How to solve East European unhappiness with the EU

July 10, 2019

Those who in the 1980’s were fiercely opposing the Soviet sphere of influence and wanted to break free from the mold and join the ‘free Europe’, are now growing more and more unhappy with the EU. How did this come to pass, where did it turn sour, and is there a solution? The answer might just be a broad and fundamental civil society initiative in Europe.

Spending two days in the old Hungarian town of Kőszeg is a joy, and very useful indeed, in particular in the company of old friends such as Ferenc Miszlivetz, and an international group of critical students. Ferenc, a dissident with whom we worked throughout the eighties, participated last November in our scenario exercise on the future of Europe as a peace project, and it was great to meet him after many years. In his capacity as director of the Institute of Advanced Studies in Kőszeg he invited me for this International Summer University. ‘Please do a scenario exercise workshop with the students, and give a lecture on European citizenship.’ Of course, I accepted the invitation. How could I not have…

1989, year of magic. But what happened?

In a series of panel discussions, we spent quite some time trying to understand what happened in that magical year 1989. Together with a former German SPD parliamentarian, active in the East-West dialogue, and a former activist of the forbidden Polish trade union Solidarnosc, I helped to bring back some of the decisive moments in these years in which independent thinkers and activists embarked on the challenging process of together defining a vision for post-Cold War Europe: END conventions, East-West Dialogue workshops and meetings in cities including Perugia, Amsterdam, Coventry, Lund, Prague, Budapest. These were different times. No internet, no fax even, and all telephone land-line connections were risky due to secret services’ surveillance. Compared to modern day communication technology it feels we were using post pigeons.

A new and ignored constitution

We also discussed the way in which the political elites reacted in Western Europe, after the fall of the Berlin Wall: how German Chancellor Kohl in a way stole the momentum from the East-German activists and citizens by changing the key slogan, from “Wir sind das Volk” to “Wir sind ein Volk”. Our partners from Neues Forum, the key mobilizing force back then in the GDR (East Germany) had prepared, so they thought, for a new situation, among others by writing a new democratic constitution for their country. How could they expect that they would be simply swallowed by big and economically strong Western Germany? I still keep a copy of that draft constitution, never discussed in any parliament, in my archives.

‘Welcome to Europe, be like us’

This is a strong sentiment among the former Warsaw Pact countries dissidents: ‘We were developing something new, and this could serve as a challenge, or better opportunity, for the Western European countries as well. Were they, in the West, that much afraid of us and our ideas?’ Perhaps some were, but I think that many of them were equally indifferent. Why should they engage in uncertain processes of redefining state-citizens relations or the organization of social fabric in their societies? They had won the Cold War, right?! Therefore they constituted the norm for the others. Welcome to Europe, be like us, and all will be well and fine.

Civil society

That fact that only 1,5 year after the huge transitions another war broke out in Europe, in Yugoslavia, did not help. And over the last ten years the former dissidents have grown more frustrated or even disillusioned. They criticize their own governments, including some of their old friends now on key positions, but they also strongly feel that their countries are not taken very serious by the old EU member states. And even more important, for them the EU lost almost all of its legitimacy in how it dealt with issues of poverty in EU member states, the reactions to migrant flows, and the way in which promotion of security and peace seems to be determined primarily by the lobby of the arms industry and arms trade.

And now I hear whispers, growing in volume: ‘Dion, again we need a broad and fundamental civil society initiative in Europe. The situation is very urgent.’ Food for thought… time for quick thinking.

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