Missing Links

Europe After the Berlin Wall: 4 Surprises

For Europe the effects of the Berlin Wall's collapse were almost as surprising as the fall itself. Here are 4 of the unexpected consequences that the end of the Soviet Union had for Europe -- ones even the experts didn't see coming.

Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

The fall of the Berlin Wall was bad news for sovietologists. Thousands of spies, military officers, diplomats, professors, journalists and assorted experts made a living studying the Soviet Union. None predicted its collapse.

But if the sudden and peaceful end of the Soviet empire was a surprise, the effects of the collapse for Europe have been almost as surprising. Here are 4 of the unexpected consequences that the end of the Soviet Union had for Europe — and that the experts also failed to anticipate.

1. China displaced the Soviet Union (USSR) as the main threat for Europeans.

When the Berlin Wall fell no one imagined that China would more directly affect the lives of Western Europeans than was ever the case for the USSR. Not because of China’s military might but as a result of its economic prowess. After World War II, Western Europe had lived under the threat of a deadly confrontation with the Soviets. Fortunately, that threat never materialized and, in practice, the daily lives of Europeans were not that affected. In contrast, the economic rise of China touches the daily lives of all Europeans: from what they pay for a TV set to medicines, and from gasoline to their home mortgages or the possibility of finding a job. Chinese capitalism is transforming Europe far more than Soviet communism ever did.

2. The Euro.

No one predicted that the fall of the Berlin Wall would stimulate the creation of a single European currency. That the Germans would be willing to leave the deutschemark or that the French would accept having a currency controlled from Frankfurt — the headquarters of the European Central Bank  were unimaginable possibilities. Or that 14 other countries would also shed their old currencies to adopt the Euro. Equally impossible to imagine was a scenario where after a massive global financial crisis with devastating effects on European economies, the reserve currency for those who feared that the U.S. dollar will plummet would be the Euro. The Euro was a utopia and today is a reality that does not surprise anyone. And that’s a surprise.

3. Europe’s geopolitical weakness.  

The influence of an international alliance should be proportional to the number of nations that join it: the larger the number of nations, the more powerful the alliance. In 1960, the European alliance had six member countries, in 2003 15, and today it has 27. Europe is one of the world’s largest economic powers and, its democracies are a model and its social policies are envied by the rest of the world. Its generous development aid is coveted by all developing countries. Yet, despite the numbers, the resources and its success Europe’s influence in world politics has been declining.

Take for example the defense of human rights, a core European value and a frequent goal of the European Union’s international efforts. According to a study by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), the influence of the continent at the United Nations regarding human rights has plummeted. In the late 1990s, 70 percent of the countries in the United Nations supported European initiatives on human rights. Today, 117 of the 192 countries regularly vote against Europe at the United Nations. The ECFR also notes that in 2008, Europe sent more troops to Afghanistan than the United States — 500 of whom lost their life. The EU was also at par to the United States in financial aid there. Yet its weight in the overall strategic approach to Afghanistan is very limited. The same applies to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Europe sends a lot of money but has little effect. The countries of the European Union do not act in a very united and determined fashion and, inevitably, this diminishes Europe’s geopolitical importance in the world.

4. Islam in old Europe, and America in new Europe.

At the height of the cold war it would have been hard to imagine that the European public would feel more threatened by the flow of immigrants from Arab countries than from the expansion of communism in their continent — or by an armed conflict with Russia. At the time, it would have also been surprising to learn that Poland, Hungary, or the Czech Republic would become bastions of pro-Americanism. But these are some of the surprising realities of  the post-Berlin Wall Europe. Anxiety over immigration, especially from Muslim countries, has become a topic of daily discussions from parliaments to dinner tables. The possibility that Europe could turn into "Eurabia" is a corollary of these anxieties. Today, immigrants make up about 10 percent of the population of most Western European countries, and in some large cities they reach 30 percent. Inevitably, surveys show that 57 percent of Europeans consider that in their country "there are too many foreigners." Meanwhile, in some countries of the former Soviet Union economic, political, cultural and even military pro-Americanism is flourishing. That this should happen in a continent where anti-American sentiments are common is another astonishing legacy of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

This column first appeared in El Pais

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