Cause and Effect in European Politics and Law

What Does Standard of Living Mean in Eastern Europe?

Adelina Marini, July 9, 2012

In Eastern Europe we have seen a lot of things, mainly unpleasant, which is why it will not be a rarity nowadays to hear Eastern Europeans saying with sarcasm that the Western Europeans are drivellers and why are they weeping that they have become poorer. Do they know what poverty is? Do they know what misery is? And if the Western Europeans are smart they would answer back - why do we have to know? But, this is a question for Western Europe to answer to and there is no better time to do it than now. Eastern Europe, however, should answer another question - what does 'standard of living' mean? For most people this means money. It is high time someone to remind Eastern Europe that it did not enter the EU in order to raise its standard of living, i.e. wages, because if European politicians and leaders have missed to notice, worried with the eurozone rescue, in Eastern Europe some frightening trends have emerged.

There is a very significant deviation of visions between the eastern and western half of Europe about what standard of living is. For the more developed Europeans it does not only mean more money in the pocket but is a package which includes getting high quality public services (health care, education, government, cleanness, order, security, etc.). It also means good infrastructure and opportunities for development - personal, professional and business development. For the still catching up eastern half, a large part of the content of this package is something distant and difficult to comprehend but in each country the level of comprehension or non-comprehension is different. Those that are closer to the developed part had apprehended something from the gravitational force of public goods and are trying - some with bigger, others with smaller success - to apply them at home.

The more you go to the east the more the criteria fall and the 'standard of living' and much more other criteria start to matter. But everyone agreed their leaders to put their signatures below political and economic criteria for EU membership, the purpose of which is precisely the famous cohesion between the underdeveloped east and the developed west. And, by the way, cohesion is not just a term from the negotiations on the next multiannual EU budget, but this is another topic.

What is going on in Eastern Europe?

The first red lamp that there is something wrong in Eastern Europe, flashed last last year during the Hungarian EU presidency. And if Hungary did not take over the presidency, the problems in the country could have not surfaced for the broader European public. In Hungary came to power a right-wing government, led for a second time in the post-socialist history of the country by Victor Orban, having also a full majority in Parliament. Mr Orban did not waste time or efforts to take advantage as much as possible at an early stage from his government and to pass legislation that would serve him afterwards. He led a constitutional reform and had a media law passed that raised significant doubts whether their aim was not deprivation of independence of the media, the central bank and the judiciary.

Thanks to the coincidence of his governance with Budapest's debut as a Council president, Victor Orban had to face a number of times the MEPs in Strasbourg, the critical media in Brussels and his colleagues from the EU and to explain to them what he was doing and most of all why. Regretfully, Hungary is not an isolated case showing symptoms of a fading democraticsm in Eastern Europe, calling memories about not so distant communist past of totalitarianism.

Another example rarely being spoken of at European level is Bulgaria, which has been governed for 3 years now by a populist premier, who is another product of Bulgarian voters' taste for personality-built parties. Boyko Borissov emerged on the political scene thanks to the former tsar, Simeon Saxecobourggotha, who made the former bodyguard of Todor Zhivkov, the communist-times dictator of Bulgaria, a senior figure in the Ministry of the Interior, from where Mr Borissov started his skyrocketing political career. He was elected a mayor of Sofia with a solid majority by the citizens of Bulgaria's capital city.

He liked governing and set out for the national scene. He created in his image a party, which he stated to be right-wing - GERB (Citizens for European Bulgaria), which is even a member of the European People's Party. Alas, his governance can be distinguished mainly with the building of a personality cult for now Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, literally. There is no event in the country without him participating - be it a football game, a round table for EU funds absorption or a concert. Nothing happens without Mr Borissov's approval - not even whether a real wildfire should burn or not. To summarise - in Bulgaria there is no longer a government, not even a parliament - there is only the personality of the prime minister.

The group of former communist countries that demonstrate inclination to totalitarianism, has recently been joined with new strength by Romania, which for years is in a snail competition with Bulgaria, both being in one and the same surveillance procedure on their incomplete reforms in the area of the judiciary, with which the two countries were accepted under conditionality in the EU in 2007. In Bucharest an ugly drama is unfolding, which even managed to emerge under the spotlight in Brussels. After otherwise successful fight with the economic woes of the country, the nerves of the Romanians from austerity and constant promises that just a little bit more and everything will be better succumbed to the pressure and they elected the social liberal 39-year old Victor Ponta to govern them. Mr Ponta is a prime minister as of May this year but in this short period of time he managed to create a deep conflict with the long-serving president, Traian Basescu.

The two men's incapability to bear each other has reached such a scale that the Constitutional Court had to rule whether Basescu should represent Romania at the EU summit in end-June or the prime minister. The court ruled to the benefit of the president, which enraged the young premier, for whom evidence appeared that he plagiated for his doctor degree in law. Overriding the court's decision, Victor Ponta decided unilaterally to leave for Brussels, thus putting to a test the rest of the EU leaders who were wondering whom they should talk to - Basescu or Ponta. After his returning home, the premier decided to continue the battle and at the moment there is an impeachment procedure taking place against Basescu, while the Constitutional Court is threatened by replacement.

The issue with the situation in Romania was raised during the official hearing of Demetris Christofias, the president of Cyprus, in the European Parliament in Strasbourg. Joseph Daul, leader of the right-wing group (EPP), called on the Cypriot president to pay attention to the political crisis in Romania. "Our group shares the Commission concerns and I am begging you not to leave on a vacation in the upcoming months but to watch over this process, as we all will", Mr Daul said. Concern with the situation in Bucharest expressed the vice president and commissioner for justice, citizenship and fundamental rights, Viviane Reding. On Twitter she wrote: "I am seriously concerned about recent attacks on the independence of the Constitutional Court of Romania".

The European Commission warned Romania that at the moment it was summarising the report for the 5-year work of the Control and Verification Mechanism and "recent developments may be putting at risk the progress made over the years". The Commission recalls that "the rule of law, the democratic checks and balances and the independence of the judiciary are cornerstones of the European democracy and indispensable for mutual trust within the European Union".

The processes in these three countries are only the most severe ones, suffering from recidivising practises and showing that it is compelling to make an urgent analysis of the reasons why democracy finds it hard to settle down in these countries more than 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. One of the reasons, without me having the pretences of being exhaustive, is precisely the eurozone crisis, which forces EU leaders to often "excuse" themselves with the democratic processes that require time to deliver. As a while ago Sony Kapoor wrote on Twitter, on the occasion of the G20 summit in Mexico, "do we not want 2 b democracies?" since this is used as an excuse that the eurozone crisis is deteriorating.

As a part of this reason is also the Eastern Europeans' discontent that they had joined the EU hoping their incomes to increase and to start living like Western Europeans, but in their eyes the model of welfare that Western Europe had achieved failed. Here, you see, many Eastern Europeans say, they are rich but with mountains of debt. Their disappointment is additionally enhanced by the fact that (no matter how cynical this may sound) there are still a lot of living witnesses of communism who, thanks to human nature remember only the good things, remember how often they went for summer vacations (2-3 times a summer), how electricity, central heating and bread were cheap and now profligate Western Europeans not only deprived them of this but they also wait for the poor Eastern Europeans to give them money to protect their high living standard.

There is nothing more harmful than such a type of thinking but it is based on the lack of sufficiently adequate talking about what is going on, why are we together and what can everyone of us do. The Hungarians, the Romanians and the Bulgarians need to be urgently told that a large part of the blame for their misfortunes lies not in London, Paris or Berlin, but in their own capitals. If someone had not made us rich it is ourselves, who thought that someone else had to do this instead of us. And we elected people that promised this to us. We have to be reminded that we did not join the EU only to absorb the "European" money (as if this is some different money). We joined also because we claimed that we share the European values of freedom, democracy and human rights.

The op-ed author for the Romanian daily Adevarul, Mircea Vasilescu, very much wants to believe that dictatorship will not come back. "It’s true, isn’t it?", he asks and responds to himself: "There is a Parliament. Of course, the parliamentary opposition could be cut to one percent, as Crin Antonescu desires. But we will continue to hold 'democratic' elections – probably along the lines of Belarus or Serbia under Milosevic. Who can possibly oppose it? In any case, the press no longer has the influence it had in the 1990s, and strictly speaking, it could be muzzled by a press law. Civil society and citizens must wake up now to defend the rule of law and democracy. When we have to buy our food with ration cards once again, it’ll be too late", Vasilescu writes.