Today, the 9th of November, marks 30 years since the Berlin Wall fell. This momentous occasion in 1989 represented not only the physical collapse of a concrete barrier dividing West and East Berlin but also the completion of the decades long Cold War between the West and the East. Although the USSR would not fall until two years later, the wall had long constituted the most famous barrier between Communist East and Capitalist West and its collapse marked the beginning of a new era of European integration.
However, the golden years of the European Union (EU) have passed and now it faces many challenges. While the obvious elephant in the room is Brexit, Western Europe’s relations with the newer member states in the East, particularly Hungary and Poland have become a serious issue. This, coupled with Russia’s increasing belligerence has led some to label the current situation a new Cold War.
Hungary’s abuses of the rule of law, in particular Viktor Orban’s quest to create an “illiberal democracy” has drawn the ire of the EU. Both Hungary and Poland – probably the two largest Eastern European EU member states – have been condemned and punished by the EU for their attacks on the independence of the judiciary and the media and virulent campaigns against the LGBTQ community, Jews, and immigrants. Whether this represents a right-wing reaction against years of neoliberal democratic domination or a vote against the increasing federalism pursued by countries such as France or Germany, it is clear that the EU is losing its grip in the East.
One reason for the EU’s issues in the East is Russia’s increasing belligerence. Dating back to its intervention in Crimea and Ukraine, there have been growing concerns around Russia’s actions across the world, but most notably in Eastern Europe. Putin’s relationship with Orban, most notably in the formation of official economic ties between the two countries, have worried the Western European powers. Although France has taken an increasingly conciliatory tone with Russia in the past few months, there is still a general consensus that Russia’s actions are increasingly threatening. With accusations of Russian meddling in US elections, the Brexit vote, and the Skripal poisoning still lurking over the West, many see it as increasingly challenging to have good relations with Putin’sRussia. For many the EU is not the bulwark it once was. This is highlighted by recent actions across Eastern Europe. For example, in the small European state of Moldova – where Russian agents were accused of attempting a coup – a pro-Russia party was recently elected, worrying many. This is accompanied by a growing pro-Russia tone in the EU member Bulgaria.
With talk of an EU army, increasing homogeneity on fiscal and monetary issues many, including in the Brexit campaign, have raised questions about EU infringement on state sovereignty. The “federalist” ideas espoused by the major EU states have been quelled in the face of rampant populism. This is exemplified in Britain, Italy and Eastern European nations, leading to, arguably, the biggest split between Eastern and Western Europe since the Cold War. Thirty years on from the collapse of the Berlin Wall, a physical barrier may no longer exist but a metaphorical one is certainly growing.
The most recent concern, for the US especially, is the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline from Russia through Europe. The US and Ukraine have argued that it increases European, and especially German, reliance on Russian gas and could have serious national security implications. On the one hand, European states are attempting to stand firm against Russia while also acknowledging increasingly difficult issues with the US under President Trump. Stuck between a rock and a hard place would be an apt comparison for European states trying to stop Eastern European countries slipping into Russia’s grasp while also dealing with difficult American foreign policy that threatens interests in China and the Middle East.
While the heyday of the Cold War threatened the very fabric of liberal democracies across Western Europe, it would be obtuse to argue that Europe faces the same position now. However, thirty years on from the collapse of the Berlin Wall, those who sit in power in Berlin and Paris face an existential crisis in the form of Russian expansionism, American confusion, and British rejection that threatens the EU’s very ideals.
Edited by Sophia Kamps.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association.