Is there an East-West divide in the European Union?

barricade berlin wall east west divide european union
Numéro 1

Learn the ropes

What is East and what is West?
What we mainly refer to as the “East” of the European Union are the countries of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE countries), which accessed to the EU membership in 2004 and in 2007. The Eastern part of Europe is composed mainly of the countries of the former Eastern bloc. This bloc was composed of federal republics of the USSR and satellite communist countries.

Western countries, as opposed to the East, are the oldest members of the European Union, and counties which joined before the big enlargement in 2004.

Why a divide?
Today, media, researchers and citizens speak of two main geographical divides in the European Union: an East-West and an North-South divides.

The concept of an East-West divide appeared with the Eastern enlargement of the EU in 2004 and 2007. The EU accepted then many countries which had only transitioned from communism to democracy, like for example Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in 2004, and Romania and Bulgaria in 2007. The notion of a divide was formulated to explain the rise of populism and the decrease of rule of law in some of the CEE countries. But it can also refer to an economic aspect, which is the fact that the CEE countries are the main beneficiaries of European cohesion funds.

Why are we talking about it today?
The notion of an East-West divide inside the European Union is a real debate – many scholars do not agree on the meaning of this notion, and some consider it to be a myth. Nonetheless, we can hear about it more and more often, mainly through the media. Also, recent developments and attacks on the rule of law and justice in Poland and Hungary are fueling this notion of divide.

Numéro 2

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The EU ignores the East – West Divide at its own peril

veronica anghel stanford east west divide european union

Veronica Anghel

Research Fellow, Political Science, The Europe Center, Stanford University

The East–west divide will continue to inhibit European integration along three important parameters: rule-of-law consolidation, economic performance, and functional collaboration between European states. While Eastern European citizens are increasingly more present in European jobs, services, markets of ideas and skills, their states of origin continue to act like mere guests in the European club, taking minimum responsibility for upholding EU rules and exercising little power in Union affairs.

CEE member states are not participating in the Brussels ‘knowledge culture’

Authoritarian nationalism is not a uniquely Eastern European phenomenon. Intentional attack on structural democratic equilibrium is. In member states from Romania to Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria, Croatia, Slovakia and Czechia, political elites harbour authoritarian attitudes. At different degrees and with more or less success, these are revealed in attacks on the justice system, individual and minority rights, the separation of business and state. Weak democratic institutions provide incentives for power accumulation.

Economic convergence between new and older members has also lagged. Countries significantly behind economic performance, such as Romania and Bulgaria, still lack the state capacity and bureaucratic expertise to readily access EU funding. In addition, Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria and Romania come yearly on top in OLAF reports on embezzlement of EU funds due to endemic corruption. More affluent member states, who are also EU ‘donors’, demand more fiscal discipline and less spending; while less affluent members follow a different policy of more financial solidarity. 

In general, CEE member states are not participating in the Brussels ‘knowledge culture’ and have not developed successful strategies for influencing policymaking. According to a European Council on Foreign Relations expert survey, Bulgaria, Croatia, Romania and Slovenia are the least connected, and perceived as the least influential entities from the former communist bloc. New members’ numeric strength in the Europarliament is also not reflected in the senior leadership of the EU. Old member states mostly reach out to one another to create coalitions and influence agendas. 

The continent is also divided in terms of social values. Polls show overall intolerance of minorities is greater in the east. These societies are significantly less accepting of Muslims and Jews, sexual-minority rights and legal abortion, and are more inclined towards nativist attitudes.

While the EU tore down physical walls, European nation-states conserved constructed borders

The east–west line of separation is no longer an Iron Curtain. But while the EU tore down physical walls, European nation-states conserved constructed borders. The success of EU integration depends on acknowledging and tackling each one of these disputes. They are not insurmountable, but require long term strategies that place the citizen at the center of EU actions and include further thinning of national sovereignties.


The myth of the East-West divide

stefan lehne carnegie europe east west divide

Stefan Lehne

Visiting Scholar, Carnegie Europe

The EU’s East-West divide is largely a myth, because there is really no such thing as the East. Even the geographic designation is misleading considering that Prague lies to the West of Vienna. And in substantive terms, the Central and Eastern European countries that joined the EU in 2004 and 2007 are as diverse as any other part of the Europe. Some are in the Eurozone and in Schengen, some are not. The Baltic states have much more in common with their Nordic neighbors than with Bulgaria or Romania. The Visegrad countries (Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic), are themselves divided on many issues. The Baltics and Poland have serious security concerns regarding Russia, whereas Hungary has very friendly relations. 

Central and Eastern European countries that joined the EU in 2004 and 2007 are as diverse as any other part of the Europe

Most observers see migration as the main dividing issue between East and West and it is true that during the refugee crisis of 2015/16 the CEEs have taken a very restrictive approach. But whereas in 2015 Germany and other Western countries had opened their borders to refugees, now all EU countries have moved towards a much tougher approach. The hardline response of the EU leadership, when Turkey encouraged refugees to move on to the EU last February, confirmed that the differences in attitude between Western and Eastern European states have largely vanished.

The rule of law is frequently presented as another contentious issue, but this too is based on a misconception. There are problems with good governance in many EU countries, as became very clear during the current pandemic. But only in Hungary and Poland are the governing parties entrenching their rule by dismantling constitutional checks and balances, curbing the independence of the judiciary, and reducing the space for civil society. Such behaviour creates serious problems for the EU but there is no justification for conflating the behavior of two governments with the CEE as a group, particularly as democratic and rule of law standards overall have mostly improved since they joined the EU.

There is no justification for conflating the behavior of two governments with the CEE as a group

The experience of the past fifteen years demonstrates that altogether, the EU’s Eastern enlargement has been an impressive success. But the fact that the myth of the East-West divide persists in spite of little basis in fact, confirms that the reunification of Europe was not completed at the moment of accession. Like most human relationships it remains a work in progress, which will need continuing care and engagement.

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