The East-West Divide in Europe: Does it Exist?
October 22, 2003
Staff-prepared summary of the East European Studies discussion with Elemer Hankiss, Research Director, Institute of Political Science, Hungarian Academy of Science and Wilson Center Public Policy Scholar

Elemer Hankiss answered the question of the title of his presentation immediately with the obvious answer that, yes, there is a divide in Europe between East and West. However, he quickly pointed out the many cross-cutting historical influences that have divided Europe for centuries and wondered if the East-West divide is really that significant. Essentially, are the differences between the eastern and western halves of the continent really more pronounced than the differences created by the regions influenced by early Christianity (primarily the Balkans), feudalism (not Scandinavian countries), the Reformation (primarily the north), the enlightenment (England and France) and those that were not? Beginning with a history of philosophy explanations and moving to socio-economic and cultural issues, Hankiss showed other dividing lines that exist in Europe today, some of which seem to have a greater resonance that the one splitting the postcommunist region from the rest of the continent.

The EU has been fighting against such divisions since its inception, and indeed the whole point was to create an institution that would transcend historical enmities and cultural differences. Likewise, Hankiss asserted that there are strong cohesive forces in Europe today, stemming from the fact that all the nations of Europe are confronting a growing list of common problems. These problems range from terrorism to environmental pollution to social inequality and he contends that only together can Europe adequately prepare to shape the future in a positive way.

Concerted action in Europe between East and West is possible because there is no culture clash between these two regions. Hankiss cited many years of work on the World Values Survey to underline the conclusion that there is an unexpected degree of unity throughout Europe on life-style, images/brands, consumer goods, technology, sports, visions of the world and other cultural indicators. The real culture clash is being experienced across the entire continent and, in fact, throughout the world. This is the clash between traditional Western and contemporary consumer civilizations. Consider, for example, that for the most part the seven deadly sins, such as pride and avarice, are now valued. We are no longer reprimanded for being undisciplined or immodest, but are now encouraged to be free, successful and to enjoy ourselves. New value systems are now competing with the virtue peddled by traditional religions, and this clash, rather than geographic divergence, informs the daily lives of people living in Europe and beyond.

Today in Europe, the people living there and the continent as a whole are reinventing themselves. EU enlargement will bring a number of East European countries into the West, creating a new dividing line farther east. Hankiss asserts that by working to solve common problems Europe will be able to overcome traditional regional differences. Hankiss prescribes that each country in Europe needs to find a new role for itself; to make real decisions about what the nation's goals will be and to try to accomplish them. Leaders must concentrate on areas in which their nation excels and in which it has a unique position. This process will require a hard look at the myths that are currently nurtured and work on replacing them with clear-headed steps to take advantage of the opportunities that exist. Thus, Hankiss presented a unique vision of Europe today, in which successful integration will take full advantage of regional differences in an effort to bring various assets together to resolve the continent's common problems.