Eastern Europe Heads For A Brave Old World

Bulgaria- dirt road.jpg

Will a unified Europe survive Britain’s vote on Brexit? The referendum of last June pointed the country out of the European Union. Will France or Italy follow suit? If so, it could doom the structure that began in the 1950s as a customs union, if not an uneasy economic alliance to keep Germany from rearming and dominating central Europe. And will a consequence of Brexit be the re-emergence of Russia as the dominant power in Eastern Europe? Or will the European Union last long enough to bring prosperity to the forgotten countries of Eastern Europe?

I thought about these questions when I recently boarded a night train in Zurich. Switzerland has never been a member of the European Union, but it coexists with the EU through a series of bilateral agreements, similar to those that Britain will now seek. I was heading east on a series of sleepers that took me through Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Serbia, and Bulgaria, precisely those countries that a unified Europe had aimed to lift into prosperity.

I expected to find an absence of trade barriers, and see lands benefiting from the common currency, the euro, which is used by nineteen of the twenty-eight EU members. Instead, I felt as thought I was descending into a Brave Old World, that of a Europe with guarded borders and separate currencies, a land best imagined as lying on the far side of an economic Iron Curtain rather than a political one. Here’s the view from the train window:

Austria: Along with its capital city, Vienna, Austria has been an EU winner. Into the 1980s Vienna was a cul-du-sac of the Cold War; the dead end, final stop of Western European laissez-faire economic polices that nestled against the dragon teeth and barbed wire of the Soviet sphere of influence.

After the wall fell, Vienna became a glittering capital of central Europe, the ideal city for both corporate headquarters and long weekends at the opera. Its banks and companies flourished, and much trade with the new countries of the East began and ended in the Austrian capital, which lies on the western edge of the great Hungarian plains.

Without the EU, however, Austria would be at risk of becoming a more dynamic Slovenia.

Slovakia: A stepchild of the Soviet dissolution, Slovakia is the rump state to the east of the Czech Republic, the other half of divided Czechoslovakia. Its capital is in Bratislava, which is something of a Viennese suburb. The rest of the country, surrounded by Poland, Hungary, and Ukraine, is best understood as a heavy machine shop of collectivization, where there is now more demand for imported jeans than for Comecon turbines.

An EU member in the Eurozone — that is, a member that uses the euro as its currency — Slovakia is betting its economic future on the basis of its low-costs and proximity to Austria, which has attracted a number of Western car companies, including Jaguar. A nice hotel room is €45.

Conversely, Western consumers are indifferent to Slovakian products, goods, and services, which has positioned Turkey as one of the country’s leading trade partners.

I spent an evening with a Slovakian who is fixing up his house. His solution wasn’t to order British or French fixtures from within the EU, but to import a container full from Istanbul, complete — so he implied — with Turkish workers to hitch up the low-cost appliances and lighting.

Hungary: In the go-go years of European expansion, Hungary was the France of Eastern Europe, a proud civilization that dates back more than a thousand years. Its capital city, Budapest, is a place of grace and sophistication.

London bankers invested their bonuses in Pest apartment flats, and discount airlines flooded the Buda hills with wandering tourists.

In the soon-to-be-reordered European Union, Hungary could become neither here nor there. Its nationalist, right wing parties (70 percent of the recent election) dream of a Hungarian greatness that was lost at Trianon after World War I and in Transylvania. But the Hungarians have no idea whether its salvation lies in turning east toward Russia, north toward Germany, or west toward a fragmented EU.

Without a lodestone that inspires optimism, Hungary finds it easier to blame its problems on gays, immigrants, Viennese bankers, and the EU, not to mention the protocols of the elders of Zion.

Serbia: My overnight train from Budapest to Belgrade was covered with graffiti, giving it the air of a wayward New York City subway train from the 1970s, although one with couchettes and without break dancers.

NATO bombed Belgrade in spring 1999, in support of Kosovo's independence. Legally, Kosovo is an autonomous region of Serbia, but in practicality it is a NATO protectorate, the love child of Madeline Albright’s and Richard Holbrooke’s air campaign.

Among the casualties of that air war was Serbian enthusiasm for all things American and European. The isolated, rump republic of 11 million Serbs has become an orphanage of disaffected Europeans who remain locked away from Western prosperity with a stillborn economy.

In theory, Serbia, the nearby republics of Macedonia and Montenegro, and perhaps even a new republic in Kosovo were to rise into the middle class through membership in the European Union. In reality, the EU has no more appetite for Serbia’s tottering banks or pig farms than it does for more Greek debentures.

Bulgaria: Sofia, the capital, is 225 miles from Belgrade, the same distance as Boston is from New York City, but my meandering sleeper took twelve hours to make the overnight trip, which included several hours at dawn on the Serbian-Bulgarian border, the site of many Balkan wars.

Carved from the Ottoman Empire at the 1878 Treaty of Berlin, Bulgaria could rightfully claim to be both the last piece on the European chess board and the best barometer of EU efficacy in the twenty-first century. Some polls say it is the most unhappy EU member. As a city, Sofia is a pleasant combination of socialist realism, Balkan impressionism, and a few modern glass towers.

I first visited it in summer 1976, when Bulgaria was hewing the Marxist line with Stalinist devotion. Now, in summer 2016, the oppression comes from a hybrid form of capitalism that mixes Leninist sympathies with mafia business practices. No wonder the EU isn’t in any rush to bring the euro to Bulgaria, although the country is a member of the confederation.

Bulgaria's political dilemma is that its gas is a hostage to fortunes in Russia and Ukraine (where all the pipelines originate), while its subsidies and regulations come from Brussels.


Sadly, I doubt the EU will last much longer. Brexit marks the ebb tide of European optimism, and part of the reason the British voted themselves out is a wish to send home Hungarian, Slovak, and Bulgarian immigrants who despair of making a living in their own countries.

Brexit is also a diplomatic move in the increasing cold war between Western Europe and Islam, whose fault lines run precisely through Bosnia, Albania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, and Turkey.

When the Brexit vote took place, Europe was in the midst of a terror spree that had Muslim fanatics opening fire on shoppers in a Munich mall and driving a truck through a Nice street fair on Bastille Day. Is it any wonder that Britain, staring at refugees camped out in Calais, would raise the draw bridge?

Brexit is also a victory for Putin’s Russia and its gangster capitalism. Until the invasions of Crimea and Ukraine, Russia felt encircled by NATO in Turkey and by the EU in the Baltic States. Now, however, Europe has the look of what diplomatic histories used to call a “dead letter,” leaving much of Eastern Europe vulnerable to a modern Russian Risorgimento.

In the EU, only Germany is earning any money, and it is only a matter of time before Angela Merkel is voted out of office. A new leader there — appealing to nationalist sentiments — will ask German voters, “Why are you working for 4.5 years, on average, to pay the subsidies that are handed out to lazy Spaniards, Greeks, and Italians?”

As someone who admired the European Union, riding trains from Zurich to Sofia reminded me of the downside of old Europe. I hated changing money in train stations, and being woken up by border guards at forlorn crossings like Dimitrograd (Serbia) or Kalotina (Bulgaria). More disturbing was to see, in Belgrade parks or along rail lines, Syrian refugees living like cattle that is drifting north across an arid plain.

The EU was created to embrace free trade and freedom of movement across a continent of 400 million that, in the past, has failed to compensate for overlapping national claims by adjusting borders.

Brexit is one overt expression of dissatisfaction with Europe. But EU failures can also be seen across countries that have changed little since Bismarck, an early Pan-European, said the Balkans were not "worth the bones" of a single Prussian grenadier.

Matthew Stevenson, a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine, is the author of, among other books Remembering the Twentieth Century Limited, and Whistle-Stopping America. His next book, Reading the Rails, is due out in August. He lives in Switzerland.

Flickr photo by sbrrmk: Rhodope Mountains, Bulgaria