Gorbachev’s common European home: a hollow dream?

, by Vera Calabrese

Gorbachev's common European home: a hollow dream?
Gorbachev speaking at the Council of Europe in 1989. © Council of Europe - https://70.coe.int/1989-gorbachev-s-message-to-europe-en.html

It is a gloomy and symbolic coincidence that former Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev passed away during this devastating and reckless war in Ukraine. In the West, Gorbachev will be remembered for his liberal transition and two Russian catchwords - perestroika, (restructuring) and glasnost (openness). Contrastingly, the Russians will mostly remember this prominent historical figure as incompetent and the cause of the demise of the USSR.

A Euronews article [1] bitterly remarked that “he died a disillusioned man” and that his “dream of liberal, European Russia failed.” In other words, the romantic idea of the former URSS leader - the common European home - faded. Flocks of scholars have criticized this concept for lacking substance or the former USSR leader for being all talk, no action. Gorbachev himself did not claim to carry a finished blueprint in his pocket. But what was this common European home? And is it entirely out of the question under the present circumstances?

Gorbachev’s 1989 speech at the Council of Europe: an introduction to a pan-European dream

The metaphor of common European home came to notoriety in 1989, during the last General Secretary of the USSR Communist Party speech to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe [2]. Gorbachev opened his speech quoting a worth-mentioning phrase by Victor Hugo:

“The day would come when you, France, you, Russia, you, Italy, you, England, you Germany — all of you, all the nations of the continent — will, without losing your distinguishing features and your splendid distinctiveness, merge inseparably into some high society and form a European brotherhood.”

Overall, the common European was intended as a building with several rooms without a center of power and made of heterogeneity its strength. To remain in the architectural metaphor, some scholars asserted that this home should have been built upon four levels [3].

The foundation was the 1975 Helsinki principles - respect for international law, human rights, and equality of states. The first floor of the building was collective security and disarmament, which consisted of the gradual and balanced reduction of the two blocks’ armaments with the disappearance of nuclear and chemical weapons. In this aspect, Gorbachev also emphasized the importance of an ecologically clean European home and mentioned the need for a regional ecological security system and a United Nations Center of environmental assistance.

The second level of the building was the peaceful resolution of conflicts. Then, the economic and trade cooperation floor implied the emergence of a vast free trading area from the Atlantic to the Urals. Finally, the last and top level was a European cultural community, a process of getting the Europeans to know each other through culture.

The concept of a common European home is certainly vague and inevitably connected to the 1989 bipolar system and Gorbachev’s attempt to bridge differences. Yet, it expressed a plea for an integrated, united, and peaceful European continent that stretched from Lisbon to Vladivostok – an idea that is never to be taken for granted, especially from a Soviet perspective.

The common European home: why this building has never been built

Nowadays, historical circumstances have changed drastically, and the Common European home, even if it influenced the Russian foreign policy for years, has never been constructed. Rather than sharing values with Western Europe, Putin’s Russia claims to embody the original and traditionalist Russian orthodox values of family and religion as opposed to the supposedly corrupt European liberalism. Moreover, Russia shifted its attention to central Asia, investing in the Eurasian integration project [4]. Therefore, the Common European home gave way to what has been defined as “negative competition” [5] between Russia and the EU. This competition became evident with Putin’s Munich speech in 2007, degenerating into conflict in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea, and, ultimately, in February 2022 with the Ukrainian conflict.

A legitimate but perhaps naive question is, how did we get to this toxic competition instead of building a common European home? It was pleasant to hear the EU High Representative Joseph Borrell [6] assuring that historians and others will continue to debate how the European community handled the post-Cold War period, including what the West could have done differently. This self-criticism is not surely the only solution, which is bilateral, but it could be one brick for the common European home and a way to avoid repeating the same errors. This short article is far from a comprehensive analysis and can only give some glimmers to understand these articulate vicissitudes marked with misunderstandings and mistakes on both sides.

The ruinous Russian Nineties

In the nineties, the post-soviet Russian economy was literally in shreds to the point that Russian employees did not even receive their salaries. Regarding the regeneration of the post-soviet economy, Erik Holm [7] suggests an interesting comparison with post-World War Two Germany and emphasizes how in that case, the Western bloc virtuously managed to undertake a political regeneration of the country, avoiding a Treaty of Versailles II scenario. On the contrary, the author asserts that, in the nineties, the West was impotent or unwilling to take steps with the regeneration of the economy of the Cold War’s “beaten enemies”.

During the same decade, which received the funny label of “honeymoon” between Moscow and the West, Yeltsin’s Russia was indeed willing to cooperate with Europe and the States and desperate for recognition as an essential player both domestically and externally. However, this relationship was inevitably asymmetric due to Russia’s economic plight and weakness. There were talks about Moscow joining NATO or its participation in NATO’s missions in Yugoslavia. However, the way Yeltsin put it and his claims to be the partner number one of the USA were out of sync with reality [8]. The West comprehensively avoided including the Russian Federation in the Alliance fearing a paralysis of the organization’s decision-making.

The 2000s and Putin’s bitter speech at Munich

At the end of the nineties, a series of circumstances, including NATO’s military intervention in Kosovo without consulting Russia, NATO’s strategic concept, and the Color Revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia contributed to inciting the Russian diffidence and frustration over the lack of recognition of Russia’s coming-back to greatness. However, the most significant issue was NATO’s expansion to the east, especially the Baltic countries, with Estonia just 100 km from St. Petersburg NATO. Along with a criticism of the unipolar order with the USA at the top and OSCE expressing the interest of a handful of states, Putin expressed the not-so-unfounded Russian security concerns in the 2007 Munich speech [9].

“I think it is obvious that NATO expansion does not have any relation with the modernization of the Alliance itself or with ensuring security in Europe. On the contrary, it represents a serious provocation that reduces the level of mutual trust. And we have the right to ask: against whom is this expansion intended?”

This speech tenor, full of resentment and disappointment, is diametrically opposed to Gorbachev’s idealistic and optimistic plea. The hostile Russian sentiment that led to the current war was already perceivable, and the unrecognized Russian aspiration to greatness was well embodied by the figure of the current Russian president. The latter closed the Munich speech by highlighting that Russia has a millenary history during which it has always conducted foreign policy by itself. Putin vowed that he, as a President, did not intend to break this tradition. Therefore, under the present circumstances, the construction of the common European home is purely utopian. As Joseph Borrell claimed, we must build a European political community without Putin’s Russia, who will be remembered for one word, siloviki, ‘strong man’.


[3Marie-Pierre Rey (2004) ‘Europe is our Common Home’: A study of Gorbachev’s diplomatic concept, Cold War History, 4:2, 33-65, DOI: 10.1080/14682740412331391805

[4Tom Casier, Gorbachev’s ‘Common European Home’ and its relevance for Russian foreign policy today Brussels School of International Studies, University of Kent

[5Tom Casier (2016) From logic of competition to conflict: understanding the dynamics of EU–Russia relations, Contemporary Politics, 22:3, 376-394, DOI: 10.1080/13569775.2016.1201311

[6Joseph Borrell, Revisiting the question of Europe’s order (05 October 2022)

[7Erik Holm, Western Europe and European Security: Rational actions and obvious mistakes, Security and Human Rights 2008 no. 3

[8Sergey Radchenko (2020) ‘Nothing but humiliation for Russia’: Moscow and NATO’s eastern enlargement, 1993-1995, Journal of Strategic Studies, 43:6-7, 769-815, DOI: 10.1080/01402390.2020.1820331

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