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25 years of democratic change in Central and Eastern Europe: The European Parliament and the end of the Cold War

Written by Iolanda Mombelli

A roundtable discussion was organised on 3 February 2015 in the Library Reading Room, with the participation of distinguished guests Valdis Dombrovskis, Vice-President of the European Commission and former Prime Minister of Latvia from 2009 to 2014, Enrique Barón Crespo, President of the European Parliament from 1989 to 1992, Hans-Gert Pöttering, President of the European Parliament from 2007 to 2009, Marju Lauristin, Estonian Member, to recall the events of 1989. Also present was Aline Sierp, Professor at Maastricht University, who authored the study ’25 years of Democratic change in Central and Eastern Europe: The European Parliament and the end of the Cold War’ published by the European Parliamentary Research Service.

Anthony Teasdale, Director General of the EPRS, welcomed the public and briefly underlined the importance of the role played by the EP in the process of democratisation in Central and Eastern Europe. In opening the debate, Vice-President Ioan Mircea Paşcu, responsible for the Members’ Research Service and the Library, stated that this kind of event is aimed at providing a contribution to the discussion and development of ideas inside the EP.

In her presentation, Dr Aline Sierp drew attention to the large number of documents (more than 820) she had analysed for her study, all of them preserved in the EP Historical Archives in Luxembourg and in the EU Historical Archives in Florence. The aim of the study was to trace the positions of the EP during the events which took place in and around 1989, and the advent of the post-communist period and Eastern enlargement. She stressed that the EP was an important actor, presenting itself as the legitimate and democratic voice of Europeans and a guardian of human rights.

Valdis Dombrovskis focused on the fact that, although democratic transition in Central and Eastern Europe did not cause much divergence of opinion and was generally welcomed, discussions were much more controversial on such issues as German unification and independence of the Baltic States. It is important not to forget what happened, he noted, and in this context the EP continues to have an important role.

Former EP President Enrique Barón Crespo underlined how important the events were for the future evolution of Europe. Concerning the fall of the Berlin wall, Mr Barón Crespo had been surprised at the speed of events. In November 1989, immediately after the fall of the wall, he invited Helmut Kohl, Chancellor of West Germany, and François Mitterrand, President-in-office of the European Council, to the European Parliament. The debate in plenary in presence of the two Heads of State was a major debate, not only in the history of the EP, but also in the history of the European project. Some might still be of the opinion that Eastern enlargement was a mistake, but in the light of past events, according to President Barón Crespo, it was the right thing to do for European progress.

Former EP President Hans-Gert Pöttering underlined that if in 1979, when he was first elected to the European Parliament, someone had told him that in 2015 a discussion would take place at the EP with a German, a Spaniard, a Latvian and an Estonian sitting at the same table, he would have thought it was a dream; a vision! This miracle happened because in the Baltic countries and in all the other countries of Eastern and Central Europe people believed in freedom and democracy and fought for them. According to him, it is a great historic success that Europe is based on legal order: we solve problems through dialogue and in conformity with the law.

The debate continued with the intervention of MEP Marju Lauristin, who said that while reading the study she immediately thought about the current debate in the EP on Ukraine. The Baltic States were in the same situation 25 years ago, as Ukraine is today, and she asked herself why Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and all the Eastern countries succeeded. In her view, there was a popular front in the Baltic States and a common goal and debate about the best way to reach it. She then commented on the picture of the cover page of the study, illustrating the human chain which took place on 23 August 1989 across the three Baltic countries. This chain was a peaceful political demonstration to signal that the Baltic people wanted their freedom back, joining their hands to show that they were not armed. They were protected only by their courage, to demonstrate that the three countries were able both to organise themselves and rely on their own resources. And this, she felt, was the lesson to learn for today.

For further information you can read the study or contact the Historical Archives at

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