Europe’s eastward march

  • Themes: Europe, Geopolitics, History

EU expansion since the end of the Cold War has alarmed Russia, but this should not be grounds for considering the process a mistake.

EU enlargement commemorative stamp produced by Ireland.
EU enlargement commemorative stamp produced by Ireland. Credit: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

The end of the Cold War coincided with a boom period for European integration. In the second half of the 1980s, the European Community experienced one of the most dynamic periods in its history. It grew in size, in policy remit, in institutional complexity and strength, and, perhaps above all, in confidence. There is thus little doubt that even had the Berlin Wall remained firmly in place, and the East-West conflict continued, the Community would still have sought to develop further in the early 1990s, possibly becoming a European Union in the process. This is something that all the member states, with the partial and likely temporary exception of the UK, agreed upon, although needless to say there were multiple different views about exactly how it should develop in the future. Neither stagnation nor retreat seemed likely, however, let alone a cessation of the whole integration process.

Such a high level of internal dynamism and momentum turned out to be very important as the countries of Western Europe had to confront the end of the Cold War. It meant Western Europe was in a much more self-confident and upbeat mood to address the geopolitical earthquake brought about by the fall of the Berlin Wall than it might have been only five years earlier, when the European economy was underperforming and the integration process stagnant. It also meant that the default Western European response to many of the challenges that the end of the Cold War framework ushered in was ‘more Europe’.

Nowhere did this apply more strongly than with regard to Germany. The integration process had, from the outset, been partially intended as an answer to the question of how to deal with the (post-1945) re-emergence of a strong (West) German state at the heart of Europe. It was therefore no surprise that, when confronted with the prospect of an even stronger and larger Germany in their midst, virtually all of Western Europe’s leadership looked to the integration process as their principal response. A stronger and larger Germany would require a stronger Europe to contain it. Not all of Western Europe’s leaders came to this conclusion at once; hence Helmut Kohl’s extreme discomfort at the late 1989 Strasbourg summit, at which German unification was first discussed. Yet by early 1990 all but Margaret Thatcher had reached this conclusion, and the British prime minister’s failure to follow the same reasoning as her European counterparts would turn out to be a major factor in her ousting later that year. The big integration push that would culminate in the conclusion of the Maastricht Treaty and the birth of the EU in 1992-3 was entirely predictable from 1990 onwards.

The end of the Cold War brought about a further acceleration of an integration process that was already developing fast. This had several important implications for what happened next. First, it meant that the Community/Union’s power of magnetic attraction over the emerging democracies of Central and Eastern Europe was bound to be massive. A ‘return to Europe’ didn’t just mean EC/EU membership for the new elites of the post-Communist states, but securing membership of a booming Union quickly became a central objective for all of them. Second, it meant that the institutional landscape of post-Cold War Europe already had two hugely important and successful pre-existing structures occupying the centre ground in the form of NATO and the EC/EU. But the centrality of the EC/EU, in and of itself, greatly restricted the scope for the development of the powerful pan-European structures that were talked about in the immediate aftermath of 1990 but which have largely failed to emerge.

Why was this so? There are two explanations. The first has to do with the nature of the European Community/Union, which, while long-coexisting with other regional bodies, has never proved a comfortable partner, given its maximalist view of its own remit (from the very outset, those involved with the process have talked in terms of ‘unifying Europe’ rather than the much more limited role that they actually did play in the 1950s, 1960s, or 1970s) and its tendency to increase its policy range over time. Sharing institutional space with the EC is, to be slightly flippant, a bit like sharing a plant pot with a rapidly growing species liable to suck up most of the nutrients and take over all the space in next to no time. Given this, what room would there be for powerful pan-European structures to develop?

Furthermore, to move on to the second explanation, none of those former Communist states keen to join the EU were certain that the various putative pan-European structures discussed during the early 1990s were not intended to act as consolation prize and a justification for not allowing them to join the structure that they really wanted to join – the EU. The former Warsaw Pact states were well aware that there were quite a few Western European leaders who regarded rapid enlargement towards the former Communist bloc as a highly unwelcome prospect, liable to slow the EU’s internal advance. They therefore harboured strong suspicions that schemes such as François Mitterrand’s proposed European Confederation were designed to make EU enlargement unnecessary – and viewed such ideas with suspicion. What mattered to them was getting into the two clubs that were really significant: NATO and the EU. The potential support for new European structures shrank as a result. Several, including the European Confederation, failed to appear at all; others, such as the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), did materialise, but have remained much less powerful and influential than either NATO or the EU.

Taken together, the dynamism of the EU, the desire of most post-Communist states to join the European Union, and the anaemic development of more genuinely pan-European structures, such as the OSCE or Mitterrand’s abortive Confederation, meant that, soon after the end of the Cold War, Europe locked itself into a pattern of development that was based firmly on the ‘victorious’ Western structures rather than a total institutional redesign. This, in turn, mirrored the ideological and economic outcome of the Cold War, where Western political norms and economic approaches were deemed to have been vindicated and expected to spread. Ideologically, economically and institutionally, a victors’ peace had resulted. Over the years that followed, this victors’ peace was inexorably implemented, with both NATO and the EU expanding their membership enormously and exporting their ideas and their expectations even further and faster than their formal membership. Much of Central and Eastern Europe was thus drawn subsequently into a series of structures that were the direct heirs of the Western structures of the Cold War itself. Even those who couldn’t yet join, aspired to do so, and adapted their economies, their political systems and their rhetoric accordingly. The vast majority of the European landmass was progressively Westernised.

Was this hubristic on the part of Western Europe’s leaders? Almost certainly yes, in that it was a process born out of the confidence and pride that the West as a whole and Western Europe in particular had developed out of their own successes in the preceding decade, most notably the end of the Cold War and the way in which the successor states of Central and Eastern Europe quickly made clear their desire to enter Western structures. Western Europe felt vindicated and correspondingly proud. It was also something that we can now see had ultimately negative effects on those states, most notably post-Soviet Russia, which were too big to be easily incorporated, or to accept incorporation, into these Western structures, and who have seen territories over which they had previously exercised influence if not outright control fall instead into the Western orbit. These negative effects have clearly fed into Russia’s strong sense of grievance and exclusion, and its conviction that it was ill-treated, if not cheated, by the victorious West after the end of the Cold War, although acknowledging the reality of this sense of Russian victimhood is most definitely not the same as arguing that Vladimir Putin’s current invasion of the Ukraine is therefore somehow all the West’s fault. Many states go through periods of feeling isolated and aggrieved, often with some historical justification for feeling this way, but not all of them choose to channel such resentments into the military occupation of a neighbouring country. The moral and historical responsibility for what has happened in Ukraine continues to lie squarely with the current Russian leadership, not with the West.

Should, therefore, the extension of Western structures after the end of the Cold War be rejected as a mistake in the light of what we now see to have been its effects on Russia (and therefore on European stability more widely)? This is something I have a much harder time accepting. For a start it would have been inconceivable for the states of Western Europe to reject the integration process at precisely that moment when its success seemed most apparent and its utility greatest. Western Europe had no more chance of jettisoning integration at the end of the Cold War than the US did of abandoning capitalism or democracy. Nor could there have been any easy justification for arbitrarily drawing a line and deciding that no state to the East of the European Community’s Cold War frontiers could be admitted to the Western club. Poland, Hungary or Lithuania had every reason to regard themselves geographically, culturally and historically as European as France, Belgium or Spain. So, if their leaders and citizens wanted to join the European Union, and they were able to meet the economic and political criteria for membership that the existing member states had laid down (the so-called Copenhagen criteria), it would have been politically and morally impossible for the EU to bar them from entry. To have attempted to do so, furthermore, would have been to invite instability and resentment in the former Warsaw Pact territories, rather than further East in Moscow, not to mention deep internal division and arguments within the Western structures themselves. The expansion of the EC/EU during the early 21st century to the countries of Central and Eastern Europe was therefore all but inevitable, if also highly complicated and challenging for both the EU itself and its new members.

Nor should the possible knock-on consequences for Russia of EU expansion be allowed to obscure the multiple benefits that integration continues to provide. Tight and far-reaching cooperation was not only crucial in Europe’s short-term ability to respond to the geopolitical shock of the end of the Cold War and to the challenge of German unification, but remains central to Europe’s economic model, to its hopes of remaining relevant in an increasingly multipolar world, and to its ability to exercise any influence at all in global discussions whether about climate change, how to respond to China, North-South inequalities, migration, future pandemics, and so on.

European integration, in other words, remains as valuable now as it was during the Cold War and has been so in the decades separating us from the end of the East-West conflict. This is something demonstrated repeatedly over recent years as Europe’s leaders have shown fierce determination to confront repeated crises in a fashion that preserves the basic structures which brought them together. It was not only Mario Draghi, the former head of the European Central Bank, who demonstrated a willingness to do ‘whatever it takes’ to safeguard the single currency and the European integration process, but virtually every member of Europe’s collective leadership over the last two decades, whether confronting the Euro-crisis, the mass influx of migrants across the Mediterranean, Brexit, the Trump presidency, Covid-19 or, most recently, the war in Ukraine. Europe’s leaders thus remain convinced that they need to continue to work ever-more closely together, regardless of the frustrations, difficulties and challenges involved in doing so. To maintain that all of this pattern of tight cooperation should have been thrown away in the early 1990s, in the name of not provoking Russia, would therefore be nonsensical, as well as totally ahistorical.

If the integration process was bound to continue and to expand its geographical reach far into Central and Eastern Europe, does this mean that conflict and confrontation with Russia was absolutely foreordained? Not necessarily, although it should be left to others better versed in the evolution of the Yeltsin and Putin presidencies to pinpoint those moments in the course of the last 30 years when alternative roads away from confrontation might have been taken. The reasons for asking this question transcend speculation about historical counterfactuals. For if a defiant Ukraine continues successfully to resist the Russian attack, and even begins to turn the tables on the invaders, we are probably heading towards another set of geopolitical circumstances in which the West will have to work out how to treat a bruised and resentful Russia while at the same time honouring the various pledges made towards not just Ukraine but also Moldova and Georgia about future EU membership (and possibly NATO membership, too). The West will again have promised to expand its institutional reach into areas that the Russians view as inside their own sphere of influence.

How to do this without stoking further Russian resentment and thereby inviting future confrontation will be challenging. Could this scenario be avoided by adapting the model of the post-Second World War Marshall Plan and extending recovery funding and assistance to the vanquished enemy as well as the valiant allies? Is this even conceivable without the type of unifying outside threat that the Soviet Union provided in the late 1940s? Or is there some other way of ensuring that Russia feels part of a post-Ukraine settlement in a way that it did not feel part of the post-Cold War order? A historical understanding of what has happened since 1989 does not really provide enough to answer these questions in a satisfactory manner, but it does underline how vital it will be for our current leaders to address them.

This essay reflects the proceedings of The Failure of the Post-Cold War Global Order event, hosted by the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at Johns Hopkins SAIS and the University of Mainz.


N. Piers Ludlow