10 years of EU enlargement…

… and the surge of populist parties in Germany: A decade after the first Eastern European enlargement of the EU, former prejudices should have long been gone.

by Friederike Wahl & Benedikt Wunderlich

In 2014, the EU celebrates the accession of Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovenia, Slovakia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, and Cyprus ten years ago. Particularly the old members were skeptical of the consequences of the largest expansion eastwards. Meanwhile, the same prejudices persist all over Europe when talking about the latest enlargements in 2007 and 2013. The fear of poverty migration from the Eastern European countries raised in 2004 is still observable nowadays. Populist parties in Germany could profit from skepticism against new member states.
The enlargement of the EU affected Germany politically and economically. Despite the benefits for a peaceful development and new economic opportunities in Europe, the public discourse is dominated by stereotypes against the new member states. Many people ignore that some of those countries are now either successful members or important partners of the Euro zone. The current development on the Crimea shows impressively how unstable peace is at the borders of the Union. The European Union, however, is still a guarantor for peace for its member states. None of them has to fear a military invasion by the Russian Federation. In 1989, when the Cold War came to an end, the Soviet Union’s influence over communist Europe collapsed. As the post-communist states began their transition to free market democracy, aligning to the Euro-Atlantic Treaty, the question of enlarging the continent’s political union was thrust onto the EEC’s agenda and was answered in 2004 with the adhesion of eight Eastern European countries. Today, they are an integral part of the Western security environment. But these positive developments don’t dominate the public opinion and affect the positions of several German political parties only in a limited way.
With the slogan ‘Das Boot ist voll’ (‘The boat is full’), several right wing parties in Switzerland and Germany initiated a campaign against immigration and asylum in the 1990s. In Germany, primarily the REP (Die Republikaner) utilised this slogan for its political purposes. It was first created and used in Switzerland during the 1940s, when Jewish expatriates from Germany were seeking asylum, but the country’s borders were closed to them. The use of this slogan by German political parties and politicians as a populist means against immigrating foreigners in the 21th century is cynical and inadequate. However, since the pictures of boats overcrowded with refugees on the European sea borders have gained publicity, the chanting of this slogan has ceased: it has become unsuitable even for right wing and populist parties.

Much ado about nothing
Still, the underlying issue remains. The political parties AfD (Alternative für Deutschland, an Euroskeptical party) and CSU (Christlich Soziale Union) currently spread fear among the German population with catchy slogans that speak of the alleged danger of ‘too many immigrants and foreigners’, including rants against citizens of other European states. Similar to when the Eastern European enlargement of the EU came into force 10 years ago, CSU raises German animosities with the same methods: ‘Wer betrügt, der fliegt’ (‘Those, who commit fraud, are kicked out’) is the Bavarian party’s common slogan. AfD uses ‘No Immigration into the German Social System’. They forget – or happily ignore: Germany profits from the Eastern European enlargement, and the ‘massive immigration wave’ that had been predicted for 2011 did not come true. Furthermore, almost all Eastern European immigrants are working in good jobs and pay money into the social funds. In 2013, for example, 413,000 people from Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic were employed in Germany and earned money from a regular and legal source, and 351,000 of them were able to pay social insurance, according to the Federal Ministry of Labour.
The attitude of CSU and AfD is based on a populist ethnocentric position that is fed by fear and prejudices. This is mainly due to the perception that Eastern European countries have a cultural background different from the German one, and due to their comparatively weak economy. This can induce worries within the German population about having to carry more than one is willing or able to.
We need to become more open-minded towards our European neighbours. Our economy is as dependent on them as they are on us. Our lack of skilled employees in the social or engineering sectors is a reality that needs to be faced and dealt with. Hence, there should be an open, welcoming reaction to our neighbours and partners from within and outside the EU; opposed to AfD and CSU, which are perpetuating a distorted image of reality for political gains. Purposefully intimidating the German population is one of the reasons for their success and crucial for the growing prejudices against our Eastern neighbours – to the detriment of our economy.

Together in a globalised world
We intend to understand the European Union’s enlargement in a historical context. 100 years after the outbreak of the First World War the European continent is on the road to a unified and peaceful future. The further enlargement is another cornerstone to make war in Europe history. The main challenge is to act as a united actor. Enlargement shouldn’t slow down the continuation of political and economic involvement. Member states will – despite many obstacles – benefit from a unified Europe. Only together can we face problems in a globalised world. The suggestions of the populist parties that those wide-range problems can be solved on a national level are an illusion. We shouldn´t yield to temptation that easy solutions for large problems will be long-term solutions and contribute to the peace and integration process for the EU. The decision-making process in the EU became more complex with the enlargement. It also became more representative for its inhabitants.
People all over the world are often wary to political and economical transformation. But the point we argue is: don´t let fear control your political opinion, control fear with political argumentation! Germany is a profiteer of the European enlargement. Populist parties spread fear among the population with catchy slogans. But in fact, these positions shouldn’t be taken seriously because they are not based on reality.

Young European Federalists (Junge Europäische Föderalisten, JEF) is a political youth organisation which is active in most European countries. JEF seeks to promote European integration through the strengthening and democratisation of the European Union. The members of the university group of JEF in Jena try to bring the diversity of Europe to their city, drum up interest for Europe, take part in European discussions, promote European exchange and give young people a voice.

More information: www.jef-thueringen.eu/jena

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