In 1989, Germany removed the barbed wire that had divided the country for a near 50-year face-off during the Cold War. Optimism abounded as many scholars and politicians speculated that economic, political and cultural barriers between East and West would disappear nearly as quickly as the cement and steel fences. The government invested large sums of money -- more than 1.5 trillion euros to date -- and every working West German paid a new solidarity tax to help finance the endeavor.
Michael Werz, a professor at the University of Hannover, says “It was a mistake to believe that if one invests enough money, these two societies would somehow get used to each other and would be economically productive again. That has not been the case.”
He believes the dream of a unified Germany remains somewhat unfulfilled. Most analysts agree that the transfer of former West Germany's costly welfare system boosted East German living standards but hurt work force competitiveness. The jobless rate in some eastern cities is nearly 20% and many young people continue to leave for the West.
Professor Werz adds that a lack of incentives also fostered today's Eastern German economic malaise. “If you look at the German example, everything was done for the East Germans. There was a new bureaucracy and political system implemented in Eastern Germany. Anyone that had no job was subsidized by the state. There were basically very limited decisions that East Germans could actually make.”
Other Central and Eastern Europeans did have the chance to choose how to reform economic and political structures over the last fifteen years. Many were rewarded with full European Union membership last year -- dramatically increasing the EU population by nearly a quarter to 455,000,000. Professor Werz says “other Eastern European societies had to figure out things by themselves and with a greater degree of intellectual political, economic independence, and I think that in the long run that will serve them quite well.”
Although many Central and East Europeans are optimistic about their future, not all feel welcomed by the West and some still face discrimination. Matthius Rueb, Washington bureau chief for the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, cites a positive lesson that Western EU countries could learn from German reunification. “People from Western Germany said to their brethren in Eastern Germany: 'You make us one and full again. We've waited for decades and now you're here. We are so proud you're here.' The same would apply for Europe. Europe was as divided as Germany was. So why has there been so little talk about how proud we are that you Hungarians, Poles, Slovaks -- and later on Serbs and Croats -- that you are back in Europe?”
Mr. Rueb says Western Europe should do a better job of welcoming the East. He believes that without such enthusiasm, support for EU integration will dwindle on both sides of the former Iron Curtain. Many countries face looming economic crises and troubled welfare systems. Mr. Rueb says it's crucial that a united Europe believes they can face these problems together.
But Dieter Dettke, Executive Director of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, a German political organization promoting transatlantic dialogue, says there is still strong support for integration among East Europeans. He believes the most important lesson from German reunification has been to learn how to make East European integration less expensive. “If we would try to enlarge the European Union German-style, we would all be overwhelmed by the financial and economic consequences of such a procedure. If you make it too costly, then you lose support in the old member states and that's what we can't afford to do.”
Mr. Dettka believes EU expansion will ultimately be easier than German reunification. Professor Michael Werz of Hannover University agrees but warns that both sides of Europe must be willing to create a new set of cultural, political and economic values rather than grafting a western model onto the East. “It is qualitatively a new situation which will change both parts of Europe -- the eastern part, but the western part as well. And people have to be open-minded on both sides of the former wall.”
While the newest 10 EU member states including Hungary, Poland and Slovenia continue to adjust and work through membership growing pains, other future candidates including Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey, will be closely watching their European neighbors.