In the European public discourse more and more politicians tend to compare the European Union to the Soviet Union.
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 recently an article in which he compared the EU to the Soviet Union in the context of the fall of the latter.
The Polish education minister outbid everybody else. Przemysław Czarnek argued recently the EU is worse than the Soviet Union and communism: “we are already in the climax of the civilization of death”.
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 also the power to influence the entire world.
First, 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.
Second, the illusion of a dictate. 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. Every state is equal within the EU, but not all interests are equally important. Once a compromise (‘European interest’) is reached, 27 countries stand behind the common position. In order to be successful in playing this game, one must learn to play synchronically. The US, Russia, China, as well as Apple, Huawei, Samsung, Facebook, Alphabet and Gazprom all have difficulties. This does not mean that the world strongholds are easily giving up. They are learning the painstaking EU game. 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 as instead of 27 national ones.
Third, the economies of scale. EU member states are subjects of the Union, not objects of its policies. The interests of all member states are multiplied in the European Union. Little Cyprus steers the policy of the entire European Union towards its powerful neighbor, Turkey. Little Ireland lays the foundations for the position of the entire European Union 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.
Fourth, the value of a compromise. Member states vote ‘yes’ more than 96% cases in the EU Council not because someone forces them to, but because they have negotiated an inclusive compromise that considers their national interests. There is a completely different logic at work here than in the case of the USSR, where no one made decisions that way.
Fifth, what on the outside looks as if the European Union is in a state of permanent quarrel and thus inevitably heading for collapse is at best an optical illusion. ‘Quarrelling’ is a slow process of coming together of various opinions, to set rules that are followed by all. No one imposes anything on anyone beyond what they have previously committed themselves to, such as obeying the law.
Sixth, 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 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, for which it is often criticized by, for example, many Americans, who believe that the U.S. is a sponsor of European security under NATO.
Seventh, the European Union is a ‘civil’ power, and its main means of influence is through (a) the world's largest single market for goods and services, (b) by promoting legislative solutions and setting global standards, and (c) by promoting multilateralism as a way to solve world’s problems. In achieving its objectives, the EU uses deep trade agreements, which require regulatory reforms in partner countries. The Soviets’ strength was based on the Red Army.
Eighth, patriotism is not an ‘enemy’ to the European Union. The pride in belonging to one’s nation, its traditions, culture, language and religion is embraced by the EU. Promoting national interests and supporting sports’ teams and music bands is supported by the EU. Unrestrained nationalism contradicts the values of the EU, as the European Union was created in response to the catastrophe of World War Two. That war was the result of militant nationalisms, especially the German and the Russian ones, which led to a disaster. Cooperation instead of suspicion, healthy competition and rivalry instead of secret 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.
Ninth, ‘united in diversity’ is the motto of the European Union, which shows where the drive for unity comes from. Unity, not unification. Unity based on the diversity of European nations. On the one hand there is a tendency to create universal rules so as to create and develop a common market. The same requirements are needed to allow bananas or toys onto a single European market. On the other hand, vegetation is completely different on the Canary Islands and in northern Finland. 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. In the European Union, diversity demonstrates richness, not limitations.
Tenth, freedom is the European Union’s DNA and is the complete negation of the USSR. There is no censorship of the press, there is freedom to travel, to take a job and to do business; there is also freedom of religion. There is no room for gulags or Guantanamo camps in the European Union. Slavery is outlawed and cases of discrimination severely punished. Human rights are protected by national, European 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.
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 develop its own transnational democracy. The Soviet Union was a centrally administered and hand-controlled totalitarian state based on an apparatus of violence.
Even if there are problems with the rule of law, combating corruption or controlling the flow of information in some EU member states, they remain the subject, not the object, of European activity. The EU engages in solving these problems through political negotiations or 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? Is it in a phase of decision-making paralysis? The events of 2020, including the doubling of the EU budget, the decision to incur a joint debt, the establishment of new EU own revenues (taxes), as well as the joint fight against the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and the coordination of the purchase and distribution of a vaccine for the virus prove that the EU is far from decision paralysis. It is a slow machinery, but working nevertheless in spite of the huge problems that are shaking it from within. This proves time and time again the power of the proverb that ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’. Despite the problems with the rollout of the vaccines, it looks like the European Union will emerge stronger and more united from the Covid-19 pandemic.
The European Union is based on the strength of arguments. The Soviet Union was based on the argument of force.