European Enlargement Changed Both Sides of the Continent

Something happened to Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall and it affected both sides of the continent. That ‘something’ was not simply a diffusion of western ideas, policies and politics to the East. The former communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe underwent a profound transformation, but to say that they became ‘normal’ – and by saying that to mean they became more ‘western’ – would be an exaggeration. Such a statement would also overlook the impact of ideas, policies, politics, and people that spread from East to West. The history of Europe since 1989 is a story of ‘co-transformation’. It is also more contingent than teleological. Things did not have to wind up as they have – which is good, because there are many things about Europe that we should work hard to change.

This argument about ‘co-transformation’ lies at the heart of Philipp Ther’s brilliant history of social, economic, and political developments over the past four decades or more. He styles the book as a history of Europe since 1989, but it is really a narrative of transformative processes that stretch back well into the Cold War period and perhaps even to the Second World War. Ther’s book is also a European history as much as it is a history of Europe. He focuses on the things that matter most to Europeans – like labor markets, migration flows, welfare states, rural stagnation, and urban development. And while Ther frames this narrative in contrast to American scholars who wonder whether the Cold War brought about the ‘end of history’, his book is more effective as an antidote to the overdose of histories about treaty negotiations in the European Union and diplomatic encounters in NATO.

Where Ther is likely to get into trouble with his story is in his reliance on ‘neoliberalism’ as a container for holding the mix of ideas about states and markets that policymakers across Europe have used as a blueprint for institutional reform with greater or lesser success. The problem, as Ther is quick to acknowledge, is that the term ‘neoliberalism’ has so many negative connotations, it is so vague and pliable, and it tends to identify the person who uses the term even more than the people or policies it is supposed to characterize. The danger is that readers who oppose neoliberalism will assume they can anticipate Ther’s argument even as readers who oppose the use of the term will discount the analysis too quickly.

Ther has a strong defense for his analytical framing. Neoliberalism is often abused, he admits (pp. 16-20), and yet it is still the best idea-package to hold the commitment to private property, market distribution, and the neutrality of money that underpins so much of contemporary economic policymaking. Moreover, he is quick to add that the influence of these ideas differs fundamentally from West to East and from one country to the next. Indeed, what is most striking about the co-transformation that Europe experiences after the fall of communism is that it has led to divergence and not convergence both within countries and among them. The resulting inequality explains a lot about Europe’s current political situation.

Ther ends his book by suggesting that social solidarity and the welfare state may be coming back into fashion. That optimism is attractive and yet unconvincing. Ther’s book works best as a diagnosis of Europe’s current pathology and not as a source of reassurance. Somewhat earlier in the volume, Ther concedes that ‘the future lies, above all, with the younger generation and its prospects’ (p. 287). There was no ‘generation’ for the transformation that took place in 1989 as there was for 1968 and earlier revolutions; whether some future transformative generation emerges remains to be seen.

Europe Since 1989: A History. By Philipp Ther. Translated by Charlotte Hughes-Kreutzmüller. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016.

This review was published in the latest issue of Survival.  The manuscript version is above.  The edited version can be found here.