With the establishment of the EU, the hopes for the beginning of a United Europe came to fruition. It seemed that the statement uttered by Churchill in1946 regarding the need to build “United States of Europe” was no longer an expression of an unattainable goal. In 1993, the single market and the four freedoms to unobstructed movement of goods, services, people, and money became a reality. Further, with the Schengen Agreement of 1995, borders between a few nations were abolished and people of any nationality could travel freely, with no passport controls, within those states. Further, a common monetary unit, the euro, was introduced in 1999. The introduction of the euro was expected to help Europe become strong enough to counteract the impact of globalization and to increase its competitiveness; it was the final step toward an idealistic vision of a warless Europe and economic interdependence. Europe seemed to be on the way to a bright future. According to EUROPA, the official EU website, the abolition of border controls has allowed people to travel freely within the EU and made it easier for them to live and work in any EU nation. The reforms have further allowed for the creation of millions of jobs, price reductions, and increasing consumer choice. Economic stability appeared to prevail.
Another theme accompanying the establishment and enlargement of the EU is the search for the so-called European identity. A shared cluster of characteristics, distinct to Europeans, is expected to smooth and ease the ultimate integration of all European countries into a community living harmoniously. It is not clear, however, whether the European identity already exists and the path toward integration is meant to solidify that identity or if the integration itself is supposed to create and reinforce the so-called European identity. The ultimate hope is that an emphasis on a common identity, along with economic interdependence, would reinforce the unification of European states and turn Europe into a powerful actor on the global stage.
While the West was interested in and focused on the attempt to develop a common European market and establish a common European identity, another major event that would eventually have a serious impact on the above two was happening to the East. After forty-five years of communist rule, the USSR disintegrated and the ideological victory of democracy and the free market was celebrated all over Europe and the world. Some believed that with communist regimes in the past, the goal of a United Europe was even more realistic and East and West were finally going to join together as Europeans became “closer neighbours”. Once the euphoria of democracy’s ideological victory subsided and the Western world took a comprehensive look at life behind the Iron Curtain, the severe difference in living standards became apparent and worries about the possibility of true integration appeared.
Millions of people, both men and women, lost their jobs as an outcome of privatization and found themselves lacking the necessary skills to compete in the newly established capitalist market. Successful factories and agricultural cooperatives were closed overnight and only the remains of the destroyed and pillaged buildings are left to remind those who have not yet left that there was a time when there was work to be done and there were jobs to be had. Those people started to look West for better opportunities and the possibility to earn for one’s family, and unemployment and displacement increased their vulnerability to exploitation. While corruption prevails and EU aid disappears down mysterious alleyways and bank accounts, those who suffer the consequences are the common people who really do not care who is in control as long as they have a decent life and are able to provide for their families without having to leave the country and be underpaid, and hated and abused for being there and allowing themselves to be underpaid. So while an entry into the EU is viewed as the way out of economic depression and into prosperity and development, one cannot help but be haunted by the questions asked by Eduardo Galeano, “How many people prosper in prosperity?/How many people find their lives developed by development?”
After a rocky and murderous first half of the twentieth century, it is no surprise European nations on both the winning and losing end of the battle came together to find a possible solution for avoiding major conflicts in the future. The ideas of economic integration and a common identity certainly make sense on the surface level and present a logical solution to a destructive past. However, those ideas can only work if all the members of the proposed union function at the same level, are equally respected, and see each other as one, but very diverse, body. The fall of the USSR and the followed accession of former communist nations, the terrorist assaults on major Western cities, and regional war conflicts in the proximity of the EU have only heightened the disparities in economic, social, and cultural spheres and placed immigrants on the receiving end of prejudiced and discriminatory practices. The disparities and ever-increasing anti-immigrant sentiments have precipitated violations of human rights in the name of security and economic stability and have contributed to the growth of organized crime, specifically the traffic of humans. Instead of acknowledging a history of accomplishments made by migrants and minorities who have shaped Europe into what it is today, the major Western actors have chosen to play on xenophobic fears and allow intolerance and hate to become widespread. A compromise will have to be made as homogeneity within the union cannot, and must not, be the final goal. What defines a nation is not only how it expresses itself, but also how it differs from other nations. A true European integration will allow for the social and cultural differences to be respected while the common goal of equal treatment for all members, along with access to economic development, is reached. For this to take place, the EU must reconsider policies that push struggling nations further into the abyss of poverty and desperation. It must not only advocate on paper, but also in practice, the equal application of human rights to all and encourage acceptance of diversity instead of forcing assimilation and similarity. Just because authoritarian and communist regimes are no longer in power and civil and political freedoms have purportedly been achieved, this fact does not imply that the citizens of these nations could no longer be oppressed. As far as Eastern European countries and their entrance into the EU are concerned, one repressive and discriminatory regime has simply been replaced by another. Without consideration for the different sociological, economical, and cultural heritage that migrants across the EU carry, Europe faces the danger of going back to where it started and any strides to unite the region that have so far been made would turn out to have been in vain.