How East-West Dynamics Define Europe

By Ferenc Laczó

Unexpected transformations in Eastern Europe have been central to the remaking of contemporary Europe. Now, radicalizing illiberal regimes in the East European region, such as those in Poland and Hungary, also pose major political challenges to the European project. This article discusses how East European aspirations to become ‘fully European’ fostered the nation states system in the region in the 20th century and led to an enlarged European Union in the early 21st. I will aim to show how those two processes in turn yielded a less balanced EU and contributed to a new sense of an East-West divide. 

I argue that the rise of authoritarian nationalism in some of the most eager ‘Europeanizers’ of the post-89 period, such as Poland and Hungary, points to an urgent need to think about the asymmetries in East-West relations with their often ironic, if not downright tragic consequences. I claim that there is no reason why current perceptions of a deepening East-West divide should unmake the European Union. But for that to be assured, we first need to consider this divide in a historically informed and nuanced manner. 

Orientalism and Occidentalism within Europe

First conceptualized in the 18th century and often depicted as the part of Europe which is not ‘fully European,’ but rather a sort of ‘demi-Orient’ within the geography of Europe, the category of Eastern Europe has possessed only limited potential for self-identification (Larry Wolff). People in Eastern Europe have in fact made repeated and at times vocal claims to belong to the very same category of Europeans as their Western counterparts – what is more, concepts such as ‘Europe’ and ‘the West’ have frequently expressed deeper aspirations and yearnings in Eastern Europe than in the Western ‘core’ countries. East Europeans have made such claims to belong while members of the latter group were prone to expressing a sense of distance from and not infrequently also a sense of superiority towards them – signs of an asymmetrical and not particularly well-balanced relationship. 

To overcome such asymmetries, various individuals and groups within Eastern Europe have aspired to transform their own societies in the image they had of countries further west – often with substantial, if at times poorly informed, support from Western actors. Such attempts to ‘Westernize,’ however, have repeatedly generated controversies and at times yielded powerful cultural and political responses in the name of local-national traditions. 

As various groups in these semi-peripheral societies would come to opt – and sometimes oscillate – between hopes and resentments towards ‘Western models of modernity,’ a pattern of polarization crystallized. This internal polarization between ‘Westernizers,’ often called liberals in our age, and nationalists, again widely labelled as populists, has in many ways been a consequence of Eastern Europe’s unequal relationship with Western Europe and the West more broadly. 

After all, the key difference between liberalism and nationalism in this region concerns the way countries define their respective  relationship to a more developed and more liberal West: as imitative or as confrontational. 

It is worth noting in this context that there is no comparable internal polarization within West European societies resulting from their relationship to and assessment of phenomena in Eastern Europe. It may thus be important to study the variety of Orientalism in Western Europe when it comes to Eastern Europe, but it is even more important to grasp the contestation of Occidentalism in Eastern Europe. The latter, after all, has had truly massive political consequences. 

The first attempt at a post-imperial Eastern Europe – and its consequences

The first major attempt to create a post-imperial Eastern Europe and establish it as part of a broader Western project was made through the ‘Versailles system’ introduced at the end of WWI. The key ambition at the time was to create a system of democratic nation states in what was then a much more diverse macro-region of Europe than Western Europe (relatively more homogeneous countries within it, like Poland or Romania, still had about 30% minority populations during the interwar years). However, this first attempt to remodel this ‘demi-Oriental’ sphere along Western lines had disastrous mid-term consequences. 

With the partial exception of Czechoslovakia, the new democracies in the region exhibited numerous weaknesses and shortcomings. They were eventually overthrown across the region. What was worse, totalitarian-imperial rule by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union was soon imposed with extreme violence and often with notable levels of local support and complicity. Members of minority populations meant to enjoy institutional protection on the national and international levels, were in fact frequently discriminated, persecuted, or eventually even murdered, with East European Jews foremost among them – the region being the main center of Jewish life prior to the unprecedented Nazi onslaught, about 95% of all Holocaust victims came from it. 

In other words, the first major attempt to remodel Eastern Europe along Western lines of the democratic nation state not only failed to fulfil its promises but contributed to unleashing cataclysmic processes that had practically been unthinkable within the geography of Europe. This soon made new concepts, such as crimes against humanity and genocide, enter the legal vocabulary and common parlance worldwide. 

A great reversal

The vortex of violence in Eastern Europe in the first half of the twentieth century and mass immigration into Western Europe in the post-war period combined to assure a great reversal. Before the end of the century, the macro-region of the continent that had entered modernity as a much more diverse one came to be divided into ever smaller and, as a general tendency, ever more homogeneous nation states. Whereas the previously rather homogeneous nation states of Western Europe became significantly more ethnically and religiously diverse. 

The political and cultural consequences of this momentous reversal became plainly visible around 2015, to the incomprehension of many commentators in Western Europe – and not only there. Based on their response to the unfolding humanitarian crisis, East European political leaders and large segments of local populations appear to have ‘normalized’ their respective countries’ relative ethnic homogeneity that had been created through so much violence in recent history. 

While the widespread incomprehension in the face of official rejections of solidarity was more than understandable, the novelty of rather homogenous nation states in the East and how they had been established to replicate Western models were rarely noted at the time. 

In hindsight, we might say that the first major attempt to remake Eastern Europe in the image of the West has led not only to an outcome that is devastating but also thoroughly ironic. In terms of diversity, Eastern Europe today looks a lot more like Western Europe did about a hundred years ago but that is also true the other way round.

Nesting Orientalism and ‘the old West’ in a new Europe

The peculiar entanglements and asymmetrical relationship between the ‘two halves’ of the continent have certainly not disappeared with the second great westernizing revolutions of East European peoples in 1989. Just when many a Western intellectual debate revolved around Francis Fukuyama’s liberal teleological thesis on ‘the end of history,’ East European societies were embarking on a complex and indeed unprecedented transformation out of the party state and the planned economy. Somewhat disoriented upon the collapse of Soviet rule and the disappearance of entire life-worlds practically overnight, members of these societies generally wished to assert their ‘Europeanness’ and to be perceived, once again, as akin to their West European counterparts. 

At the same time, West Europeans tended to re-assert their right to measure and assess the ‘Europeanness’ of East Europeans. In the case of the European Union (a union of West European states in all but name at the time), this was done primarily through the 1993 introduction of the Copenhagen criteria according to which they could judge whether countries of the ‘other Europe’ rightfully belonged to the European project or fell short of ‘European standards.’ The prospect of ‘EU accession’ certainly helped aspiring countries remain relatively stable and stay the course of ‘the transition’ – with the war-torn post-Yugoslav region constituting a tragic exception. However, being expected and eager to fulfil a plethora of external conditions in a moment of democratization answered many of the central questions of national political life before more substantial debates could have taken place.

The drawn-out process and uneven success of EU enlargement has also reinforced old and introduced new hierarchies to Eastern Europe. Distinctions between the ‘more’ and the ‘less’ Europeanized have become part and parcel of what Milica Bakić-Hayden has imaginatively called nesting Orientalism. A key insight of Bakić-Hayden is that orientalising practices can take the form of ‘exclusionary self-inclusion in the West’ and may get encoded into relations between immediate neighbors in a sort of chain (as in the symbolic distancing of Germans from Poles, Poles from Ukrainians, Ukrainians from Russians, etc.). 

It is indeed conspicuous today how it is precisely those East European countries which had been the first and most eager to Westernize after 1989 that ended up electing and re-electing governments propagating authoritarian forms of nationalism and exclusionary visions of Europe. Instead of internalizing a political-civic sense of the nation and the liberal-normative project of the West, the PiS- and Fidesz-led governments in Poland and Hungary, respectively, avidly propagate ethnic-cultural, religiously connoted, or even downright racial ideas of what Europe ought to stand for. 

This nationalist tradition arguably derives much of its contemporary strength from the socialization of several generations into the ‘really existing’ nation states of the post-war decades and its homogenizing discourses – with Poland and Hungary being among the most ethnically homogeneous societies within the Soviet bloc and since, and also most insistent on their special character as compared to the rest already before 1989. Their much-discussed illiberal political projects pose an existential challenge to the EU today, however, the rise of authoritarian nationalism on which they draw may be a less paradoxical consequence of their Europeanization than often assumed. The fact that East Europeans, who have been asserting their right to belong to Europe in recent decades and been repeatedly measured on their path there, now vehemently insist on their ‘privilege to exclude others,’ could just as well be viewed as the consequence of a certain logic of Europeanization – the logic of moving upwards on an East-West slope not least by negating connections to places further east (Attila Melegh). 

We ought to recall in this context that Western discourses during the Cold War tended to symbolically include East European countries as ‘Christian’ and ‘European’ below the veneer of Soviet rule. These anti-communist discourses depicted them as places that were deprived of their ‘sovereignty,’ ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ against their will and that should therefore be considered as potential parts of an enlarged ‘historical West.’ East Europeans in turn tended to make the supposed connections between Europeanness, Christianity, freedom, and democracy more explicit in the reconfigured Europe after 1989. Government representatives in some of the newer members of the Union are indeed among the most vocal today in propagating such exclusionary connections – ideas that tend to be considered anachronistic, not to mention deeply controversial, further west. 

The sharp debates surrounding Poland and Hungary, two nation states modelled along Western lines and ethnically homogenized through mass violence in the 20th century which now pursue illiberal projects within an enlarged West, have clearly added to the polarization between two self-understandings of the West – the West as a normative, liberal-progressive project, on the one hand, and the West as a nostalgic, culturalist-racial one, on the other. 

As West European liberal democrats in countries such as France or Italy defend themselves against powerful internal challengers who are by and large in favour of the latter self-understanding, they perceive the regimes being built in Poland and Hungary as propagating political values they firmly reject in their own countries. These East European ‘experiments in anachronism’ have also contributed to reviving those expressions of distance in Western Europe that Eastern Europe’s eager Westernization after 1989 was meant to overcome in the first place. The frequent reduction of a complex and diverse region to the two politically most problematic cases of the moment already attests to a certain continuity in traditions of stigmatization. 

While attitudes towards the EU in fact remain highly favourable in these two countries too, Poland and Hungary’s current ‘experiments in anachronism’ show that the second, post-89 attempt to remodel Eastern Europe along Western lines could also result in regimes aiming to arrive where they believe the West once was. 

A less balanced Union and the new East-West divide

The entry of East European countries into the EU has impacted much more than the political culture in the newly enlarged West. While nearly every second member state of the EU could be called East European by 2013, in demographic terms the ‘newer’ ones contain only about one-fifth of the Union’s population. There are significant socioeconomic disparities between the western and the eastern ‘halves,’ and the economic share of the latter has in fact remained well below one-fifth. In other words, an economically rather underdeveloped part of the continent containing numerous mostly smallish nation states – which, as we have seen, had been modelled on the West in the last century – thus came to play a disproportionately large political role on the European level post-2004, being responsible, among others, for nearly every second European Council vote and European Commissioner (if this type of overrepresentation is not replicated in the Council of Ministers). The relative underdevelopment of these member states also means that massive structural funds have started to flow in their direction just as their citizens have begun to emigrate in masses: the entry of East European states has thus drastically transformed how both the European budget and a large and borderless European zone function. At the same time, the newer member states have come to exert such political influence without their citizens acquiring anywhere near proportional representation within the EU’s own elite. 

East Europeans have come to possess disproportionate power within the Union via the nation state principle but continue to exert rather negligible influence through the transnational logic. In these ways, the enlarged EU has arguably been significantly less balanced than the Union of twelve founded at Maastricht or its Cold War-era precursors.

And there is more: whereas West Europeans tended to hope that little would change with the accession of eleven East European states, the latter countries invested hopes in an epochal transformation that would allow them to escape their semi-peripheral status. It is fair to claim that much more has changed since 2004 than the former expected, but less than the latter desired, and so both sides seem rather disappointed with the evolution of their relations today. 

Such mutually disappointed expectations, institutional misbalances within the Union, and discursive polarization around key concepts such as ‘Europe’ or ‘the West’ have all reinforced each other. They have sharpened the perception of an East-West divide in recent years. Ironically, such a deepening sense of a divide within the Union is due not least to the fact that East Europeans now claim to defend ‘Europe’ and ‘the West’ in a non-normative, culturalist-nostalgic manner. What a better-balanced Union could achieve in terms of countering democratic decline in member states is an open question – that the misbalanced one of recent years has not succeeded is a cautious formulation.

East-West dynamics have repeatedly reshaped Europe and have done so in dramatic and often ironic ways. This points to an urgent need to centre the consequences of Occidentalism in Eastern Europe and reconsider East-West entanglements. However, there is no reason why the currently much debated divide between Eastern and Western Europe should tragically unmake their Union.

In collaboration with Catherine Wright and Michal Matlak

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