The worst way the European Union could react to its current crisis would be to close Europes doors to further enlargement.
This, unfortunately, is exactly what is happening. Some interpret the results of the referenda in France and Holland as a protest by old Europe against the 2004 accession of the ten new members, an impression strengthened by the fiasco of the 16-17 June summit in Brussels.
This prospect of division within the EU is further reflected in renewed questioning about Ukraines European orientation, and of the chances of membership for the Balkan states and even Bulgaria and Romania. This places these countries in a very difficult position and the lack of clarity over their future only makes the confusion worse. The political situation on the entire continent could be destabilised as a result.
Also in openDemocracy on the mid-2005 European Union meltdown:
Krzysztof Bobinski, Polands letter to France: please say oui!
John Palmer, After France: Europes route from wreckage
Aurore Wanlin, European democracy: where now?
Theo Veenkamp, Dutch sign on Europes wall
Simon Berlaymont, What the European Union is
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Ukraine and the Balkans offer two clear examples of possible dangers ahead.
Ukraines Orange revolution of November 2004-January 2005 was a momentous European political event. After the disputed second round of the presidential election, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians occupied the Majdan in Kiev to protest against the ruling elites machinations and Moscows interference in Ukrainian politics.
The Russian government did its utmost to ensure that the pro-Moscow candidate, Viktor Yanukovych, succeeded Leonid Kuchma as president. In essence the revolution was Ukranians refusal to allow their sovereign country, that had gained its independence with the collapse of the Soviet empire, to be made a vassal. It also demonstrated that a majority of Ukrainian people supported Ukraines European way.
They had no alternative. An independent Ukraine cannot exist between the two worlds of the European Union and Russia for this is the real political division of our continent. For a time Kiev could pursue its beloved multivectoral policy, which saw Ukraine weaving an uneasy course between Moscow and the west. But now Russia is stabilising after the chaos of the Boris Yeltsin decade, and neo-imperialist, great-power ambitions are reviving in the Kremlin. Ukraine no longer has a choice. In the longer term the Ukraine can only be Russian or European.
In the Balkans, Europe became involved in trying to solve the conflicts which shook the region as Yugoslavia disintegrated. Military action sparked by the rampant nationalisms of Serbia, Croatia and Albania has abated but the Balkans (as Ivan Krastev emphasises in his openDemocracy article) could still explode. If this hasnt happened yet, it is not only because there are Nato soldiers in Kosovo or European Union forces in Sarajevo but because these countries, like Slovenia before them, have a chance of joining the EU.
It doesnt matter in principle whether this prospect is near or distant: the main thing is that people should have the opportunity to join a stable and prosperous world which gives them hope for a better future. A Europe that dashes these hopes without providing constructive ideas about how to resolve the situation in Kosovo and without knowing what will happen in Serbia, Bosnia and Macedonia threatens a return of the old nationalisms and a new explosion.
The Russian question
In this situation can the EU, whether old or new, say: stop, were shutting up shop and keeping everyone outside for ever? It can, but it shouldnt, for two reasons.
First, the problem will not go away. The European Union, whether it likes it or not, has become an alternative focus of integration for the states and peoples it borders; strangely enough, experts in Russia underline this point.
Second, closing in on itself would run counter to the EUs very mission. It might have been possible when the association of states was no more than a coal and steel community or even a common market but it isnt now when it has become, maybe against its own will, one of the major players on the grand chessboard.
The Ukraine again confirms this. A decided no by Brussels to Kievs European aspirations would in effect be a yes to a Moscow attempting to re-establish its status as an independent power centre and as a world power. That development would change the geopolitical situation in Europe for the worse.
It is not surprising that Moscow greeted the referenda in France and Holland, and the failed Brussels summit, with satisfaction; nor that some Russian commentators attribute these events to Europes haste in accepting new members from among Moscows old allies in central Europe. Their conclusion is that Europe must now think twice before enlarging to the east.
This reaction is understandable. Russia needs the European Union: it needs its markets and its capital investments. But at the same time it is afraid of the EU and treats it as a rival. An enlarging EU that plants its flag on post-Soviet territory is seen as a threat more so than Nato, for although the EU carries no military challenge, it offers an attractive development model to post-Soviet states.
If the Ukraine, Moldova or even Belarus were to find themselves inside the European Union they would escape Moscows influence for ever. And without them, Russia, even with its nuclear arsenal, will be no more than a regional power. That is a destiny Russia refuses to accept.
Russia never hid the fact that it felt most comfortable when the European order was based on a concert of powers. Then, it had the best chance of realising its great-power ambitions. This is why it is attempting to build special relationships with Berlin and Paris and seeking to divide the EU into old and new .
A united Europe with a common policy towards Russia would be a much more difficult partner for Moscow. This explains why Russia is making diplomatic efforts to deprive the EUs new members including Poland of any influence over the unions foreign policy. If Moscow succeeded the result would be a return to 19th century, balance-of-power policies in Europe.
The European answer
In this light it is difficult to understand why Eurosceptics (like Gwyn Prins, writing in openDemocracy) should rejoice at the defeat of the Brussels-based nomenklatura. They are mistaken if they believe that the result of todays EU crisis will be a return to a common-market model. That is already impossible because the EU, whether we like it or not, is a geopolitical entity, even in its far-from-perfect shape.
The predicament is a result of the fact that the EU is unable to adapt its institutions to reflect the role it is fated to play. The EU is a great political project, but one currently unable to formulate a coherent vision of its own future. Its latest major undertaking was the decision to take ten new members in. Now it looks as if it has taken fright at its very success and at its own future prospects.
This is precisely why we ought to be careful when we talk about closing the EU to outsiders and ending the enlargement process. True, calls for further enlargement are at present unpopular; only a few politicians, such as Polands president, Aleksander Kwaśniewski, are brave enough to say that Europe should remain faithful to its vision and that further enlargement provides an opportunity for the EU rather than a threat.
But those few voices are right. No one is saying that Ukraine, Moldova or even Serbia and Belarus will be able to open accession negotiations soon: it may take ten or twenty years. But they have to have a clear view that it will happen. If that perspective is not there, then the political situation on the EUs eastern frontier will become complicated. A decade or two should be enough for these states to carry out the necessary reforms and to digest the contemporary wave of enlargement.
The European Union is a major political project unique in the history of our continent. It should stay in place. The failure of the project, the collapse of the idea of European solidarity and the triumph of national egoisms could mark the start of new tremors in Europe. The threat is very real.