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After the Berlin Wall: Europe’s Struggle to Overcome Its Divisions

Europe has seen deeper integration in the three-plus decades since the end of the Cold War, but has also struggled with new threats to its institutions, security, and core values.

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The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 laid the groundwork for new institutions, new states, and, in some cases, new conflicts. In the more than three decades since Germany’s reunification and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the European Union (EU) has taken shape but suffered growing pains along the way. A look back at the postcommunist years recalls the swift expansion of the EU and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and the mounting challenge Russia posed in response to both. The continent has had to grapple with economic crises, migration pressures, and rising nationalism, as well as the ongoing repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic. Transatlantic relations have also become a source of strain, with the core tenets of U.S.-EU ties coming into question amid new divisions over tax, energy, and defense policy.

A man celebrates on the Berlin wall on November 12, 1989 in Berlin, Germany.
Germans celebrate the destruction of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

Europe Redraws Its Borders

Following its construction in 1961, the Berlin Wall became the starkest symbol of the Cold War’s division of the democratic West from the communist East. Its fall on November 9, 1989, paved the way for the reunification of Germany on October 3, 1990, and the liberation of Central and Eastern European countries previously bound under the Warsaw Pact defense alliance with the Soviet Union.

In December 1991, the Soviet Union dissolved into fifteen independent republics, of which the Russian Federation was the largest. On January 1, 1993, Czechoslovakia split into two separate countries, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, in a “Velvet Divorce” [PDF]. The breakup of Yugoslavia in 1991 wrought a decade of war that devolved into ethnic cleansing and genocide. Eventually, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia (formerly Macedonia), Serbia, and Slovenia would all become independent states.

President Boris Yeltsin waves to the crowd August 20, 1991 Moscow.
Russian President Boris Yeltsin addresses a Moscow crowd in 1991. Michael Samojeden/Reuters

Russia Experiments With Capitalism and Democracy

With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the newly constituted Russian Federation got its first democratically elected president in Boris Yeltsin, who immediately set out to implement market-oriented reforms: lifting trade barriers, giving up price controls, and withdrawing state subsidies. This form of shock therapy sparked a period of sharp inflation that decimated the savings of millions of ordinary Russians and sent poverty rates soaring.

Despite his deep unpopularity, Yeltsin won a second term as president in a 1996 election tainted by irregularities. The emerging class of oligarchs supported Yeltsin’s reelection bid in exchange for a controlling stake in many of the country’s biggest mineral and oil companies. In 1998, Russia defaulted on its sovereign debt [PDF] and its economy crashed. This, combined with a rise in corruption, organized crime, and income inequality, was a major setback for Russian democracy and set the stage for the 1999 emergence of Vladimir Putin. First elected president in 2000, he would go on to dominate the country’s politics for decades.

A girl attends a concert, surrounded by European Union flags
A crowd in Brussels celebrates the anniversary of the founding of the European Union. Francois Lenoir/Reuters

The European Union Is Born

The fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union accelerated the push for deeper European integration, a project that had begun in earnest in the wake of World War II, with the founding of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951 and the European Economic Community in 1958. The EU was formally established by the 1992 Maastricht Treaty. Maastricht established a framework for a common currency and a common defense and security policy; the 2007 Lisbon Treaty created the EU’s current structure.

Under these treaties, the twenty-seven member states agreed to pool their sovereignty and delegate many decision-making powers to the EU. Among other changes, this allowed for the creation of a passport-free zone, known as the Schengen Area. The free movement of people is one of the bloc’s “four freedoms,” along with that of goods, services, and capital.

Two Bosnian boys salute a Canadian blue helmets convoy
UN peacekeeping forces arrive in Tuzla, Bosnia in April 1993. Pascal Guyot/AFP/Getty Images

Redefining Sovereignty

The unraveling of Yugoslavia in the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union resulted in a decade of conflict that prompted a reevaluation of national sovereignty and the responsibility of outside powers to stop atrocities. The 1995 massacre of more than eight thousand Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica prompted NATO air strikes against the Bosnian Serb forces responsible, paving the way for the Dayton Agreement, which ended the Bosnian war. NATO also intervened against Serbian forces in Kosovo in 1999 to protect ethnic Albanian Kosovars.

Proponents of these interventions argued that acting in the former Yugoslavia—at times without UN authorization, as UN Security Council members China and Russia opposed the Kosovo campaign—was justified by the need to put human rights above state sovereignty. In 2005, UN member states unanimously adopted the principle of the “responsibility to protect,” which established the basis for international action to stop genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity. Since then, however, controversial international interventions in places such as Libya have called the doctrine into question.

General view of the European Parliament in Strasbourg May 3, 2004 during the first session of the parliament with the representatives of the 10 new European Union member states countries.
The European Parliament sits for its first session with the representatives of ten new member states after the bloc’s 2004 enlargement. Jean-Marc Loos/Reuters

'Europe Whole and Free'

The reunification of Germany paved the way for former Eastern Bloc countries to join the EU. Between 2004 and 2007, EU membership jumped from fifteen countries to twenty-seven, with the addition of Central European nations including the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia, as well as the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Many policymakers hoped this would fulfill a vision of a united Europe, “whole and free,” as first articulated in 1989 by U.S. President George H.W. Bush.

But enlargement has since slowed as the bloc has struggled with economic crises, migration pressures, and rising nationalism. Croatia has been the only new admission since 2007, joining in 2013. Turkey’s candidacy, already contentious due to concerns over the country’s size, its human rights record, and the stability of its economy, has come to a halt amid President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s growing authoritarianism. Further expansion efforts, largely focused on the Balkans, have stalled over France and Bulgaria’s opposition to applications from Albania and North Macedonia; in 2021, EU states reaffirmed their commitment to eventually welcoming six new Balkan members, but the timeline remains unclear.

Leader of the PiS party Jaroslaw Kaczynski speaks in Chelm at the final convention of Polish parliamentary elections campaign
Jaroslaw Kaczynski, leader of Poland’s governing Law and Justice party, campaigns during 2019 parliamentary elections. JP Black/LightRocket/Getty Images

Europe’s East-West Divide

Germany’s post-reunification decision to return its capital from Bonn to Berlin, in what was East Germany, presaged the EU’s eastward enlargement. The bloc’s expanding borders have gradually moved Germany from Europe’s frontier to its center, and heightened the importance of Central and Eastern European countries within EU institutions.

In particular, Poland’s increasingly vocal role in the EU sparked hopes of deeper East-West cooperation, with former Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk serving as European Council president from 2014 to 2019. But the conservative populist vision of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party, in power since 2015, has led to confrontation with Brussels. Warsaw, along with the right-wing government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Hungary, has continued to clash with the rest of the bloc over migration policy, judicial reforms, relations with Russia, and European integration efforts. These tensions escalated in 2021, after Poland’s government and its highest court rejected the primacy of EU law over the national constitution, leading Brussels to withhold tens of billions of dollars in pandemic relief aid and other EU funds from Poland.

German chancellor Helmut Kohl waves to a crowd holding German flags during an election campaign
German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who oversaw the reunification of the country, greets East Germans 1990. Heinz Wieseler/picture alliance/Getty Images

Germany Rising

Anxiety about Germany’s role in Europe resurfaced after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Despite the optimism of the time, some Western leaders opposed German reunification, fearing it would once again make Germany a dominant power. Indeed, slow growth driven by the costs of reunification was soon countered by extensive labor market reforms and a manufacturing boom that made Germany the undisputed economic powerhouse of the continent. Many analysts have seen the creation of the EU in large part as an effort to constrain German influence, by tethering the country’s economic strength to a common currency and a supranational alliance.

That dominance has increased German leadership in European affairs but also led to new tensions. Under Chancellor Angela Merkel, in office from 2005 to 2021, Germany drew the ire of many crisis-stricken states by insisting on strict austerity policies and structural reforms as a condition for EU bailouts. In 2015, Merkel upended European politics by allowing more than one million refugees from Africa and the Middle East to enter Germany, sparking a debate over migration policy that continues to rage.

A Polish soldier stands near U.S. and Poland's national flags and a NATO flag
A Polish soldier at joint NATO training exercises with U.S. troops in 2014. Kacper Pempel/Reuters

NATO’s Uncertain Future

The collapse of communism raised existential questions for NATO, founded in 1949 to protect Europe from Soviet invasion. Despite protest from Russia and reluctance from some Western European countries, the United States championed post–Cold War NATO enlargement as a way to cement democratic gains in Eastern Europe. NATO’s membership soon grew from sixteen countries to twenty-nine, incorporating former Soviet satellite states such as Bulgaria and Poland, as well as three former Soviet states, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

At the same time, NATO’s mission evolved to include proactive “out-of-area” operations. The alliance intervened in conflicts in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo in the 1990s, Afghanistan beginning in 2001, and Libya in 2011.

Map showing Nato's expanding membership.

Since 2014, Russian expansionism has led NATO leaders to focus on increasing military readiness on the alliance’s eastern borders. At the same time, Washington has stepped up criticism that Europe does not spend enough on its own defense, and U.S. President Donald Trump entered office vowing to improve NATO burden sharing. He took NATO countries to task—especially Germany—and reportedly contemplated withdrawing from the alliance altogether. President Joe Biden has pledged to recommit the United States to NATO, but his 2021 withdrawal from Afghanistan unsettled many European allies and led top EU officials to argue that plans for an independent EU army should be accelerated.

Russian soldiers place a Russian flag atop their tank in the South Ossetian town of Tskhinvali
Russian soldiers raise their flag in South Ossetia, a breakaway territory of Georgia supported by Moscow, in 2008. Andrei Smirnov/AFP/Getty Images

Russia’s Challenge and Conflict With Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has served as either president or prime minister since 1999, has centralized executive power, undermined the free press, and undone many of the democratic reforms of the 1990s. He has also set Russia on a collision course with Western countries, seeking to revive Moscow’s sphere of influence in Europe, Central Asia, and the Middle East.

Russian policymakers have expressed alarm at NATO and EU enlargement efforts, and Putin has cited these grievances to justify his interventions abroad, including the 2008 invasion of neighboring Georgia, which was seeking NATO membership. In 2014, Russia intervened in Ukraine in response to a new pro-West government, annexing Crimea and backing separatist militias in the eastern region of Donbas. Since then, Putin has also stepped up efforts to expand Russian influence further abroad, sending troops to back the government of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, seeking new energy relationships in Europe, and interfering in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the referendum in the United Kingdom (UK) on EU membership. Europe and the United States have responded with sanctions and other moves to isolate Russia and bolster Ukraine’s defense, but how much to push Russia remains a divisive issue. Biden, for instance, has pressed Germany over its nearly completed Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline with Russia, while other EU countries are split over whether to pursue closer diplomatic ties with Russia.

Some 1,000 members of the ultra-nationalist Golden Dawn party demonstrate on March 22, 2013 outside the German Embassy in Athens against the EU austerity plans for Cyprus
Protesters in Athens demonstrate against Germany-backed austerity measures. Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images

Europe’s Unfinished Currency

The EU’s founders sought to promote peace and prosperity through an ever-closer union. The culmination of this vision was to be the euro, a common currency at the heart of a monetary union that bound member states together through shared economic policy. Created by the Maastricht Treaty, the euro entered into full circulation in 2002. Nineteen of the EU’s twenty-seven member states use it, and the rest are legally required to eventually adopt it. (Denmark is an exception, as was the United Kingdom before it left the EU.) The eurozone’s monetary policy is managed by the Frankfurt-based European Central Bank (ECB), while national governments remain responsible for their own fiscal policies, within agreed EU budgetary limits.

The shortcomings of this arrangement became clear in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis. Many peripheral EU countries, such as Greece, Ireland, and Portugal, had run up unsustainable government debt and soon found themselves unable to borrow from international markets, forcing them to turn to the ECB, the International Monetary Fund, and other European governments for emergency support. Despite bailouts and painful economic reforms, many countries still grapple with low growth, high unemployment, and towering debt, dynamics exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis.

Refugees and Migrants aboard fishing boat drived by smugglers reach the Greek Island coast of Lesbos
Syrian and Afghan refugees reach the Greek coast after traveling by boat from Turkey in 2015. Antonio Masiello/NurPhoto/Getty Images

Migration Pressures

Europe has long struggled with how to integrate its Muslim residents, many of whom arrived from former colonies, in the case of North Africans, or as guest workers, in the case of Turkish immigrants in Germany. Some experts have warned of the emergence of “parallel societies,” while others have argued that more immigrants are needed to support Europe’s rapidly aging population.

Since 2015, the issue has become more urgent as Europe has seen a surge of migration from the Middle East and Africa. Millions of migrants have risked dangerous journeys overland or across the Mediterranean Sea to flee war and poverty. The lack of a united response to the crisis has exacerbated tensions in the bloc, between countries such as Greece and Italy that receive the bulk of arrivals, and those, such as Hungary and Poland, that refuse to take in more migrants. EU countries have pursued controversial measures to curb the influx, including a 2017 deal to return migrants to Libya and a 2016 agreement with Turkey to keep Syrian refugees there.

Anti-Brexit protesters demonstrate outside the Houses of Parliament in London
Anti-Brexit protesters demonstrate outside Parliament in September 2019. Henry Nicholls/Reuters

Brexit and the Rise of Nationalism

The EU’s founding vision of unity, regional integration, and cross-border cooperation has been under increasing pressure from Euroskeptic political forces. A decade of low growth, which many argue had its roots in EU-imposed austerity, led to disillusion with the bloc, as did the lack of a coordinated response to the continent’s migration crisis.

Populist parties have strengthened significantly in many EU member states, especially Italy and France. Nationalist conservatives such as Hungary’s Orban champion “illiberal democracy,” which they say allows the government to defend national sovereignty and identity, but which critics say undermines free elections, erodes the independent press and judiciary, and weakens civil society. In Germany, the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD) became the first far-right party to win seats in parliament since World War II, largely on the strength of its support in former East Germany.

These trends have taken perhaps their most dramatic form in the UK, where a long-standing ambivalence toward European integration combined with rising anxiety over immigration and terrorism resulted in the country’s 2016 vote to leave the EU. The UK’s 2020 departure avoided the worst of the disruptions many experts feared. Major complications remain, however, most notably in Northern Ireland, where an agreement on new border checks sparked street violence and fears of renewed sectarian conflict.

Tens of thousands of Belarusian opposition supporters gather in Minsk in August 2020 after President Alexander Lukashenko’s disputed reelection.
Tens of thousands of Belarusian opposition supporters gather in Minsk in August 2020 after President Alexander Lukashenko’s disputed reelection. Sergei Gapon/AFP/Getty Images

Belarus Goes Rogue

Since declaring independence in 1991, Belarus, a former Soviet state that borders Poland, has made overtures toward increasing ties with the EU while maintaining close links with Russia. Ruled by Alexander Lukashenko since 1994, Belarus has increasingly collaborated with Russian policy goals, including through the 1999 establishment of a “union state” with Russia that involves economic integration and defense cooperation. In the wake of Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine, however, Lukashenko criticized Putin and sought to develop warmer relations with the EU.

But after Belarus’s fraudulent 2020 election and subsequent crackdown on human rights, the EU imposed sanctions and refused to recognize Lukashenko. Relations worsened further in 2021. In May, Lukashenko’s government forced a European airliner crossing Belarusian territory to land so that a prominent dissident journalist passenger could be arrested. Later in the year, Minsk began facilitating the travel of thousands of Middle Eastern migrants to Belarus, with the promise of passage to Western Europe. Many migrants gathered at Belarus’s border with Poland, where at least a dozen died as temperatures dropped. Brussels backed Warsaw’s refusal to accept the migrants and applied further sanctions on Lukashenko’s government for intentionally fomenting the crisis. Analysts say the Belarusian leader has now embraced Moscow more fully than ever.

Italian demonstrators wave a tattered American flag in protest of a visit by U.S. President George W. Bush to Rome in 2007.
Italian demonstrators wave a tattered American flag in protest of a visit by U.S. President George W. Bush to Rome in 2007. Tony Gentile/Reuters

Transatlantic Drift

The post–Cold War relationship between the United States and Europe has seen highs and lows. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the continent responded with solidarity: NATO invoked its collective self-defense clause, Article 5, for the first time, and European allies backed the U.S. war in Afghanistan. But the United States’ subsequent invasion of Iraq in 2003, which European powers including Germany and France saw as illegitimate, strained relations nearly to a breaking point.

Relations improved under U.S. President Barack Obama, but tensions persisted over chronic underfunding of NATO and revelations that the U.S. National Security Agency spied on European citizens. At the same time, Obama worked closely with European allies on the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran, the Paris Agreement on climate, and an ambitious U.S.-EU trade agreement, as yet incomplete, known as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).

Trump took a confrontational approach: in addition to castigating NATO allies, he sought warmer relations with Putin, raised tariffs on European partners, and all but ended hopes for TTIP. Biden has promised renewed commitment to transatlantic relations, though a rift with European allies over a failure to consult them on the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and a canceled submarine deal threw an early wrench into those plans. Other tensions also remain, including over differing views on Russian energy supplies, Chinese investment in critical industries, and regulation and taxation of large tech firms.