A Slowly Eroding Sense of Importance of the EU in Central Europe

Due to its history, Central Europe is very sensitive about its own security. That is why since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, the importance of the EU in the eyes of the people of CEE states has started declining.

European Union flags are pictured outside the European Commission building
European Union flags outside the European Commission building. Photo: Carl Court / Getty Images

What is the future of the European Union? This is a frequently recurring question, but no one has ever given a precise response to it. And there will probably never be such an answer because no one has ever outlined a “grand finale” – the ultimate goal towards which the EU is heading. “Europe will not be made all at once or according to a single plan. It will be built through concrete achievements which first create a de facto solidarity,” wrote Robert Schuman, former prime minister of France and one of the founding fathers of the European Community. Besides, it is clear from Schuman’s other texts that he regarded solidarity between nations as a necessary foundation for the further deepening of European integration.

Europe will not be made all at once or according to a single plan. It will be built through concrete achievements which first create a de facto solidarity

Robert Schuman

But one of the goals (or “concrete achievements,” using Schuman’s words) is clear: peace in Europe. The EU has been very effective on this point. So much so that the Nobel Committee awarded the organization a Peace Prize in 2012. “The stabilizing part played by the EU has helped to transform most of Europe from a continent of war to a continent of peace,” underlined the Norwegian Nobel Committee in its justification for this award. The comments acknowledged the decision of the Norwegian academics, emphasizing that the 2012 award was one of the most relevant in the 21st century.

On 24 February 2022, however, it became clear that Europe is not a continent forever free of wars. Although the countries belonging to the Union have not been affected by the military conflict, opinion polls have shown that the war in Ukraine has severely dented confidence in the EU. Central European countries have proved to be particularly sensitive on this point. What consequences will this have?

No more sanguinary divisions

Avoiding the next war was the overriding thought of all Europeans after 1945. The drama of the Second World War, the Holocaust, the famine, and the destruction caused by the conflict left a profound mark on the entire continent. Post-war stress was overwhelming and traumatic. The scale of the tragedy that the Second War turned out to be so great that the thought of another conflict aroused horror.

Everyone was genuinely terrified of the kind of destruction it could bring. “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones,” Albert Einstein once stated. This remark – filled with doubt but also with a deep, almost atavistic fear – precisely reflected the mood of the people of Europe just after the war.

These were the roots of all the work to help save Europe from the tragedy of wars. One of the most effective methods allowing avoid the fate of conflicts between different nations was the concept proposed by Robert Schuman. On 9 May 1950, he presented the so-called “Schuman declaration,” proposing the creation of a European Coal and Steel Community.

“In this way, there will be realized simply and speedily that fusion of interest which is indispensable to the establishment of a common economic system; it may be the leaven from which may grow a wider and deeper community between countries long opposed to one another by sanguinary divisions,” wrote Schuman in his declaration.

And it has taken hold. The European Coal and Steel Community he proposed succeeded, eventually evolving into the European Economic Community and eventually becoming the European Union. The European integration process – started with the Schuman declaration – has had its ups and downs; it never defined an ultimate goal but did achieve one thing: peace in Europe. No “sanguinary divisions” were exposed after the Schuman declaration. Unquestionably, the most significant success of the project of European integration.

How important is the EU?

Right now, the word “success” should be written with a big question mark, as the full-scale war in Ukraine showed the limits of Schuman’s concept. The drama of the Ukrainians unfolding before everyone’s eyes has a tangible impact on the assessment of reality by the people of the EU countries. This was precisely demonstrated by a Eurobarometer survey published in December 2022.

Respondents were asked: how important to you is the fact that your country is a Member State of the European Union? On average, 66% of EU citizens described the Union as “important.” However, this shows a decline from a previous survey from the beginning of 2022, when 70% of Europeans had such an opinion.  This result forms a logical conclusion: the fighting in Ukraine has shaken confidence in the effectiveness of the European Union.

A closer look at the results of the Eurobarometer poll shows how widespread this doubt about the effectiveness of the European Union is. In as many as 22 out of the 27 countries surveyed, people admitted that the EU is losing ground in their eyes. Only inhabitants of Luxembourg, Malta, Sweden, and Greece declared more considerable confidence in the EU than six months earlier. In Lithuania, the result has not changed. In other countries, the number of people declaring that the European Union is important to them has decreased.

But this poll showed another thing that is even more worrying for EU unity. The belief that the Union remains important is generally declared by countries in the western part of the continent. A large proportion of Central European states do not see the EU as an important institution. On average, 66% of Europeans see the Union as important. Falling below the average are 13 countries – including eight CEE states. There are 14 countries above the average – with only four nations that are members of the 3 Seas Initiative.

CEE countries occupy the lowest places in terms of declaring whether the European Union is an important organization. The EU is seen as important by 48% of Slovaks, 54% of Romanians, Cypriots, and Bulgarians, 55% of Croatians, and 56% of Czechs. On the second side of the axis are Luxembourgians (89% of them think that UE is important), Irish (83%), Lithuanians (82%), Maltese (82%), Dutch (79%), and Finns (78%). A stark difference.

Reality check

“To rewrite history on the bases of hypotheses which have not materialized is not only a fruitless task but, in my eyes, meaningless,” once claimed French diplomat Jean Monnet, one of the architects (along with Robert Schuman) of the European community. With the process of European integration, Europeans tried to rewrite history and turn a continent with a history full of wars into a continent of everlasting peace.

But the war in Ukraine proves that this change has not fully materialized. If this conflict spills over, the plans to create an area without wars in Europe will turn out to be “a fruitless task.” And fruitless – as Monnet said – equals meaningless. This was certainly not the purpose for the adoption of the Schuman Declaration in 1950 or the creation of the European Community institutions.

Of course, the reports of the death of the European integration project would be greatly exaggerated. The EU is doing relatively well; it is constantly evolving and seeking new goals for itself. But the war in Ukraine has highlighted internal divisions within the Union. Western countries have been reacting differently to the conflict than CEE states – as proven by discussions about arms supplies in Ukraine. These political rifts are a consequence of the different attitudes of societies in the individual countries towards the war.

Central Europe, due to its history, is very sensitive about its own security. This was one of the reasons why the countries of the region joined the EU so uncritically; they felt that this would give them stability and a sense of predictability. But right now, trust in the efficiency of Brussels is constantly being eroded, starting from CEE states – and the survey about the importance of the EU is the latest example of this process. EU leaders must constantly bear in mind their main duty: nurturing peace on the continent. Otherwise, European unity will start to fracture seriously. And nobody wants the European project to become “a fruitless task.”

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