Reflections on 2004: Europe was finally unified but history did not come to an end


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Jamie Shea
Jamie Shea

Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defence at Friends of Europe, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

A few years back, the French beer brand Kronenbourg 1664 ran a popular TV commercial. It claimed that 1664 was a bad year for memorable classical music compositions but a good year for beer. The slogan came back to me in thinking of 2004: a testing time for the West in general following the US invasion of Iraq and the beginning of the NATO led ISAF mission in Afghanistan, but a big step forward in re-integrating the two halves of Europe more than a decade after the Cold War came to an end. Indeed, 2004 witnessed two “big bang” enlargements, which are now marking their 20th anniversary. First, seven new democracies of Central and Eastern Europe joined NATO in April. Then, just a month later ten joined the EU. The eastern borders of the European space of democracy, human rights and common security, which had initially moved eastwards after the unification of Germany in October 1990 and NATO’s first post-Cold War enlargement to Poland, Hungary and Czechia in March 1999, now went all the way to the Black Sea and included a part of the former Soviet Union in the form of the three Baltic States. 

These two simultaneous enlargements proved decisive for the shape of the European security architecture moving on from the Cold War division of the continent. When the Berlin Wall came down in November 1989, the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, had first insisted that German unification could not go ahead unless Germany left both NATO and the EU, renouncing both the Treaty of Paris of 1954 (whereby West Germany joined the NATO alliance) and the Rome Treaty of 1957 which established the European Economic Community. The West German Chancellor, Helmut Kohl, had proposed in November 1989 a ten point plan to the German Bundestag according to which a German Confederation would be established bringing West Germany and the DDR progressively closer together. But this would take place over a 20-year period so as not to alarm the Soviet Union or undermine Gorbachev, the reformer, by making it look like he was losing control of events. The Soviet Union was still entrenched in German affairs. It had legal rights in Berlin reconfirmed in the Four Power Act of 1971, and until 1994, 19 Soviet divisions, or just under 400,000 Soviet troops, were stationed in East Germany. If Gorbachev had gone public with his demand that a united Germany must leave NATO and the EU and become a neutral state with no foreign troops on its territory, public opinion in both halves of Germany might have clamoured to accept this as US nuclear weapons on German soil were deeply unpopular, as the protests against US Pershing 2 and Cruise missile deployments in the early 1980s had underscored. NATO and the EU might have collapsed because Germany’s anchorage in the Western camp and total commitment to both key institutions were the cornerstone on which they were constructed. If all the NATO tanks and nuclear weapons had been forced to leave the territory of West Germany, the collective defence posture of the alliance, pushed back along the Atlantic coast, would have been severely constrained, making the subsequent enlargement to Central and Eastern Europe in 1999 and 2004 unthinkable. 

As Soviet power collapsed across Central and Eastern Europe in 1990, it was people power on the streets of Dresden and Prague and not cautious diplomats in Washington, Moscow and Bonn which drove the pace of events

Kohl’s ten point plan was soon forgotten. Within a year of the Chancellor’s Bundestag speech, Germany was united and using the quick method of the East German Lander adhering to the West German Basic Law or constitution of 1949. So there was no negotiation on a new constitution to establish a new German Republic reflecting also the values and social system of communist East Germany. The West German political parties simply set up in the east and Kohl’s CDU won a decisive victory in the first free elections. By limiting the talks on German unification to the two German states plus the four allied victors of World War Two, Kohl also avoided his nightmare: the organisation of a big pan-European peace conference along the lines of the Versailles gathering in 1919 which would make German unification conditional upon the settlement of all the outstanding border and territorial claims resulting from the war. Given that Nazi Germany was at war with 110 countries across the globe in 1945 these contentious negotiations would have dragged on for years, taking the momentum out of the push towards German unification that had been generated by the massive demonstrations in East Berlin, Leipzig and Dresden in 1989. With more time on its side, the Soviet Union would undoubtedly have pushed harder for NATO to be dissolved along with the Warsaw Pact and for no foreign troops, let alone nuclear weapons, to remain in European countries. Moscow would have argued that with the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Central and Eastern Europe there was no military threat that could have justified NATO’s continued existence. It would also have pushed to include in any comprehensive European peace settlement a legally binding guarantee that NATO (had it remained in existence) would not be enlarged beyond the territory of the former East German state. Gorbachev had made this concession to Kohl and US President, George H.W. Bush, during the 2+4 talks on German unification, albeit with the proviso that only the Bundeswehr and no other NATO troops would be stationed east of the Elbe. Soviet officials later claimed that US Secretary of State James Baker had assured them that NATO would not move further eastwards “by a single inch”, although US officials have repeatedly denied that such a guarantee was given. These contradictory assertions have sparked a controversy over NATO enlargement that has bedevilled Russia’s relations with the West ever since and resurfaced in February 2022 when Putin used it to justify his invasion of Ukraine. 

It is useful to recall this history of the end of the Cold War to remind ourselves that the twin enlargements of 2004, turning the EU and NATO into the permanent architecture of the new pan-European security and economic order, might easily not have happened. Gorbachev evoked his vision of a “Common European Home”, although it always remained somewhat vague.

President Mitterrand of France, expressing his doubts that the EU would be able to enlarge to Central and Eastern Europe anytime soon given the economic dereliction of the former communist states, proposed a European Confederation: a political dialogue as a substitute for economic integration and similar to the European Political Community that President Macron has launched in more recent times to embrace the EU candidate countries plus the outliers and neutrals such as the UK, Norway, Iceland and Switzerland. The Russians pushed in particular the Organisation for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) headquartered in Vienna and which was the only European institution embracing all the states from Vancouver to Vladivovstok. The Soviet Union had not much liked the OSCE during the Cold War when it had set standards for the respect of human rights in the Helsinki Final Act of 1975 and periodically publicised the abuses committed by Moscow and its Warsaw Pact allies. But in 1990 the OSCE was given new institutions, such as a Permanent Council and a Forum for Security Cooperation, as well as a stronger role in promoting reductions in military forces and manpower in both western and eastern Europe. 

The progressive demilitarisation of Europe and the withdrawal of American and Canadian forces back across the Atlantic would only increase the leverage of Russia over European affairs given the enormous size of its army and nuclear arsenal. The OSCE could also revive economic cooperation foreseen under Basket 2 of the Helsinki Final Act which would diminish the role of the EU in central and eastern Europe. The OSCE was a traditional type of organisation based on the consensus rule and the primacy of national sovereignty. It was an affair of governments without a European Parliament, an Economic and Social Committee, or a Committee of the Regions giving a voice and role to the trade unions, NGOs and civil society. Expanding from 35 member states in 1990 to nearly 60 following the breakup of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, the structure seemed too unwieldy to function without a steering committee or directoires of the major powers. But that construction suited Moscow perfectly well as it would give Russia a veto over all future security arrangements and a de facto right of interference in the foreign policy choices of the OSCE participating states. 

The EU and NATO, too, were initially hesitant about enlargement. The EU worried about the enormous costs of bringing in states ravaged by 40 years of communist neglect and the diversion of agricultural subsidies and regional funds to poorer countries of the East whose per capita GDP would be far below the EU average for decades ahead. “Absorption capacity” was a term hotly debated in EU circles along with a discussion on how much the EU could and should do to help aspirant countries versus how much the aspirants should do for themselves first by embracing shock therapy and painful economic and institutional reforms. As it emerged from the Cold War, the EU also aspired to turn itself from an economic and trade bloc into a true political union and an actor on the world stage. When Yugoslavia collapsed in 1991 it proclaimed the “Hour of Europe” and profiled itself as the continental crisis manager. An EU on the global stage might carry more heft if it were bigger, but more poorly absorbed and hastily welcomed new members could lead to more internal disputes and less economic dynamism. NATO too, worried about its capacity to take decisions by consensus if too many new allies crowded around the table of the North Atlantic Council. Would the United States agree to expand its nuclear shield across a much greater expanse of NATO territory and would the new members be consumers rather than providers of security? Bringing the eastern Europeans in made sense while Russia was still weak, but if Russia recovered and became a threat once more, the Allies would have a lot more member states and vastly more NATO territory to defend. So the EU and NATO initially offered not membership but partnership, in what the then UK Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, called “a comfortable waiting room” while both institutions were sorting out their strategies towards the newly liberated countries of central and eastern Europe and a humiliated but still powerful and intact Russia. The EU came up with stabilisation and association agreements and later with a European Neighbourhood Policy which subsequently turned into an Eastern Partnership. In 1994, NATO launched its Partnership for Peace, which offered a menu of practical security cooperation activities to the countries of central and eastern Europe as well as Russia and the former Soviet Union. Each partner could tailor its partnership agreement to its particular needs in the field of security sector reform, training and capacity building and bringing armed forces under democratic control. A North Atlantic Cooperation Council, subsequently revamped as a Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council, attempted to bring all the 30 or so partners together for consultations with the Allies, but the lack of a common agenda or work programme and the habit of certain countries like Armenia and Azerbaijan to hijack the Council’s work with their bilateral disputes soon led to a rapid obsolescence of this pan-European forum. Central and Eastern European countries felt that they had more to gain from approaching both Brussels institutions bilaterally rather than working in pan-European structures or regional groupings. Indeed, Article 8 of NATO’s Partnership for Peace agreement allowed partner states to request a bilateral consultation with the alliance if they felt threatened their security. The EU and NATO devised the concept of “interlocking institutions” or “concentric circles” to convey the idea that all European states would be incorporated in the integration process in one way or another, even if it was in the outer circles of security partnerships and trade agreements rather than the inner circle of full EU and NATO membership for the time being. When the “interlocking institutions” diagram was set out on paper, with the regional groups and the various trade arrangements, such as EFTA, Benelux or Black Sea Economic Cooperation added, the result was only slightly less dense and complex than the map of the London Underground. 

But the problem for Russia was that nearly all this dense web grew out of the two key  Western institutions in Brussels rather than out of the OSCE in Vienna or being designed ad hoc. Russia was offered its place in the new arrangements and even agreed a Founding Act with NATO in 1997 in which NATO and Russia proclaimed that they no longer considered each other as adversaries and would work together in a new Permanent Joint Council (after 2002 the NATO-Russia Council), yet another interlocking institution to add to the dense diagram

Yet Russia was not achieving the special status that it craved and had enjoyed at the Big Three conferences in Tehran, Yalta and Potsdam during World War Two, where the initial shape of the European post- war order had been determined. Moscow now had to compete for attention with other countries from central and eastern Europe and react positively or negatively to what Washington and Brussels were proposing. It was the same for all: take it or leave it. You could choose to stay on the outside but not go back to Year Zero and re-design the European order around a concert of great powers as in the 19th century. The Common European Home would be a transatlantic construct driven by the diplomacy of the western powers and on their terms. What happened in 2004 with the two “big bang” enlargements was already determined by the events of 1990. Bush and Kohl worked closely together to ensure that the unified Germany remained in NATO. That  Gorbachev concession was when Russia lost control over the framing of the new order in Europe. Gorbachev was focused on the financial support he urgently needed from Germany and the United States to undergird his programme of perestroika, reduce the Soviet Union’s spiralling debt and prop up his flailing political position at home. All to no avail. There was an attempted coup against Gorbachev in August 1991, and at the end of that year the Soviet Union had itself dissolved with Boris Yeltsin seizing control in Russia. The Warsaw Pact had already been wound up at the insistence of its Eastern European members. At a critical time in determining the new European order, Moscow was distracted by internal turmoil and keen to secure Western political and financial support. Those also worried about the accelerating pace of German unification, like France’s Mitterrand or Britain’s Margaret Thatcher, were left on the sidelines. But Kohl, recognising traditional French anxieties regarding a more populous and powerful German neighbour to its east, performed a great act of statesmanship by pledging German participation in a common European currency, the Euro. This gave substance to his promise that German unification would produce “a European Germany and not a German Europe”. As in Kohl’s decision to exchange one DDR Mark for one Deutsche Mark, which was critical in mobilising East Germans’ support for immediate unification, the decision to give up the sacrosanct Deutsche Mark for an unproven Euro outside the control of the Bundesbank was unpopular with both economists and the general public. But Kohl was focused on the bigger picture and the conviction that he was presented with a unique historical opportunity that would slip away if he did not take risks and act quickly and boldly. He liked to say that German unification was as inevitable as the flowing of the river Rhine (he was a Catholic from the Rhineland); yet his actions suggested the opposite. Kohl saw the opportunity to strengthen the EU and NATO, too, and to move the process of European integration a decisive step forward. The EU Treaty of Maastricht of 1992 soon followed with its economic plans for the Euro via an exchange rate mechanism and the creation of a European Central Bank and its institutional reforms establishing within the EU a new inter-governmental pillar to address Justice and Home Affairs as well as another on foreign policy coordination. EU citizenship was added to the list. Maastricht tested the limits of how much integration some Europeans were willing to take with Denmark rejecting the treaty and France giving a very “petit oui” in referendums. But German unification was the key incentive for the EU to reform, expand its areas of competence and strengthen its institutions. Without this process, the big bang enlargement to ten new members in 2004 would not have been possible, Similarly for NATO. Instead of collapsing absent a Russian threat, NATO was free to invent new missions for itself in projecting security and stability to central and eastern Europe and then intervening militarily in Bosnia and Kosovo. Paradoxically for Russia, a NATO without a Russian threat became over time more of a headache for the Kremlin than the old Cold War alliance – precisely because it was far more attractive and accessible to Moscow’s former satellite states and coming closer to Russia’s own borders. The more the central and eastern European countries believed that they could actually join the EU and NATO (and shape the future of the institutions as equal members ) the more they accepted the hegemony of the EU and NATO. 

So if 2004 completed the unification of Europe it was because of the earlier unification of Germany 14 years previously, which allowed the countries of Central and Eastern Europe to recover their nationhood or, in the case of the former Yugoslavia or Czechia and Slovakia establish their nationhood for the first time

Once they emerged strengthened from the Cold War, the EU and NATO became the reference points for the former communist countries seeking a “return to Europe”. Both institutions had to look beyond their traditional task of looking after their own members only and take on more active roles to fill the security vacuum in central and eastern Europe. At the time back in 2004, deepening institutional integration was often presented as a contradiction to widening that institution. But as with the future EU membership of Ukraine today, the opposite proved true. More integration made both the EU and NATO more powerful and thus attractive, and in the case of the EU the prospect of more widening was a strong incentive to put one’s house in order and to devise structures that would work economically and in terms of political cohesion as well for nearly 30 members as for the original six. When it comes to majority voting in matters of foreign policy,he reform of the Common Agricultural Policy, whether to establish a banking and defence union or increase common financing, the EU is still very much grappling with these issues. But it is doing so precisely because the enlargement to eastern Germany in 1990 and the big bang enlargement of 2004 obliged the EU to reinvent itself as the guarantor of peace and stability for the whole of Europe. Without 2004, the promise to also integrate the Western Balkans, made in Thessaloniki in 2002, would have rung hollow. And there would be no negotiations with Ukraine or Moldova today. 2004 was also significant for the countries that the EU and NATO were taking in. They were not stable and prosperous democracies with a long tradition of independence, like the UK and Denmark in 1973, and Austria, Finland and Sweden in 1995, or at least recovering well from a difficult past as in the case of Ireland, Spain or Greece before they joined the EU. They were countries often with a turbulent and tragic history, living in the shadow of rapacious great power neighbours. History and geography seemed to consign them forever to a twilight zone or to somebody’s sphere of influence. Poland and the Baltic States spring instantly to mind but Slovenia too, bombarded by the Serbian air force just a few years previously, and Croatia was occupied by Serb forces for three years but later joined the EU in 2013. For generations, nobody would have believed that the countries of central and Eastern Europe, let alone the Western Balkans, could have achieved the same level of security and development as Western Europe. It is still, of course, a work in progress but no longer merely a dream. In any case 2004, as with the EU’s more recent decisions to open negotiations or offer candidate status to countries in the region, This means that there is no going back. Somehow, someday, George H.W. Bush’s vision of a “Europe whole and free” will need to be realised. 

Like all anniversaries, the 20th anniversary of 2004 is the occasion for a good deal of soul searching and speculation on what might have been. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has re-opened the debate as to whether the bold post-Cold War enlargements of both NATO and the EU have ignored Russia’s “legitimate security interests” and pushed it into isolation and a justified wish to strike back at the West and restore a security buffer zone along its western borders. Could the invasion of Ukraine and Putin’s increasingly repressive regime at home have been avoided if NATO and the EU had not pushed eastwards after 1990, but had negotiated instead a new pan-European security system which inevitably would have granted Moscow a large sphere of influence in central and eastern Europe, even without Soviet military occupation and communist ideological conformity? Would Europe be at peace today, even if less unified and less prosperous? 

Like all hypothetical scenarios and counterfactuals, it is impossible to say with certainty. So, we have to look at the historical record and the facts to gather the evidence to make a judgment


It is clear that the overwhelming wish of Eastern European countries was to join the EU and NATO and regain their voice as actors of their own destiny. Would it have been morally right to refuse them that choice if they met the criteria to be good Europeans and good Allies willing to share the responsibilities as well as the benefits of membership? Moreover, where is the historical evidence that Russia would have behaved benignly in its Eastern European sphere of influence? Its behaviour in invading the Baltic states in 1940, its carving up of Poland with Nazi Germany in the Molotov-Ribbentrop agreement, and its massacring of thousands of Polish officers at Katyn in 1940 was little short of savage. After 1945, the Soviet Union put its political opponents on show trials or forced thousands into exile. Wherever it controlled a country it set its social, economic and human development back by decades, being more interested in exploitation than partnership. Even when Russia had its sphere of influence in central and eastern Europe, it did not befriend the West or try to relax tensions but instead decried the West as the enemy and rehearsed nuclear war against it. The way in which Russia has subjugated Belarus, divided Georgia, occupied parts of Moldova, abandoned Armenia in Nagorno Karabakh and invaded Ukraine twice does not suggest that refusing to go ahead with the two Big Bang enlargements of 2004 would have been anything short of catastrophic for the millions of eastern Europeans condemned to live in a perpetual grey zone. It would have been an insult to the thousands of brave eastern Europeans who rose up to overthrow communism in 1989 and 1990 and a repudiation of the values that the EU and NATO are based upon. The big bang enlargements of 2004 mean that millions more Europeans have been able to live in peace and freedom and with a better quality of life than would have otherwise been possible – and already for 20 years now. And those enlargements have given hope to millions more in Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia and the Western Balkans that they can also enjoy the same existence. In the case of Ukraine, people have been prepared not just to protest for Europe but to die for it as well. Of course, it would have been exhilarating if the unification of Europe, which began 20 years ago, could have included Russia as well. But it was Russia that chose to remain on the outside, and the enlargements of 2004 are no less an achievement because of that retrograde choice. 


The views expressed in this #CriticalThinking article reflect those of the author(s) and not of Friends of Europe.

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