Back in 1990, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the countries of East-Central Europe all had a common vision. They wanted to join the Europe Community. Some wanted to join immediately; others wanted to join eventually. After half a century yoked to the Soviet Union, the people of this region saw membership in the common European home as a guarantee of democratic governance, economic prosperity, and social stability.
Twenty years later, membership in the European Union comes with no guarantees. The economic crisis that convulses the continent shows no signs of abating. The region of East-Central Europe struggles with corruption and a new brand of authoritarianism. And extremist intolerance continues to plague Europe east and west.
It's not just the European economy that is in crisis. The very idea of Europe has lost its shine. "Europe" once meant a more egalitarian and more tolerant model than the free market orthodoxy reigning in the United States. In this age of globalization, however, Europe has become more and more like everywhere else.
This leaves the countries of East-Central Europe in a difficult position. They are finally joining an exclusive club. But the perks of membership are no longer quite so exciting. It's not surprising that Euroskepticism has crept into the hearts of eastern Europeans. After all, even the inhabitants of the original core group of member countries are having second thoughts.
Of course, Europe still means something. On the positive side, new members of the European Union have access to funds to modernize their infrastructure. I recently drove back and forth across Bulgaria, and next to construction sites I saw many signs with the European Union logo. Repairing the major east-west highways in Bulgaria is not just important for tourists eager to race from Sofia to the Black Sea coast. Good roads -- and good rail lines -- are essential for getting Bulgarian goods to markets and also to take advantage of Bulgaria's geographic location for transshipment.
Also, on the positive side, membership in the European Union has served as a means of leverage to bring the political standards of candidate countries up to European levels. Whether it's securing the rights of minorities (ethnic, religious, sexual) or ensuring a properly functioning judiciary, the European Union requires potential members to meet a long list of criteria. Since powerful domestic lobbies oppose many of these requirements, reformers can use this external pressure -- the European form of the Japanese concept of gaiatsu -- to push through changes that might otherwise take decades or might not happen at all.
There are certainly other benefits to EU membership, from visa-free travel to lower barriers to trade. But there are now some considerable downsides as well.
The most important challenge that faces EU members and potential candidates is the austerity package that virtually all governments are expected to implement. It was once the case that new members saw a tremendous expansion of their social welfare systems to meet European standards. They also had access to much more generous adjustment funds so that they could close the gap between themselves and the richer members of the community. In this way, Spain, Portugal, and Ireland rather quickly became equal partners in the grand European economic experiment.
Today, new members like Slovenia have to find ways to cut government spending to meet the EU's fiscal demands. Candidate countries like Croatia have to do the same. They are not alone, of course. The governments in Greece and Spain and Italy are all expected to push through unpopular austerity packages.
The European Union, in other words, has turned out to be not that different from the American neo-liberal economic model after all. Eastern Europe is in fact facing a second round of government downsizing after the initial dismantlement of communism in the early 1990s.
Twenty years ago, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, counties embarked on a new era of democratic governance. Membership in the EU was to make this process irreversible.
It turns out, however, that the process is not entirely irreversible. In Hungary, the right-wing party FIDESZ has cracked down on the media, centralized authority, and focused on the rights of ethnic Hungarians to the exclusion of all others. European authorities have lodged their protests. But Hungary remains an EU member in good standing. Other political parties in the region with similar political programs are watching Hungary's experience very carefully.
And then there's the resurgence of intolerance throughout Europe. Racist and Islamophobic political parties have gained ground in virtually every country, including areas once known for their tolerance such as the Netherlands and Sweden. In East-Central Europe, anti-Roma sentiment remains high despite more than two decades of concerted effort by NGOs to integrate this often marginalized population. This month, the Serbian government again cancelled a planned Gay Pride march. Domestic groups pointed out that the cancellation was unconstitutional; EU authorities warned that Serbia would have to meet European standards for human rights to have any chance of future membership.
The current trends are not inescapable. Europe could weather the current economic crisis and return to its emphasis on the social component of their social-market economies. A new wave of civic activism could drastically reduce the support for authoritarian parties. And an invigorated civil rights movement by and for minorities, supported by strongly enforced European regulations, could push racists and Islamophobes to the fringes where they belong.
Much depends on Europe's newest members and countries like Croatia that are on the verge of accession. Beginning in 1989, the people of these countries unshackled themselves from tyranny. They are now realizing their earlier dream of becoming part of the European Union. But this is not the final step. They can help make the European idea mean something other than austerity and intolerance. They can make "Europe" once again translate into justice, equality, and prosperity.