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Can the Eastern European states block European Integration?
Dimiter Toshkov is als docent en onderzoeker verbonden aan het Instituut Bestuurskunde van Universiteit Leiden. In deze bijdrage aan de Hofvijver betoogt hij dat de Oost-Europese lidstaten de Europese integratie niet zullen blokkeren. Niet alleen omdat zij gezamenlijk geen meerderheid vormen maar ook omdat hun belangen en ideeën over Europa uiteenlopen. De scheidslijn loopt volgens hem niet tussen Oost en West maar tussen eurosceptische populisten (zowel ter linker- als rechterzijde) en pro-Europese partijen binnen lidstaten.
Are the Eastern European states of the European Union putting the brakes on European cooperation? Are they increasingly successful in blocking proposals for new EU policies? Can they derail, in the long term, the process of European integration?
The answer is ‘No’, but you may be excused for assuming otherwise. Several highly-publicized instances of (imperfect) cooperation between the Eastern European member states of the EU easily lead to the general impressions that these member states have coherent interests, that they routinely work together to knock EU legislation off the tracks, and that there is a wide and growing divide between East and West, ‘new’ and ‘old’ Europe. Yet, there is no systematic evidence for any of these claims.
Even when we look into the details of one theses highly-publicized issues – the proposal for compulsory refugee resettlement quotas – the illusion of a coherent group of East European states opposed to the remaining members of the EU disappears. It is true that in the early autumn of 2015 Hungary, Slovakia, Romania and other East and Central European states quite vocally opposed this proposal, which enjoyed the support of Germany, France, Italy and other West European states.
However, not all East European states shared this position (for example, Bulgaria was, and remains, much more open to the proposed idea of burden-sharing), the opposition did not, and does not, come only from the East (for example, it is also strong in Austria), and, quite tellingly, when the proposal was put to a vote in the Council of Ministers of the EU in September 2015, Poland actually voted in favor!
Other examples of policies and proposals on which the East Europeans seem to share a common position exist: for example, the extension of the Nord Stream pipeline that delivers gas directly from Russia to Northern Europe, circumventing Ukraine. But such common positions are fragile, few and far between, and while they can influence EU decision making, they cannot block it.
Altogether, the East European states do not have enough voting power to stop EU policies and legislation, even if we assume that they share similar interests. The thirteen states that have joined the EU since 2004 command less than 21% of the votes in the Council of Ministers, which falls well short of the required 35% for a blocking minority. An eventual Brexit would change little in this regard.
But even more importantly, these states do not necessarily share similar interests when it comes to concrete EU policies nor have a common agenda in the EU. They rarely vote together as a group, and, individually, they often join other ‘old’ member states to express dissent. Their positions in EU negotiations are not always similar, and, even when they are, the final negotiation outcome is close to their positions only in about half of these cases, according to one available data source (the DEU-II research project).
The Visegrad Group – a platform for cooperation on issues of European integration established by the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia – can do little to enforce a common position when the fundamental interests of the participating states diverge. The platform has proved useful for exchanging information and coordinating positions once compatible national interests are in place, but lacks the institutional power and ambitions to define and impose common positions when this is not the case.
All in all, it does not seem likely that the East European member states will be able to shift the balance of power in the EU towards themselves, both because they lack the power and institutional weight to do so, but also because among themselves they champion quite different policy preferences, priorities, and ideas about the future of Europe. That does not mean that they cannot leave their mark on what the EU does, especially on policies they care strongly about, such as relations with Russia or asylum. But the ability to influence the content of particular decisions does not add up to the ability to block integration or fundamentally alter the nature of EU policies.
The current fault lines in European politics and societies are not between East and West European states, but between the rising right (and left) populism and the broadly, if not too openly, pro-European centers within states, in the East as well as in the West of the continent. Whether, in the near future, the East and West European states will diverge or converge towards a new consensus, either pro or against Europe, is a matter that the citizens of these countries will decide. In any case, if the European project were to falter, it would not be due to the power of the block of East European member states of the EU.