multiannual budget for 2021–2027, the CEE countries will take adequate funding of cohesion as a test of the richer member states’ readiness to address economic imbalances in the EU. Against the background of reduced financial resources due to the UK’s departure, this promises to be an extremely difficult negotiation that may—if handled badly—revive tensions between East and West.

A Relationship in Need of Empathy and Engagement

Many of the claims about the EU’s East-West divide do not stand up to closer inspection. Much of the divide exists more in political rhetoric, newspaper columns, and think tank articles than in concrete EU policy. This does not mean that the problem should be taken lightly. Even if the divide is more psychological than substantive, it nonetheless affects the relationship between older and newer member states and has an impact on policy decisions.

Lack of knowledge of the complex and highly diverse developments in Central and Eastern Europe is a large part of the problem. With the exception of the Nordic states in the Baltics, Western European states have not developed enough know-how and familiarity with the region to understand what is going on and respond intelligently. Investing more diplomatic and cultural resources and promoting academic and civil society exchanges could make a difference.

The relative low intensity of communication between the two sides is another important factor. In the enlarged EU, there is a tendency to consult primarily within established regional frameworks. The ECFR coalition explorer shows the V4 to be an introspective alliance with few external ties and limited influence. Carnegie Europe’s Tomáš Valášek has called on CEE governments “to break out of their bubble” by engaging more actively with partners from Western Europe. And, of course, the same is true for the Western governments. French President Emmanuel Macron’s tour of the region during the negotiations on EU employment legislation has shown that engagement delivers results. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s joint summit with the V4 in February 2019 demonstrates that she too has understood the problem.

In the future, governments from both sides should consult much more frequently and take joint initiatives across the divide. This would also help find common ground in the tough negotiations on asylum reform and the future financing of the EU.

The perception of a deteriorating relationship in recent years is also due to the policies of Warsaw and Budapest. In Western European public opinion, the policies of Orbán and Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party, are frequently conflated with those of the V4; and these, in turn, are frequently seen as representing all the post-Communist member states. The problematic behavior of a few therefore turns into an image problem for the entire region. The other CEE countries could help dispel this impression by distancing themselves clearly from the illiberal policies of Budapest and Warsaw. But Western European politicians and journalists could also do more to resist unfair generalizations and typecasting.

A reality check of the experience of the past fifteen years demonstrates that altogether, the EU’s Eastern enlargement has been an impressive success story. But the sense of alienation that has crept into relations between West and East in recent years is nonetheless worrying. As they mark the fifteenth anniversary of the big bang enlargement in May, EU leaders need to remember that the reunification of Europe celebrated in 2004 was not completed at the moment of accession. Like most human relationships, it will continue and deepen only if it receives constant care and engagement.

Carnegie Europe is grateful to the German Federal Foreign Office and the Koerber Foundation for their financial support of this publication.