Open Europe

Sławomir Popowski
4 July 2005

The worst way the European Union could react to its current crisis would be to close Europe’s 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 Ukraine’s “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, “Poland’s letter to France: please say oui

John Palmer, “After France: Europe’s route from wreckage”

Aurore Wanlin, “European democracy: where now?”

Theo Veenkamp, “Dutch sign on Europe’s wall”

Simon Berlaymont, “What the European Union is”

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Ukraine and the Balkans offer two clear examples of possible dangers ahead.

Ukraine’s “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 elite’s machinations and Moscow’s 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 Ukraine’s “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 hasn’t 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 doesn’t 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, we’re shutting up shop and keeping everyone outside for ever?” It can, but it shouldn’t, 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 EU’s 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 isn’t 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 Kiev’s 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 Europe’s haste in accepting new members from among Moscow’s 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 Moscow’s 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 EU’s new members – including Poland – of any influence over the union’s 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 today’s 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 Poland’s 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 EU’s 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.

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