Monday, October 31, 2005

ev september 2005

The disgraceful 'party line' on Eastern Europe

By Edward Lucas

Twice at parties in the last week I've found myself gasping for
breath. Each time I was chatting to pillars of the right-wing British
establishment, solid Cold Warriors with whom I used to agree about the
big questions of Europe's future - America in, Germans down, Russia
out - and so forth.

But Euroscepticism is corroding those comforting and commendable
certainties. One of my pals, a newspaper editor, interrupted me as I
praised the flat-taxes and other reforms sweeping across Europe from
the new member states. "Oh, I'm not interested in that now. I'm for a
pull-out." In vain I tried to explain that the Central Europeans and
Balts would regard his idea of a new EFTA - backed by NATO - as dotty
and unworkable. The constitution had failed, he insisted, so the EU
was dead.
Two days later it was one of Britain's leading right-wing polemicists,
a man who as speechwriter for Margaret Thatcher honed some of the
choicest phrases of the Cold War. I was trying to interest him in the
problems of Europe's eastern fringes, so brilliantly outlined by my
predecessor, Robert Cottrell, in his recent survey in The Economist.
He wasn't interested. The EU would collapse, and Britain should pull
out as soon as possible. But what, I stuttered, would you do about
Moldova, or Belarus? "Those countries," he replied loftily, "will have
to look after themselves." I could hardly believe my ears. A man who,
only 20 years previously, had championed the captive nations' right to
be free of Soviet rule was now consigning the most vulnerable victims
of Communism to the scrap heap of history.
There is something very odd going on here. Britain and British ideas
of a wide, Atlanticist Europe have never been so popular in Eastern
Europe. Memories of betrayals, real or imagined, of Munich, of the
Warsaw Uprising, at Yalta, of the Cossacks, of Hungarians in 1956 and
Czechoslovaks in 1968, are fading into history. Instead, there is
enthusiastic support for British ideas about EU reform, for Tony
Blair's ideas about deregulation, dynamism, flexibility and so on.
Countries wanting to join the EU see the British presidency as their
big chance.
By contrast, the Franco-German axis has never looked more out-of-date
and disreputable. In particular, Poles, Czechs and Slovaks have fallen
out of love with France in a way I would have regarded as wildly
unlikely when I covered Central Europe in the 1980s and 1990s.
Yet the people who should be celebrating as the winds of history blow
their way have given up and are huddled below decks, sneering and
jeering, lost in their own world of defunct sentimental nationalism
and vainglorious wishful thinking.
Fuelled by champagne and indignation, I asked both people for an
alternative. If consolidating democracy and stability in the Western
Balkans matters, what possible alternative is there than the big
carrot of EU membership for countries that do the right things, on
institution-building, the rule of law, treatment of minorities,
crime-fighting, intelligence-sharing and so forth?
I would like to report that they came up with ingenious solutions that
would bring all the prosperity and other benefits of the EU without
any of the bureaucracy, waste, corruption, pomposity and jargon that
fuels Euroscepticism in Britain and elsewhere.
Not a bit of it. For the champions of the Cold War, Eastern Europe, it
seems, is once again a collection of faraway countries of whom we know
nothing. That was a callous and disgraceful phrase when used in 1938
by Neville Chamberlain of Czechoslovakia. And it is callous and
disgraceful now.

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