So many politicians compare the European Union to the Soviet Union that something must be to it, doesn’t it? Only in recent months the Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki and his boss, the Law and Justice leader Jarosław Kaczyński, the Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban and the ex-finance minister of Estonia Martin Helme compared the two. Not too long ago “Brussels” seemed like a new “Moscow” for the likes of Marine Le Pen, Jeremy Hunt or Nigel Farage. Even the billionaire George Soros wrote an article in which he compared the EU to the Soviet Union in the context of the fall of the latter.
What unites most of these messages is a very specific perception of the European Union. These politicians often accuse the EU of being an oligarchy, not a democracy, of representing a uniform leftwing identity, decadence and a tendency to dictate its will to member states without any respect for national identity. According to this narrative for the European Union nationalists are the enemy, federalism is the dream and coercion is the modus operandi.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
The only element with which one can agree is the continental scale of influence. The European Union today is a subject of world relations as a partner of the United States and China. Just as during the Cold War the relationship between the USA and the USSR framed the world affairs, today the EU has the power to influence the entire world.
The European Union is the only supranational democracy in the world. In the last European elections 202 million people voted. Some 161 million people voted in the last American presidential elections.
The Union works on the basis of interplay of interests. It takes time to arrive at a compromise. The average length of adopting a new law in the EU is 18 months. Once a compromise is ready, it is as solid as a rock and difficult to shake off. Member states vote ‘yes’ in more than 96% cases in the EU Council not because someone forces them to, but because they have negotiated an inclusive compromise. Every state is equal in the EU, but not all interests are equally important. Once a ‘European interest’ is reached, all 27 countries stand behind the common position. It is obvious to anyone who works in the EU machinery, but so elusive outside of the Brussels bubble. The UK – once a member – is experiencing this particularly hard. It knows well how the EU works, but now is unable to play the EU Council game and faces a single EU position instead of 27 national ones.
Clearly the EU member states are subjects of the Union, not objects of its policies. The interests of all member states are multiplied by the EU membership. Cyprus steers the policy towards its powerful neighbor, Turkey. Ireland lays the foundations for the position towards its powerful neighbor United Kingdom. Three Baltic nations are at the forefront of creating the EU policy towards Russia. It is completely different from the Soviet Union, where the interests of all its parts were subjugated to the communist party headquarters.
When the UK sovereignly decided to leave the European Union, no one sent an army. When Sweden sovereignly decided in a referendum against the adoption of the euro, no one sent an army. The USSR sent the Red Army troops to Hungary and Czechoslovakia, and Mikhail Gorbachev sent troops to ‘calm’ the situation in Lithuania in 1991. The European Union does not have its own army.
European Union is not hostile to patriotism. Unrestrained nationalism contradicts the EU values, as the European Union is created in precisely in response to the catastrophe of unrestrained nationalism of WW2. Cooperation instead of suspicion, competition instead of armament, conversation instead of brawling; these are not whims of Europeans who consider themselves ‘better’. It is an absolute necessity to avoid a repeat of history.
Unity, not unification, is what the EU strives for. On the one hand there is a tendency to create universal rules to grow the common market. The same requirements are needed to allow toys onto a single European market. On the other hand, vegetation is completely different in Andalusia and in Lapland. All religions are treated with respect; there are no prohibitions or dictates on cultural matters, family policy or the preservation of national traditions. In the Soviet Union, diversity was suppressed and religions persecuted.
Freedom is the European Union’s DNA and is the complete negation of the USSR. There is no censorship of the press, there are freedoms to travel, to take a job and to do business. There is no room for gulags. Slavery is outlawed and cases of discrimination punished. Human rights are protected by national, EU and Council of Europe systems. All European countries have welfare systems, universal and free education and health care. Civil rights and freedoms are not a litmus test, but are real, even if so challenged during lockdowns.
The European Union is a system of equal European states that all respect the rule of law and the principles of parliamentary democracy. The European Union itself is taking steps to strengthen its own transnational democracy. The Soviet Union was a centrally administered and hand-controlled totalitarian state based on an apparatus of violence. The EU engages in solving these problems through political and legal solutions, but never through force.
A separate argument is the claim that the European Union is doomed to collapse. Will the EU collapse like the USSR? The events of 2020 and 2021, including the doubling of the EU budget, the decision to incur a joint debt, the establishment of new EU own taxes, as well as the joint fight against the Covid-19 pandemic and the coordination of the purchase and distribution of a vaccine prove that the EU is far from paralysis. It may be ill-equipped and a slow machinery, but working nevertheless in spite of the huge problems. Despite the problems with the slower than expected rollout of the vaccines, it looks like the European Union will emerge stronger and even more united from the Covid-19 pandemic.
Author is Senior Fellow with the Centre for International Relations in Warsaw and a trainer on EU decision-making processes