The end of the EU romance

Euro-elites can't decide whether enlargement is a new dawn, or if it's already exhausted.

A year ago, European politicians described the enlargement of the European Union (EU) as an historic moment. Romano Prodi, president of the EU Commission at the time, called it ‘the fulfilment of the European project’. Gunter Verheugen, the EU commissioner for enlargement who oversaw the entry of eight former communist states of Eastern Europe (1), described it as ‘the most epic moment in Europe since 1945’. A year later, as the EU of 25 celebrates its first anniversary, the attitude towards enlargement is a mixture of hubris and fatigue. EU enlargement is presented as both a panacea to the continent’s ills, and as a source of its many problems.

This contradictory message has echoes elsewhere. The European Constitution is today being debated across the continent, above all in France where a referendum will be held on 29 May. Commentators suggest that if the French vote ‘No’, it is not inconceivable that the EU itself could unravel under the pressures of political disagreement (2). Yet presumably, if the ‘Yes’ vote squeezes through in France, such catastrophic predictions will be forgotten. The same applies for other hot political topics. Who remembers the famous ‘transatlantic rift’? A couple of years ago US President George W Bush might have had trouble pushing through the nomination of a leading neo-con as head of the World Bank. Today, Paul Wolfowitz breezed through his vetting by European politicians, much to the chagrin of those who saw him as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The shelf life of political ideas and debates appears short indeed.

Making sense of this means ditching classical notions of politics and political debate. The issues that animate contemporary European politics are not a product of struggles between different social groups. Rather, they are ideas pulled out of the sky by political elites seeking to reconnect with distant and ever-more sceptical electorates. A recent international Gallup poll cited in the Financial Times found that, in every country, the national parliament was the least trusted of 17 institutions (3). The shift between hubris and fatigue in the enlargement debate is an expression of this broader trend, leaving Europe’s ideologues frustrated, and the majority of Europe’s citizens indifferent.

On the side of enlargement hubris, the dominant claim is that the expansion of the EU is a sign of its ‘transformative power’. In the words of leading policymakers, EU enlargement is an example of ‘peaceful regime change’ - we do the same as the Americans, goes the argument, but only peacefully, through the rule of law rather than the use of force. Mark Leonard, author of the recent book Why Europe Will Run the 21st Century, provides this kind of vision. Emphasising Europe’s contrast with the USA, Leonard claims that ‘the lone superpower can bribe, bully, or impose its will almost anywhere in the world, but when its back is turned, its potency wanes. The strength of the EU, conversely, is broad and deep: once sucked into its sphere of influence, countries are changed forever’ (4). Leonard’s celebration of the EU reaches dizzying proportions when he argues that ‘by creating common standards that are implemented through national institutions, Europe can take over the world without becoming a target for hostility’ (5).

A similar eulogy of enlargement has come from the European Stability Initiative (ESI), a European think-tank that made its name by labelling the international community’s presence in Bosnia-Herzegovina a European Raj (6). Today, the ESI compares favourably the EU enlargement process, described as ‘member-state building’, with the alternative of ‘authoritarian state-building’ in Bosnia and Kosovo. According to the ESI, ‘the ongoing transformation in Turkey may prove to be the European Union’s most dramatic foreign policy success’. And were the EU to extend its accession instrument into the Balkans, this would ‘constitute an important milestone in European history and mark a major victory in the spreading of peace and democracy to the Balkans and the Eastern Mediterranean’ (7).

The ESI’s argument was recently spelled out in a high-profile report on the Balkans, produced by the International Commission on the Balkans led by former Italian prime minister, Guiliano Amato. The report, ‘The Balkans in Europe’s Future’, claims that ‘the success of EU enlargement is one of the few unambiguously positive achievements of the post-Cold War world, indeed nothing short of a political miracle’ (8). The report goes on to say that ‘in security, economic and political terms the Balkans are faced with a clear choice: to be part of the European Union or to be part of a marginalised ghetto’ (9). For all its confidence, the report’s stridency belies a certain desperation: the message is intended for Europe’s politicians, in an attempt to galvanise what its authors consider to be the danger of enlargement fatigue (10).

The evidence of this fatigue is all around. The Economist sums up the general mood when it points out that ‘it is something of an irony…that while enlargement has become the most popular and successful instrument of regime change in Europe’s history, the EU is losing the will to enlarge anymore’ (11). The loss of enthusiasm for enlargement in the ‘new Europe’ predated May 2004. In the years leading up to official membership, a form of ‘pre-emptive euro-scepticism’ developed in candidate states. This was a reaction to the concessions demanded by the EU Commission, and a response to certain decisions, such as those on agricultural subsidies and post-enlargement labour movements, that seemed to push new member states into the category of second-class citizens (12).

At the time of the accession referendums, where new member states had to vote on the accession treaties, the concern in Brussels was not whether a majority in post-communist states would reject the treaties, but that not enough people would turn out to vote. In Poland, it took the intervention of Pope John Paul II (‘Europe needs Poland, and Poland needs Europe’) to stem the tide of apathy. In Hungary, one of the leading beneficiaries of the vaunted ‘member state-building’ project, only 46 per cent of voters found their way to the polls. Instead of enthusiasm about ‘returning to Europe’, the dominant mood in eastern Europe has been one of pragmatism: on balance, claim most analysts, joining the EU has been materially beneficial. This realism is captured in a description of the enlargement process as ‘an unromantic but working relationship’ (13). For Europe’s ideologues, who see in EU expansion the outline of a new homo Europeanus, this pragmatism is less than satisfying.

On the side of ‘old’ Europe, enlargement fatigue is at its most tangible. Three in four Germans are worried about enlargement, and in the French Constitution debate, enlargement has become a target for a variety of concerns. The outsourcing of industrial capacity (‘delocalisation’) has become a key issue, blurring the lines between the Constitution and enlargement. Different roles played by the state in Eastern Europe has also become a cause for concern - for example, that Lithuania’s tax burden was 28.7 per cent of GDP in 2003, 17 per cent less than the French tax burden for the same period. Such differences have transformed enlargement into a Trojan horse for neo-liberal economics. The possibility of Turkey joining has sparked off agonised debates in states such as France (see The cultural curtain, by Chris Bickerton).

Romania and Bulgaria’s recent signing ceremonies for accession to the EU were low-key affairs. Observing the lack of enthusiasm for the signing ceremonies, the Slovene daily Dnevnik commented that ‘The big bang has long been over, which means that the EU is bound to expand only in line with its economic and political interests rather than on the wings of the liberation of the Old Continent’. The headline in Dnevnik was categorical: ‘No big bang.’ (14)

The moment that enlargement becomes the EU’s most successful foreign policy instrument, it runs out of steam. This is the schizophrenic nature of contemporary political debate, and points to a deeper political malaise. This malaise will only be resolved by addressing the question of why it is that political ideas fail to bridge the gap between politics and society.

Chris Bickerton is a PhD student in international politics, at St Johns College, Oxford.

(1) The two other new members in 2004 were Malta and Cyprus.

(2) Europe is in danger of becoming hollow at the core, Financial Times, 26 April 2005

(3) Parliament needs a House of Citizens, Financial Times, 1 May 2005

(4) Marc Leonard, ‘EU ain’t seen nothing yet’, New Humanist, March/April 2005 pp26-27

(5) Marc Leonard, ‘EU ain’t seen nothing yet’, New Humanist, March/April 2005 pp26-27

(6) For the key article, see Knaus G. and Martin F. 2003, ‘Travails of the European Raj’, Journal of Democracy 14 (3) pp60-74

(7) Knaus G. & Cox M. 2005, ‘The ‘Helsinki Moment’in Southeastern Europe’, Journal for Democracy 16 (1) p40 & p43

(8) The Balkans in Europe’s Future, report of the International Commission on the Balkans 2005 p28

(9) The Balkans in Europe’s Future, report of the International Commission on the Balkans 2005

(10) In his foreword to the report, Amato is clear about the difficulties faced by those who see EU enlargement as a solution to the problems in the Balkans: ‘we do not cherish any illusions about the current political will among the member states of the European Union to make major new commitments. Enlargement fatigue hovers over the European capitals these days, the looming referenda on the European constitution question the future of the European project’ (p4).

(11) ‘Now that we are all bundled inside, let’s shut the door’, Special report: EU enlargement, The Economist, April 30 2005

(12) See the 2000 article by Jacques Rupnik: ‘Enlargement to the east: anatomy of a reticence’, Eurozine

(13) Transition online, 2 May 2005

(14) ‘EU in future to expand for practical reasons only - Slovene daily’, South East Europe monitor,  26 April 2005

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