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The Lost Promise of 1989

As is often the case, deep historical shifts tend to show up first in popular culture, and only then in formal politics. That is why we should look at the complex legacy of 1989 not only in the formal celebrations being held in Berlin, but also in the stands of a soccer stadium in Sofia.

BERLIN – After the collapse of communism in Europe in 1989, many dreamed of building a united and free continent with the European Union at its core. But 30 years later, Europeans have awoken to a new reality. In Western Europe, political leaders are vetoing further enlargement of the bloc out of fear that Eastern Europeans are not ready to embrace liberal values. And in Central and Eastern Europe, there is growing resentment toward Western Europe over its response to immigration and other issues.

These dynamics were on full display this month in the qualifying rounds for the Euro 2020 soccer tournament, where a match between England and Bulgaria became a contest between two fundamentally different notions of European identity. The match, held in Sofia, had to be paused twice for the home-team fans to be warned against racist behavior, including Nazi salutes and monkey chants directed toward England’s black players.

After the game, British elite opinion was united in a fever of moral righteousness against the perceived barbarity of the Bulgarian fans. With multiculturalism having become a central part of the British national story over the last 30 years, many ethnic minorities worry that continental Europe’s perceived racism is a throwback to an ugly era of inequality and exclusion.

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