Connected Research

Union policy research in the 21st century

Posts Tagged ‘Transition

Europe’s sticky iron curtain

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The European Commission’s annual report on the social situation in the EU has just been published, revealing not only striking differences between EU member states but also divergent trends between them in the period since the EU was expanded to cover the new member states in central and eastern Europe. For the majority of them (i.e. all of them except Romania and Bulgaria), 2009 saw the fifth anniversary of their accession – time enough, you would have thought, for views to be less, not more, divergent.

The report is supported by a Eurobarometer attitude survey on the social climate, based on the views of around 1,000 adults in each of the 27 EU member states, plus in the three candidate countries of Croatia, (Former Yugoslav Republic of) Macedonia and Turkey, conducted in May/June 2009 and intended to be the first in a series of such surveys. It is striking that people in EU member states in northern and western Europe – regardless of the social measure used, be it within their personal situation, the general situation or in the area of social protection and inclusion – tend to report the highest levels of satisfaction with their current situation and prospects, while people in states to the central and eastern half of the continent (i.e. the new member states) reported the most dissatisfaction.

The reasons why the transition in former communist countries – even those untouched by war – has been so difficult are many, and the tough economic recession, with fragile economies in central and eastern Europe remaining particularly vulnerable, has clearly not helped. Social change, including large-scale population movements, has presented particular challenges. Nevertheless, it is equally true that, twenty years on from the start of the transition, with a whole generation of people not knowing what life was like in the former times, people living in those countries remain much less satisfied with their situation and prospects than is the rule across the rest of the continent. Life remains tough and the potential for disillusion is clear.

In this context, the words of Vladimír Špidla, the outgoing EU Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities are important:

Today’s report shows once again the importance of our efforts to promote jobs and growth in Europe so as to guarantee people’s social well-being in the future. We must continue these efforts as part of our future 2020 strategy to make the EU a smarter and greener social market economy.

Trade unionists, or European socialists more generally, are unlikely to find much to disagree with there.

What is required, however, is a greater sense of the need to do something more positive on behalf of people in countries in ‘the other half’. In this direction, it is interesting that the new Commissioner, taking the place of Vladimír Špidla, is to be László Andor, a Hungarian whose appointment, therefore, is likely to continue the perspective on the needs in this direction of what were formerly known as transition countries (and which perhaps might still need to be thought of in such a way); Špidla is Czech and, thus, also with a perspective informed by transition. Andor is an economist without much of an evident political background, although his past does appear to have some colour in it, and his appearance in the European Parliament hearings of the new Commissioners have been differently reported (see here and here). At the very least, however, he looks to be a safe pair of hands – and he does appear to be on board with issues on the EU’s social agenda. His tenure at the Commission needs to see greater, and specifically practical, attention paid to the social problems of countries from central and eastern Europe.

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Written by Calvin

04/02/2010 at 1:26 pm

20 jahre Mauerfall: after the party is over

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One more item of reflection in contrast to the celebrations caught my eye in The Guardian‘s ‘Comment is free’ section today. Adam Michnik was an adviser to the Polish Solidarity trade union and social movement, and a key Solidarity adviser to the round table that set up the partially free 1989 elections.

Writing from the perspective of events after 1989 in Poland, Michnik refers to the dissatisfaction with which many people greeted the practical ffects of the transition, which were shared by many people across the eastern bloc, and which have led many, and not just in Poland, to view the transition with some ambivalence. Quoting at length:

In Poland, it was the workers in the great factories who won change, their strikes forcing the authorities to give way. But those same factories were also the first victims of the ensuing transformation. Modernised to compete in the marketplace, they cut their workforces. Instead of a miracle of freedom, people found themselves staring redundancy in the face.

The revolutions of 1989 had not mentioned mass privatisation or social inequalities; or sudden growth in crime, corruption and mafia activity; or, worst of all, permanent unemployment. This was the reality of the post-communist period offered up to the Poles and their neighbours. Political freedom, a free-market economy, the end of censorship and the opening of borders, had not been enough to effect a balance. The destruction of a despotic regime had led not just to liberal democratic values – it had also marked the start of a wild rush for wealth…

… In some post-communist countries an aggressive ethnic nationalism is on the rise. In others, religion is being used by those in power as an anti-democratic ideology, an instrument of intolerance and exclusion. Post-communist transformation creates not just winners, but many losers: those who are unemployed, rejected, pushed into poverty. The often brutally greedy new elites are slow to learn democratic habits, respect for the law of the land, pluralism or tolerance…

Michnik is right to quote the disappointing social effects of the transition and to yearn for a ‘better’ home country despite the cherished ‘normal democracy’ it has become. Freedom, democracy and liberalisation were undeniably attractive concepts in central and eastern Europe in 1989 and clearly gave the impetus to protest movements. Nevertheless, the timing of the transition could not have been poorer from a workers’ perspective, coming at the time of the espousal of these concepts by an increasingly hegemonic right-wing ideology and, at the time of trade union weakness, with at least the UK trade union movement being beset by its own problems in the face of that onslaught, the necessary social dialogue aspects of the transition were missing. Not the concept as much – most countries established social and economic councils in this period – as its effectiveness in practice.

Workers are still paying the price of that lack of dialogue and of the predominance of management by diktat and, twenty years later, despite a deep recession which continues to throw more people out of work whether in the eastern or western half of the continent, we are nowhere near establishing economies (or, at least, models of economies) which are run in the interests of people. If we can’t use the background of that recession and its root causes to establish practical alternatives that are viable and credible, then we really are in trouble.

Written by Calvin

10/11/2009 at 1:19 pm

20 years after the Berlin Wall: Europe undivided?

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A bit off piste here, but it’s a personal interest of mine, so here we go.

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent unification of Germany – you can find much information from the usual news media sources but a special nod to the coverage in The Guardian, where amongst other things you can read the ever-excellent Timothy Garton Ash, and to Transitions Online’s specific 20-year anniversary portal.

The European Parliament is also holding a special event too, with a formal sitting involving 89 people born in November 1989 discussing what Europe means to them. (Incidentally, I note from the perspective of what follows here that all 89 are from current, as opposed to prospective, EU members – an opportunity missed there, I feel.)

It’s to be hoped that they spend some time discussing the future, for let’s not kid ourselves that this is a unified Europe:

1. large parts of south-east Europe – most of which we used to call Yugoslavia – remain outside the EU. Slovenia joined the EU in 2004 and Croatia is likely join in 2010 now that the Lisbon Treaty has been approved – but Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia i Herzegovina, Macedonia, Kosovo and Albania all remain outside, some with evidently better chances of (eventual) accession than others. It would be nonsense to pretend that there is an invisible wall dividing these states from the rest of the EU, as much as it would be nonsense to pretend that the EU and Europe are synonymous terms. Serious mistakes have been made on all sides, both in the economic and political arenas, during the last twenty years but the will on the one side to join the EU, and the lack of appetite for them to do so on the other, remains a palpable reminder of the divisions that remain on the continent.

2. outside this part of south-east Europe, other countries with a perspective on the EU exist – both to the south and to the east. Turkey first applied to join the EU in 1960 and yet there remains ambivalence, on both sides; others exist (Moldova, Ukraine, Georgia… ) with differing degrees of desire to access the EU but which remain within Moscow’s purview. It’s impossible to say whether the war between Russia and Georgia last year over the territory of South Ossetia would or would not have happened had Georgia been in the EU at that point. Had it still had happened in that scenario, the EU would have been in direct confrontation with Russia. So, some aspects of the iron curtain remain – on the basis of a line drawn a little further to the east – and it is clear that the European Union needs to sort out its relationship with Russia, as well as with countries to the other side of that line. This is clearly a job for the new High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy – and for the new President of the EU, whoever that might be.

3. central and eastern European countries has been hit particularly hard by the global financial crisis – most of them members of the EU. The crisis lingers to a greater or lesser extent in Latvia, Romania, Poland and elsewhere but most of all in Hungary. There is no doubt some sort of role in re-flotation for the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development but its overall input is likely to be small. Countries in central and eastern Europe are likely to struggle with the aftermath of these problems for years – like the UK, Ireland and Spain, evidently – but frequently on the basis of economies that, as a result of the short history since 1989, are evidently less stable and less secure and, as a result, less able to withstand such economic shocks.

Much to ponder. And much to hope that the warnings from many sides of the dangers of complacency about the divisions that remain across Europe do not become realised.

Written by Calvin

09/11/2009 at 12:29 pm