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An invisible wall still divides Europe

Tomáš Valášek / Nov 2019

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Thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the European Union remains divided in one important regard. A new Carnegie Europe poll shows that surprisingly many senior EU officials from the ex-communist states feel that they are not being treated equally by their Western European counterparts.

Carnegie surveyed 20 officials from the countries that joined in or after 2004, each with at least four years of experience of working in EU institutions. The interviewed officials replied to series of structured, open-ended questions designed to investigate whether being a national from one of the “newer” member states had an impact on their professional experience inside the EU institutions.

About a half of those polled cited personal examples of suggestions unheard, or objections disregarded in a professional context, primarily because of their origin. Many respondents cited low-level of French language skills and poor ability to make an evidence-based argument as contributing causes. Some others lamented the absence in EU institutions of an effective network of officials from their country that might have supported their ideas in group settings. However, about half those asked said that even in situations where these factors did not apply, it remains too difficult for officials from the most recent accession states to receive a fair hearing.

The perception of unfair treatment is not necessarily diminishing over time. Our respondents were split on the subject. While many argued that they have noticed improvement over the years, as officials from states that joined the EU in or after 2004 were learning the ropes of EU decision making, others saw a downturn. They said that the renewed East-West tensions––from the 2015 migration crisis to the rule-of-law disputes concerning Poland and Hungary––have made it more difficult for them to be taken seriously. “We are being held responsible for the failings of governments with which we disagree, and which we are in opposition to at home,” said one respondent.

The topic of discussion appears to make a difference in whether the officials from “newer” member states feel being taken seriously. Enlargement and conflict resolution in the former Soviet Republics are examples of issues where officials from ex-communist countries are seen by others as having unique, useful expertise. The poll suggests that recognition is harder to come by on the “new” topics in the EU’s agenda such as climate change, social and employment issues, or technology.

It seems that officials from Central European, Western Balkan, and Baltic countries experience a fairer treatment in some EU institutions more than in others. Some of our respondents have credited the Council Secretariat of the European Council (headed, at the time of the survey, by a former Polish prime minister) with fairer treatment, while the European Commission and, in particular, the European External Action Service, came in for criticism.

Perceptions matter

This survey investigated the perception of equality of treatment, not the reality of it. Nevertheless, the perception itself matters. While EU membership enjoys wider support among the countries that joined in or after 2004, it is under new attack from populist, euroskeptic forces––whether it is the fascist People’s PartyOur Slovakia, or the similarly inclined Czech Freedom and Direct Democracy party.

As Carnegie’s research on the EU’s East-West relations shows, many in Central and Eastern Europe feel that the EU is out of touch, and that their countries exercise far too little influence on the union’s policy. That such sentiment is strong far from Brussels is neither unexpected nor different in “older” member states. The surprising new finding of this survey is how many accomplished professionals from countries that joined the union in or after 2004––some with more than a decade of experience in the EU institutions––should feel the same.

Break down the wall

Given the continued tensions among the EU’s “newer” and older member states, an improvement in the perception of equality in EU institutions may need to wait for a general warming in East-West ties. But there are other specific steps that are within the powers of the new EU leadership, which would make a positive difference in the next European Commission term, our poll suggests.

Part of the answer lies in better representation. Numbers matter in EU decisionmaking. The more nationals a given country has in the EU institutions, the bigger the network on which it calls to shepherd an idea through the process. The relationship is not automatic––those officials have to be willing to help each other, which, our respondents say, is not always the case with the most recent accession states. But better represented countries have options that the rest of the EU member states do not.

This inherently puts most Central European, Western Balkan and Baltic countries at a disadvantage due to their small size. But our respondents argued that even after accounting for differences in population, the most recent accession states continue to be poorly represented at top policy levels. The quotas that were introduced after 2004 helped (and a number of our respondents have benefited from them), but the first generation of officials from the region is retiring. Their younger compatriots, who joined the EU institutions as officials over the past fifteen years, started at much lower rungs than those who entered through quotas. Even years later––in some cases more than a decade––they have yet to ascend to top policymaking levels. As a result, the proportion of senior policymakers from the “newer” member states could drop in the coming years, further accentuating the disparity in representation––unless remedial steps are taken.

Our respondents say that the post-2004 accession states themselves need to shape up. Language skills are ceasing to be an issue, with more and more young Czechs, Slovenes or Lithuanians graduating from western universities. Better training for aspiring officials at supporting proposals with evidence, weighing the pros and cons, and acknowledging the downsides would help them make more convincing arguments in professional discussions. Better informal organization through more cooperative networks of nationals in professional contexts would support young civil servants and help them liaise with their government at home. Lastly, the “newer” member states will continue to punch below their weight unless they broaden the expertise in governments, think-tanks and the media beyond the regional issues. The EU’s agenda has changed greatly since the 2004 enlargement wave in ways that do not play in the hands of the most recent accession states.

Tomáš Valášek

Tomáš Valášek

November 2019

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