A Tale of Two Unions: The Dissimilar Fates of the EU and USSR

Introduction

Are the USSR and the EU really so different? Well, there are many striking similarities between the two unions which might cause one to think that, in the face of contemporary disintegrative pressures, the latter is likely to suffer the former’s sudden, dramatic fate. For instance, both unions were founded on transformative political-economic models which attempted to address the chaos of previous eras. Similarly, both unions feature/d long-established “core” member states and less integrated “periphery” states which were added later. Moreover, both unions face/d periods of intense crisis which expose/d them to serious and, in one case, even catastrophic disintegrative pressures.

The USSR and the EU are most certainly not perfect parallels, however, and this paper makes the case that, just because there appear to be many compatibilities between the two, the rapid demise of the former does not portend a sudden disintegration of the latter. This research utilizes primary and secondary sources and distills them into a brief comparative analysis of the major features of both unions, especially in regards to their respective pressures of disintegration. The objective is to show that, although it will never be in perfect harmony with itself, the EU is unlikely to face the sudden, dramatic disintegration seen with the USSR. As space is extremely limited, the following comparative analysis seeks neither to exhaust all of the pressures of disintegration present in each case, nor to overemphasize the minutiae of those which are presented.

Chapter 1. The Weberian Distinction

One of the many disintegrative pressures that faced the USSR came in the form of mass protests, mostly in its Central and Eastern European satellite states. Examples of such were the Hungarian Revolution in ’56, the Prague Spring in ’68 and the Solidarity movement in Poland in ’80. The first two were quelled by Warsaw Pact invasions, while the third was quelled by a domestic military takeover so as to avoid another Warsaw Pact invasion (Curry, 2011, p. 171). By the time Gorbachev came to power, however, the iron will to enforce the Brezhnev Doctrine’s big-stick bulwark against autonomy, independence and “small nation narrow-mindedness” had withered (PRIA, 1968). This softening under Gorbachev only increased the boldness of nascent opposition forces behind the Iron Curtain, and by 1989, the barbed wire separating Hungary from Austria had been symbolically cut (Argentieri, 2011, p. 225-6).

Contrarily, the EU has neither a muscular military doctrine for keeping states in the union, nor a solid institutional arrangement for states which choose to withdraw, as is apparent with the ongoing “Brexit” crisis. Even for states which behave “badly” by EU standards, there are insufficient legal and institutional means for enforcing discipline (Offe, 2015, p. 22). One of the great distinctions between the USSR and the EU, therefore, is the latter’s lack of an executive with firm coercive powers which can act autonomously both internally and externally (Borocz and Sarkar, 2005, p. 155). Interestingly, although the EU lacks the Weberian state’s monopoly over the legitimate use of force within its territory, it has not seen a bevy of critical mutinies over the course of its lifespan as the USSR had. Obviously, this means that the incentives for states to remain in the EU are different from those that kept the USSR and its satellites together. Chapter two explores a few major incentives which create/d push-pull factors for states to either remain in or leave these unions.

Chapter 2. Push-Pull Incentives

As was shown in the first chapter, the strongest incentive for states to remain associated with the USSR was the credible threat of invasion and further loss of sovereignty. Though the USSR incentivized cohesion through force, this did not mean that the satellite states of Central and Eastern Europe had no autonomy. The communist regimes in countries such as Poland and Hungary, for example, were quite moderate in their agricultural and economic spheres, and in the 60s and 70s they began to take on loans from the West (Curry, 2011, p. 170) (Argentieri, 2011, p. 225). This began a long process of establishing credit linkages with the West, and these linkages created dual dependencies for the states of Central and Eastern Europe (Borocz and Sarkar, 2005, p. 160). The point here is that these states had an alternative “metropole” to look to besides the USSR, and this greatly increased disintegrative pressures when those economies stagnated in the 70s and 80s.

The states of Europe today, by contrast, have no such significant alternative “metropole” that can entice them like the EU can. The UK is somewhat of an outlier in this regard, as “Brexit” has shown, however, if the UK does in fact leave the EU, it will have no choice but to renegotiate new terms for continuing its considerable amount of trade with the EU (Sippitt, 2017). This is not to say that states join and remain in the EU simply for lack of alternatives: the EU is an extremely prosperous trading bloc whose GDP is comparable to that of the US, and this makes economic linkages with it worth maintaining and strengthening. Even when states like Greece engage in creative accounting and profligate behavior, the Euro Crisis has shown that stability is prioritized over discipline. The “surplus” states of the EU’s core (especially Germany), whose export-based economies benefit from having peripheral “deficit” states in the Euro club, will do everything necessary to keep the common currency intact by avoiding the default of any member state (Offe, 2015, p. 16), and this dependency helps keep disintegration at bay.

Chapter 3. Life after Death

In the USSR, the eras of stagnation and then reform in the 70s and 80s brought on a considerable crisis of legitimacy for the communist incumbents throughout the union and its satellite states. As a result, when the USSR began to disintegrate in the late 80s, the incumbents in numerous Soviet and satellite states, from the Baltic States (Eglitis, 2011, p. 243) to Hungary (Argentieri, 2011, p. 227), rapidly either lost legitimacy or transitioned into post-communist parties which participated in the newly democratizing political systems. The ex-communists of the Baltic and Visegrad States—with the exception of Slovakia’s (Wolchick, 2011, p. 194)—did not significantly hinder reforms, and this helped ease those countries’ post-communist transitions. Today, little of the prior communist regimes is identifiable, and any vestiges of linkages to the USSR are gone. This shows that within a generation, the disintegration of the USSR has not only killed the union, but also its most basic skeletal linkages to those countries which are now part of the EU.

The EU faces a similar crisis of legitimacy today from its “democratic deficit” (Lord, 2008) (Walters and Haarh, 2005, p. 87), an issue which requires reforms that either increase institutional legitimacy or weaken those institutions’ power over states. Still, if the anti-establishment surge across the EU today provoked a tidal wave of “-exits,” would the EU go the way of the USSR and have virtually all linkages to its former member states extirpated? In short, no. The EU is something to which states overwhelmingly opt-in, and even states which opt-out, such as the UK, will almost certainly have to negotiate a long, painful reestablishment of some crucial linkages to the EU or else face a life outside the EU that is “more ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’ than it already was before” (Susen, 2017, p. 178). The EU is unlikely to let “Brexit” be an easy process, thereby setting an example for potential “-exiters” of the difficulties that await them should they choose to leave. Ultimately, the EU will likely continue on at one level or another, “-exits” or no “-exits.”

Conclusion

This brief research paper has attempted to highlight some of the interesting parallels between the respective disintegrative pressures faced by the USSR and the EU. It also sought to differentiate the two unions in important ways, the most crucial of which is that the USSR’s sudden, dramatic collapse is unlikely to be repeated in the case of the EU. This is in part because the EU does not retain its member states through the use or threat of force, but rather through extending highly economically beneficial linkages with few disciplinary measures attached. Such a carrot-based arrangement makes the EU far less of an odious threat to national sovereignty than the USSR was, especially when one considers that no state has ever been forced to join the EU.

Furthermore, without a similarly prosperous alternative “metropole” to develop dual loyalties to, most states of the EU will not be wooed out of the union in times of great crisis. In addition to this, prosperous countries such as Germany with highly export-driven economies depend heavily on and benefit greatly from maintaining a common currency, and will therefore go to extreme lengths to keep profligate peripheral states like Greece from defaulting (German rhetoric to the contrary notwithstanding). Moreover, even if the EU were to collapse today after an insurmountable wave of anti-establishment “-exits” brought on by the union’s “democratic deficit,” it would almost certainly continue on in some basic skeletal form, such as a common market. Ultimately, the EU is certainly not doomed to repeat the USSR’s fate. 

Bibliography

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Eglitis, D. S., 2011. The Baltic States: Changes and Challenges in the New Europe. In: S. L. Wolchick and J. L. Curry, (eds.). Central & East European Politics: From Communism to Democracy. Plymouth: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

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Sippitt, A., 2017. Everything you might want to know about the UK’s trade with the EU. [online] Available at: <https://fullfact.org/europe/uk-eu-trade/&gt; [Accessed 3 June 2017].

Susen, S., 2017. No Exit from Brexit?. In William Outhwaite (ed.). Brexit: Sociological Responses. London: Anthem Press.

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Wolchik, S. L., 2011. The Czech and Slovak Republics: Two Paths to the Same Destination. In: S. L. Wolchick and J. L. Curry, (eds.). Central & East European Politics: From Communism to Democracy. Plymouth: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

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