The Wall and its Shadows

Photo credit Biphop

20/11/2019 Paul Gabriel Sandu, PhD

Thirty years after the Fall of the Berlin Wall, the European Union is once more confronted with the rebirth of nationalism and right-wing populism. Is there anything we can learn from the historic event that took place thirty years ago for the events that are unfolding in Europe today? What is its significance for the present generations? My contention is that the European Project needs to be fundamentally rethought.

„Unverzüglich!” (in German meaning immediately, without delay). If there ever was a magical word, I think this is the one. It is the answer given in a press conference by a government official of East Germany when asked by a reporter when the travel ban to the West will be lifted. The official made a mistake. But the news spread so fast, that it became true. In a matter of hours, the infamous Berlin Wall became obsolete.

Nevertheless, the question about what made the Wall fall is a much more complex one. Protest movements demanding freedom of travel started in East Germany as early as 1987 and only grew in intensity since. The massive Monday demonstrations (Montagsdemonstrationen) in East Germany demanding rights such as the freedom to travel to other countries and to elect a democratic government played a huge role in mobilizing masses of people all over East Germany and were crucial for the events that followed. But I don’t want to tackle this question here. Because the Fall of the Berlin Wall was only the first – though crucial – step in the Reunification of Germany. A long and difficult process. And, from an economical perspective, a very expensive one. According to the majority of analysts, the integration process cost about 2 000 billion EUR, the equivalent of 100 billion EUR every year. How much is that? Well, to understand this number better, it would suffice to know that East Germany s GDP was 159 billion, while West Germanys was around 945 billion. Almost 65% of that huge amount of money that, in the first years, represented more than 60% of East Germanys total GDP went to social benefits and much of the rest went into rebuilding infrastructure. And even though huge amounts of money poured into East Germany in the first twenty years after reunification, the gap between East and West hasn’t yet been closed. Eastern German salaries lag well behind those of their western counterparts, for example, and there are still many social problems that need fixing. But this is beside the point. What is relevant here, is that Germany’s Wiedervereinigung, (Reunification), was a huge victory. A victory of solidarity over economy, of brotherhood over profit. This is what really tore down the wall.

The slow dissolution of the Iron Curtain

Well, why all these numbers? Because the social and economic problems that East Germany was facing after the fall of Berlin Wall were very similar to the problems other European Countries like Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania etc. were facing after the fall of the Iron Curtain. In 1989 Romanias GDP was comparable to that of East Germany (around 175 billion dollars calculated at Purchasing Power Parity). Except for some scarce international help, the country had to deal with its huge and numerous problems by itself. The next three years, GDP fell by more than 30 billion, to 144. Industry collapsed, wages went down, a country already stricken by poverty had to privatize most of its state companies to stay financially alive with the help of international financial institutions. Workers were laid off with few benefits or none, the social state collapsed. This is what started the huge emigration wave that was followed by another and another, the last one in 2009.
Romania, Poland and other ex-communist states became a paradise for foreign investors and corporations, mostly because of the cheap and well-educated labor force. The state economies started recovering slowly, but even after their respective integration in the European Union the huge gaps between East and West diminished only in part and the advent of the last economic crisis, which hit the Eastern Europe the hardest, showed us that the shadow of the Wall dividing East and West looms larger than ever. Why is that? The reasons are numerous and complex. But they might have to do with the fact that the reconstruction of these ex-communist countries was oftentimes a victory of economy over solidarity, of profit over brotherhood. This might be one of the root causes of the Right-Wing shift all over Europe we are experiencing right now and that started contaminating even countries like Italy or Spain. Needless to mention the Eastern Germany, where Alternative fur Deutschland won almost 10% more votes than in West Germany.

EU Divisions – past and future

Walls start emerging all over Europe although most of them not in the form of physical barriers, on the old ruins of the divide created by the Iron Curtain. It is high time we start asking how this phenomenon emerged and spread before the nationalist forces driving the plate tectonics of EU apart will grow stronger than the bond that keeps us together. For that we might need a kind of European New Deal, a whole new approach of the growing discrepancies between rural and urban, rich and poor, East and West. The idea of a multi-speed or a two-speed Europe, that was recently revived after the Brexit-vote is in no way a solution to the social and economic problems of the EU. It might be even a concession or a capitulation in front of the growing rift that divides the two historic parts of Europe. The idea of stripping the EU back to being merely a single market is just as bad as the first one if not worse, since it would certainly encourage right-wing movements all over Europe and it would lead to even bigger social and economic discrepancies between the Eastern and Western countries and the East would be – and would feel – once more abandoned. This vision resembles a lot with the ‘two-speed Europe’ scenario, that some member states seem to promote intensely when talking about ‘a differentiated integration’ approach. But what is often forgotten is that this ‘two speed Europe’ could represent the victory of the competition perspective between Eastern and Western parts of Europe, that could mean a return to the Cold War rigid symbolic structure. This is, in my view, the great danger of not learning the lessons of the Berlin Wall.
The only possible way forward, is not less, but more integration. The European Union has to become a social union. We need to reinvent the welfare state and to rediscover solidarity. We have our own wall to tear down, and it might be very difficult, precisely because now we are not talking about a physical, but rather an ideological barrier. And we have to do it unverzüglich, without delay, as the German official put it 30 years ago… The only difference is that this time we have to really mean it.

Paul Gabriel Sandu is an independent researcher and Associate Lecturer at SNSPA, Bucharest