Why is it important that we differentiate between West, Center and East when we discuss Europe? Because academics, politicians and the general public do so every day. What has to be noted is that the conceptualization of Europe and the differentiation between its parts has changed drastically and it is harder to make out the border-lines than it was before.
During the Cold War, it was easy to delineate. There was the West with the European Communities, dominated by capitalist economies, NATO security arrangements and very much subjected to the USA’s foreign policy. Then there was the East, characterized by the Warsaw Pact, collectively planned economies and the USSR’s dominant, ideologically-driven foreign policy. The border was the infamous Iron Curtain separating the two blocs. Probably the only place where the demarcation was problematic was in Germany, a nation split between the West and the East.
Nowadays, it is harder to label the regions of Europe according to their positions because the old ‘borders’ have washed away. During the 1990’s and into the new century, the states in the East were characterized as “economies in transition” and most can now be regarded as having a truly market-based economy. Most of the ex-Warsaw Pact countries are now members of NATO. They have also been accepted into the European Union, although some are still in the process of accession. Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, the West has worked hard to export its democratic structures and accept the states of Eastern Europe into its international organizations. That has diminished the clear-cut border between West and East, but there is still a divide.
For example, consider the Czech Republic. While it was part of the East, the only ‘external’ border it had was with Austria. Its other borders were with East Germany, Poland and it was one state with Slovakia. Now, it borders Germany and Austria, who are two of the champions of Western integration; it is no longer in union with Slovakia, but their border is also important because of the latter’s acceptance into the Eurozone, creating a major difference between the two. Can we consider the Czechs as Eastern? Not any longer. Now they are part of Central Europe – the new way to refer to those countries which lie in the middle of the continent and are part of the EU.
If the above example presents this new way of conceptualizing Europe geographically, then where does the Eastern border lie now? Unfortunately, that has remained a political characterization, since we now consider Eastern Europe to be Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova. There are difficulties with this divide though, because to a certain geographical extent we have to add Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania and Bulgaria to this category (geographically, Bulgaria is literally in the south-eastern corner of Europe). And yet, the dominance of the political in these concepts has taken care of this differentiation. The first three states just mentioned are labeled ‘the Baltic States’, while the latter two are part of ‘the Balkans’. In that way, there is a fragmentation of the old Eastern Europe into four distinct regions: Central Europe, Eastern Europe, the Baltics and the Balkans. Although these contain references to geographical regions, they are nevertheless political.
Also, empirical observation has proven that when Westerners think of the Balkans, an image comes into their heads of the region spanning from Croatia’s northern border to Macedonia’s southern one. Again, that is a political illusion created to describe the geographical Western Balkans as the countries which have not joined the EU yet. One cannot but stop and wonder which category Croatia will go into when it does join the Union. There is no doubt that the political will again play a bigger role than the geographical.
It seems that academics and politicians are devoting a lot of their time to generalize about the regions of Europe and that brings about small conflicts over terms and categories. If geographical location is important, they should get their facts straight. If they want to continue with the political divides, they should strengthen the image of Europe = EU and extrapolate their concepts from there. Yet, right now we seem to be stuck over labeling the countries of the old Eastern Europe, separating them into blocs or even complaining over labels in the media. This situation is unsustainable.