Birth Pangs of United Europe

When East Germans stormed the Berlin Wall in a state of euphoria, many West Germans, too, shed tears of joy. For some, it marked the reunion of families who had been divided by the Iron Curtain. But after a time, as ever more East Germans flocked across the border, West Germans began to look askance at the new arrivals. This is illustrated by the popular use of the patronizing label “Ossi.” It took another twenty years for West Germans to refer more respectfully to East Germans as such. But the difficulties the two Germanies experienced in growing together were nothing compared to the birth pangs of the newly united Europe. These were especially perceptible in Germany’s relation to Poland. While the citizens of the GDR could count on a degree of national solidarity from the old Federal Republic of Germany, and indeed received it on a material level, the Poles were stigmatized by their poverty and the long history of anti-Polish prejudice in Germany. Despite the official eulogies on Poland’s role in ending communism, social encounters in the first years after the revolution tended to compound the mutual sense of alienation.

This can be traced most clearly in Berlin and Vienna. As discussed above, tens of thousands of Poles took advantage of the open borders to trade at Berlin’s “Polish market” or Vienna’s Mexikoplatz market. In this way they hoped to supplement their incomes and acquire foreign currencies, to protect their meager assets from hyperinflation. The influx of Poles was not well received in the West. In one article, the German news magazine Der Spiegel reported “growing aggression” and the increasing use of “insults such as ‘Polack vermin’” (Polacken-Pack). Yet in the leading paragraph, the finger was pointed firmly at the Poles. It read: “Polish black-market traders, smugglers and shoplifters in West Berlin fuel hostility toward foreigners among local residents.”25 In summer 1990, there were rising demands to close Germany’s eastern borders and introduce a visa requirement for the citizens of former Eastern Bloc countries. The German government did not take up the idea, since it could not deny Czechs and Poles the same right to travel freely that the East Germans had fought for just six months previously. However, it established certain requirements for Poles wishing to enter Germany. They needed a written invitation, cash assets of at least fifty deutschmarks (a lot of money in Poland at the time), and proof of health insurance. The passports of any Poles caught conducting illegal activities, such as illicit street-trading or undeclared work, were marked with the dreaded stamp that barred them from entering Germany for several years. But it was possible to get around this by reporting one’s passport as stolen and organizing a new one—at the market in Warsaw’s Dziesięciolecia stadium if not through the official channels.

The Austrian government took far more drastic action. In September 1990, it overturned its agreements with Poland and Romania on visa-free travel, thus ending its traditional role as an asylum and transit country for refugees from Eastern Europe. Surveys showed that 80 percent of Austrians took a negative view of the growing number of Eastern Europeans in the country since the opening of the borders: 30 percent thought it was “bad,” 50 percent that it was “a bit annoying sometimes.”26 The leader of the right-wing populist Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ), Jörg Haider, harnessed this mood for his party’s first blatantly xenophobic election campaign. Even the Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ) espoused populism to a degree. It was the SPÖ parliamentary party leader in the National Assembly who had proposed the visa requirement for Poles. The city of Vienna, however, showed greater tolerance and continued to allow the large bazaar to be held on Mexikoplatz.

In April 1991, Europe took a huge leap toward opening borders and allowing freedom of movement. The six countries that then made up the Schengen zone (Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxemburg) and Poland concluded agreements on visa-free travel. But like the association agreements of later that year, they were confined to the Visegrad states. It was not until the Soviet Union had completely disintegrated and war broke out in the former Yugoslavia that Western Europe considered opening to other countries in Eastern Europe. Encouraged by the United States, NATO pushed ahead in this respect. But it is a far more complicated matter to enlarge an economic, juridical, and, to some extent, political union than a military alliance. There were also social implications, such as the fear of labor competition. To the German public, the closer the accession of East Central and Southeastern European countries loomed, the scarier EU expansion seemed.

One indication of Germany’s trepidation is the discourse about EU enlargement of the late nineties, which was characterized by terms such as “streams of people,” “flooding,” “inundation,” “dam bursting,” and “dam building.” It was as if the unpredictable force of the two rivers separating Germany and Poland, the Oder and the Neisse, were under discussion. Although a flood catastrophe did indeed occur in 2002, the point at issue was actually the influx of labor from Eastern Europe. In the end, far fewer people immigrated than predicted.27 Moreover, Germany had experience as an immigration country: in 1989, 377,000 “late repatriates” (people of German descent) moved to Germany, followed by another 397,000 in 1990. But with unemployment at a record level of over four million in the late nineties, the alarm bells started ringing. (This was a contrast to 2015, when over a million refugees from the Middle East arrived in Germany. The climate was much more positive, also because of the good shape of the German economy.)

Indeed, there was a dual competition: from the new arrivals on the home labor market as well as from the outsourced production of industrial goods in Eastern Europe. The label Billigkonkurrenz (literally “cheap competition”) gained currency, expressing condescension toward the less affluent Eastern Europeans. At the traditionally rustic Ash Wednesday convention of the CSU (the long-time governing party in Bavaria), the state premier Edmund Stoiber drummed up populist resistance against labor migration. He calculated the ridiculously low wages that Eastern European workers earned (Poles: 5.50 marks per hour; Bulgarians: 1.40 marks—in comparison to the 48 marks he claimed German skilled workers earned), and predicted mass immigration to the German labor market.28 Trade unions and various professional associations echoed his concerns. A favorite phrase that Roland Issen, then chairperson of the white-collar trade union DAG, repeated on a number of occasions between 1995 and 2001 was: “We can’t just open the floodgates.”29

That is how a lot of East Germans felt when the European Union was extended by ten new member countries on May 1, 2004. It was a day of celebration in Poland. There were festivities across the country, including in Słubice, a small Polish town at the German border. The East German city of Frankfurt an der Oder is virtually within spitting distance, on the other side of the river. Corks were popping and fireworks exploding all night in Słubice. In Frankfurt, meanwhile, the quiet was broken only by some official fireworks. Germans were in no mood to celebrate now that they faced dual competition on the labor market—from companies relocating to the East (on account of the cheap labor) and from the (mostly overestimated) influx of labor migrants from the East.

The next day, the differences on either side of the border continued. Słubice’s party guests wanted to take taxis to the station at Frankfurt an der Oder, which is much closer than the nearest Polish railway station. But the many Polish taxis available were not authorized to drive across to Germany and there were no taxis waiting at the border in Frankfurt. The Brandenburgers were obviously not so desperate to make money—partly because the unemployed in East Germany still received generous welfare benefits in comparison to those in Poland or the Czech Republic, although this soon changed with the introduction of the Hartz IV laws. Joy and fear, active industry and passive expectancy, were separated by only 170 yards—the length of the bridge spanning the Oder River.

A different kind of skepticism about Eastern Europe was expressed by the liberal-left-wing and conservative German elites alike. They envisioned a Carolingian version of Europe, as it had once been founded by Charlemagne. Consequently they feared that EU expansion might jeopardize integration as it stretched the union to encompass twenty-five member states.

With hindsight these fears can be regarded as the birth pangs of united Europe. But they were so acute at the time that they had an impact on the accession treaties. The new member states were included in the union on condition that their citizens did not settle or work in the old EU countries until a maximum period of seven years had elapsed. Only Sweden, Ireland, and the United Kingdom opened their labor markets immediately, which allowed them to welcome the best qualified labor migrants. This is now one of the complaints of the British nationalist party UKIP, along with some Conservatives, who are not only against Brussels but, like all populist groupings, also in favor of protecting the native population against labor market competition. On the continent, meanwhile, a little neoliberal loophole existed for entrepreneurial migrants: registering businesses was relatively easy for citizens from other EU countries, which is what thousands of Poles did. In addition, Germany’s proximity to Poland gave rise to another, less permanent pattern of labor migration. On Sunday evenings, the trains across the border to Berlin were packed with middle-aged Polish women traveling to work as home helpers, cleaners, and nurses in Germany. Some of them even formed impromptu firms to share clients and alternate working hours, thus ensuring the uninterrupted provision of their services. In order to save on rent and bring more money home, two or three women often shared a single one-room apartment during the week.

Thus the labor market restrictions inscribed in the enlargement treaties were not as effective as intended. Nor did they serve to reassure the German population. Their fears were temporarily pushed into the background, but resurfaced when Romania and Bulgaria acceded to the European Union in 2007 and were nourished by tabloid journalists and right-wing politicians, who painted a menacing picture of cheap competition and mass immigration. The aforementioned Edmund Stoiber even proposed cancelling the EU membership of both countries.30 In 2010–11 and 2013–14, shortly before the end of the seven-year limitation period for citizens of the new EU countries, similar horror scenarios were predicted again. This time, xenophobic fears were not articulated in blanket rejections of immigration but in preconceptions about what the new arrivals would do in Germany. The CSU declared its intention to take action against “social fraudsters from Eastern Europe.”31 Thus the immigrants were accused en masse of wanting to scrounge social benefits. In fact, in relation to the proportion of the population they make up, fewer Romanians and Bulgarians claim benefits than do German nationals. In Vienna, too, immigrants tend to line up in front of certain gas stations or supermarkets offering their labor rather than ask for help through the official channels. Bavarian companies, especially, need skilled workers and apprentices and often recruit them directly from Romania. Was it really necessary to humiliate these people by accusing them of mass-scale “social fraud”? Germany showed some remorse for its discursive aberrations when it declared the German equivalent of the term, Sozialbetrug, the ugliest word of the year 2013. But it was too late for those who were already stigmatized.

Similar debates sparked in France a few years later. Here, the plombier polonais eventually came to embody the rival Eastern European worker. In fact the stereotype of the Polish plumber became so ubiquitous that it was harnessed for election campaigns and the referendum over the EU constitution. The debate took a surprising turn, however, when the Polish tourist office retaliated with a humorous poster inviting French visitors to Poland. It showed a sexy-looking plumber with the caption “I’m staying in Poland. Come over here” (see fig. 10.1).32

Meanwhile, in Berlin, the flow of migration had reversed. Many Poles who had come to Germany to live or work, or for other reasons, moved back to their native country. Skilled workers still earned less in Poland than in Germany but the wage differences to Berlin and Brandenburg, where many branches paid lower than the agreed standard wage, were shrinking. In addition, there were more job vacancies in Poznań and Wrocław. If one factored in living costs and property prices, it paid off to move back.

These debates on immigration can be regarded as the birth pangs of 2004’s new Europe. Western Europe proved itself remarkably fearful and inhospitable. In essence, this can be attributed to three factors: its lack of participation in the revolutions of 1989, its fear of competition on the labor market, and its reluctance to share its wealth. These factors are, in turn, linked to the characters of German and European unification in 1990 and 2004, respectively: both events marked extensions of the West, or the existing Western systems. Citizens of West Germany and Western Europe were led to believe that they would remain more or less unaffected. But they sensed that changes were in the air. Openly facing integration as a change affecting everyone—and holding opportunities for all—would have been more honest and certainly more helpful.

Fig. 10.1.  The “Polish plumber”: humorous riposte by the Polish tourist office, 2005. Courtesy Office National Polonais de Tourisme, Paris.

Another troublesome aspect was the inequitable treatment of the new EU states by the older member countries. As mentioned above, accession was linked to restrictions on the former’s freedom of movement. The EU candidates in turn negotiated restrictions on the purchase of land in their countries by foreign investors. It was a bad compromise for both sides. Farming subsidies were another point of issue. The European Union had missed the chance to reform these comprehensively prior to 2004 (prevented above all by the French farmers’ lobby). Hence the large subsidies for Western Europe were retained and only a fraction paid to the new member countries. No doubt this was an economically reasonable move. Higher payments for the new members would have probably led to rising inflation and other unintended effects. But the inequity left a bitter aftertaste.

Bristling at the asymmetry of power between Western and Eastern Europe, the EU candidate countries sided with the USA over the Iraq war rather than with Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schröder. The French president told the Eastern European countries awaiting accession that by supporting George W. Bush they had “missed a great opportunity to keep their mouths shut.”33 These, too, were birth pangs that have now abated. The invasion of Iraq and the country’s occupation proved to be an ill-fated adventure. Moreover, the United States went back on its promise to overturn the strict visa regulations for its ally Poland. Feeling treated like a second-class country, Poland moved closer to Brussels and its European partners. In addition, the extensive aid programs instituted after EU accession helped to calm the waves of 2003–4.

However, since the crisis, new lines of conflict have emerged, especially between the North and the South. Many Southern Europeans hold Brussels responsible for the austerity gripping their home countries. As discussed above, the European Union is not an agent of neoliberalism and has actually alleviated social hardship and regional inequality in the new member states. But the austerity policies introduced in the wake of 2008–9 were propagated by the Troika, which includes two European institutions. They have severely damaged the EU’s reputation and contributed to the landslide victories of left- and right-wing populist parties at the European elections of 2014.

The same scenario was repeated at the Greek parliamentary elections of January 2015. The left-wing populist Syriza party won the elections on the strength of its pledges to break the Troika’s power, end the austerity policy, and restore the dignity of the Greek nation. But these promises did not help the country escape the debt trap, and the Greek government under Alexis Tsipras was forced to go back on some of them, including raising the minimum wage and reinstating civil servants whose jobs had been cut. It remains to be seen whether the Greek Left, political home of many former communists, will act as pragmatically as the Polish SLD or the Hungarian socialists in the mid-nineties. It seems doubtful, as Syriza is different in a number of ways. For one, it cultivates a marked machismo (with a first cabinet devoid of women), and it has entered into a coalition with the right-wing populists (shifting the political competition further into the radical populist corner). Not only that, in the nineties a certain amount of faith in the blessings of capitalism still prevailed, and confidence that social cuts and economic reforms would one day pay off. This faith has dissipated as a consequence of the ongoing crisis since 2008–9.

It is important to remember that the power of populist parties such as Syriza is dependent on the increasing influence of technocrats, and vice versa. Whenever the antipolitical argument that “there is no alternative” to one or other reform is asserted (which has been a key part of the neoliberal repertoire since the eighties), it prompts antipolitical reactions such as populism. Unfortunately for the EU, the line of conflict has shifted since the crisis of 2008 to mark Brussels as the aggressor. Populists locate their technocrat enemies in the EU administration, and claim to defend their respective nations against its insidious attacks. With this rallying cry, they win support regardless of their political leaning. Whether they are labeled left- or right-wing is insignificant. The main distinction between the two is that right-wing populists are not only against the European Union, the IMF, and the Troika, but also against foreigners, migrants, and minorities. This is not a birth pang of the united Europe but a structural problem of European politics.

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