published on November 30, 2020

The East-West Divide in the EU: Reconsidering Scales, Pursuing Historicization

by Ferenc Laczó 

What might be the most timely and exciting question to ask on the thirtieth anniversary of 1989? That was the question that my colleague Luka Lisjak Gabrijelčič and I were pondering back in the summer of 2018, and which led to our recent publication The Legacy of Division: East and West after 1989. The volume contains essays penned by a culturally diverse group of prominent scholars and public intellectuals with various disciplinary backgrounds; it considers East-West relations after the Cold War in terms of national, European and global scales and various types of historicization.

After some three decades since the beginning of Eastern Europe’s newest ‘great transformation’, the European Union (EU) has to confront significant tensions between several of its ‘older’ and ‘newer’ member states. What, we ask in our volume, have been the convergences and divergences, as well as the role of perceptions and misperceptions, in the evolution of East-West relations and realities since 1989? Key subjects we addressed through these questions included international relations, political-institutional change and economic development, but also historical identities and legacies, gender relations, issues of migration and – last, but not least – the possibilities and strategies of dissent.  

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the East-West divide in Europe was at first widely believed not only to be of decreasing importance, but perhaps even of increasing irrelevance. Its importance has indeed declined in comparison to the Cold War period, but not as swiftly and not nearly as much as many had hoped and expected.

Paradoxically, while facets of the East-West divide are avidly debated in Europe today, key concepts such as ‘the West’ and ‘Eastern Europe’ appear to have entered a crisis of reproduction. As a result of its wholesale Westernization, the Eastern Europe shaped by the Soviet model – and the concept of Eastern Europe had limited potential for self-identification to begin with – was supposed to be ‘overcome’. Few might have suspected at first that, within just a few decades, the liberal-normative project of the West would come to be internally challenged by an anti-universalistic, staunchly right-wing vision of the West. Indeed, the current crisis of the EU has much to do with the unexpected political evolution of parts of the ‘new West’.

A key insight that emerges in our volume is how asymmetrical East-West relations have remained after 1989. Eastern Europeans have been much more interested in the other side – and in the character and evolution of East-West relations – than the other way around. Contrary to our original intentions, our own list of contributors clearly reflects this asymmetry. In other words, all the necessary attention devoted to problematic trends in Orientalism notwithstanding, Occidentalism might in fact have had a much more profound impact in the recent decades of European history. After all, as Ivan Krastev has famously pointed out, the relationship between two alternative models was suddenly replaced by a new type of relationship between the imitated – the Western core – and its Occidentalist imitators.

The massive and in many ways unprecedented transformations that followed 1989 did not make the East of Europe appear significantly more important or relevant to key actors on the Western half of the continent. Despite the grave structural crisis in the East and the unprecedented complexity of its post-1989 transformation, the path of Eastern Europe was often assumed to be just about catching up. It could thus supposedly teach nothing of true relevance to Westerners. This was the result of a biased – and indeed Orientializing – perception prevalent in the West, a perception whose origins can be traced back to the Enlightenment. It locates Eastern Europe not only as ‘over there’, but also assigns it to the recent past of the ‘truly developed and civilized’.

At the same time, as Jarosław Kuisz has elaborated in a particularly striking manner, shortly after 1989, many in Eastern Europe shared positive myths, rather than realistic assessments, of the West. The current governments in Poland and Hungary have adopted ‘civilizational’ ideas of the West – with explicit religious or even racial connotations – in an affirmative manner which directly challenge the liberal consensus at the heart of the European project. However, they have arguably only replaced one myth of the West prevalent in Eastern Europe with another, even if it is a much more sinister one. The rise of right-wing populism on both sides of the former Iron Curtain indeed amounts to a key, if highly negative, form of convergence between the ‘former East’ and the ‘former West’.

Next to this undesirable new commonality between Europe’s ‘two halves’, other divisions have persisted. But perhaps we should not be surprised. If – as several authors in the volume clearly demonstrate (see here and here) – the economically most powerful and perhaps also best-functioning (post-classical) nation state in Europe, Germany, could overcome the legacies of its Cold War division into two states only partially when it comes to socioeconomic levels of development or types of political culture, why should we expect the EU not to have similar East-West differences and gaps three decades after 1989 and a mere fifteen years after its ‘big bang enlargement’? This appears all the less surprising in light of what Dorothee Bohle and Béla Greskovits have argued, namely that, contrary to what the ‘accession process’ led many in Eastern Europe to believe and trust, the EU is far from an ultimate guarantor of liberal democratic standards. They insist that the EU may even have been employed as an apt instrument to consolidate illiberal states.

Furthermore, Richard Sakwa has persuasively claimed that instead of re-founding the West after the Cold War to create a new, ‘greater West’ that would have included newly independent Russia as well, the ‘historical West’ has expanded to the exclusion of Russia from the new-old security architecture. The most consequential East-West divide in Europe may thus not be within the EU but much rather between that enlarged historical West and Russia. The realization of how sharply and misfortunately the dichotomy between the West and Russia has been reinforced in the three decades since the end of the Cold War – with the obvious difference being that Eastern Europe is now supposedly just a part of the enlarged historical West – should in turn make us more cognizant of the fact that there might still be a continuum from fully-fledged democracies to authoritarian states. According to a host of indicators, countries like Hungary and Poland rank somewhere between the Netherlands or France, on the one hand, and Russia or Turkey, on the other. Addressing this question on an all-European scale between the EUropean and the global has thus made us wonder whether it does not still hold that the more things change, the more they remain the same – at least on the European semi-periphery.

Exploring the global dimension of the transformations has in turn revealed, among others, that Germany and China, two countries where 1989 and its political consequences were of diametrically opposite character, have, at least economically, succeeded the most in the post-Cold War decades. The relationship between the political 1989 and later development is thus far from straight-forward. Such a realization should make us critically question not only the relevance of 1989 as a watershed year in contemporary history, but indeed also the often rather facile theories of Westernization that largely defined the early post-Cold War years. It is intriguing to consider how Eastern Europe’s disappointing recent underperformance might be connected to the fact that its anti-authoritarian revolutions and the ‘Washington consensus’ on neo-liberal transformations played out in tandem – and that in fact Eastern European states such as Slovakia pioneered the second, more radical wave of neoliberalism around the turn of the millennium.

As our volume underlines, the differences between Eastern and Western Europe were certainly not just the product of the Cold War: they have much deeper historical roots that reach back to the very origins of the modern capitalist economy, were clearly observable in 1945, and are unlikely to disappear anytime soon. Not to mention that the post-Cold decades have also been experienced differently and with rather different consequences by the two halves of the European continent.

A second, more specific form of historicization would aim at the proper contextualization of the – in retrospect largely unfounded – optimism of the 1990s that was especially evident in the later years of that decade. It was this short-lived optimism following the unexpected end of the Cold War that made decision makers on both sides of the former Iron Curtain assume that the EU could be smoothly widened and deepened at the same time. This spirit of optimism was coupled with high levels of mutual ignorance and resulting misperceptions between the two sides – another major legacy of the Cold War period, which in turn helped institutionalize those rather facile theories of Westernization and Europeanization.

From a historical point of view, it is that brief post-Cold War moment of daring trust in positive forms of convergence, rather than the fact that this simultaneous trust has largely evaporated since, which would require further explanation. And with due attention to how that simultaneous trust was coupled with largely sustained ignorance and barely veiled arrogance on the Western side, and with inferiority complexes and overblown expectations on the Eastern one.


The contents of this blogpost were first presented at "The East-West Divide – Growing Tensions in the EU?" ​online Academic Symposium, December 1-2, 2020, organised by Maastricht University and the Bucharest University of Economic Studies.

Ferenc Laczó is an assistant professor with tenure in the Department of History at Maastricht University. Next to the above-discussed volume, he is the author of several books and co-editor, most recently, of The Routledge History Handbook of Central and Eastern Europe in the Twentieth Century. Volume 3: Intellectual Horizons (London: Routledge, 2020). His writings have appeared in ten languages and been reviewed in thirty publications.