By Fabrizio Tassinari
The question is not whether the EU will again be ready to expand; it is where the EU ought to end.
In retrospect, the historic European Union expansion of May 2004 carries more than a hint of irony. The accession of eight former communist nations of Central Europe was in many ways a high point for Europe. The EU monitored these countries' transition towards liberal democracy; it influenced their political culture and guided economic transformation.
It wasn't a miracle, as one might mistakenly believe from listening to the European vulgate. But it is safe to say that the EU accompanied a remarkable development. When viewed alongside the quagmire that America was making for itself in Iraq at the time, enlargement became the epitome of Europe's power and of the scale of its ambitions.
Alas, EU enlargement has since turned into an unforgiving mirror of European paralysis. Just one year after the Eastern expansion, popular referenda in France and the Netherlands rejected the so-called Constitutional Treaty aiming at reforming EU institutions. The no vote signaled widespread dissatisfaction with the overall course of Europe, and it coalesced in a generic enlargement fatigue. The French non notoriously came down to the "Polish plumber," the imaginary new EU citizen threatening the Gallic labor market with his pipes and screws.
In January 2007, then, the EU fulfilled the ill-fated promise of admitting Bulgaria and Romania. In order to assuage their fear of being left behind, Brussels had given the two Balkan countries an entry date, irrespective of their record on domestic reforms. Those judicial and administrative reforms have slowed since the countries' accession, as contract killings and corruption at the highest levels have remained the norm.
As for the other Balkans, the troubled nations of the former Yugoslavia, the EU has reiterated ad nauseam its commitment to their "European perspective." But much of the region remains in a political and security limbo, and Brussels has fed into it by trying to adjust its scrupulous criteria and conditions to the precarious situation on the ground. The result is that, with the possible exception of Croatia, it is unclear to the Balkan people if and when they will accede to the Union.
The EU has also partly frozen accession talks with Turkey, shortly after it took the momentous step of opening those talks. It did so because of Turkey's reluctance to open its ports to vessels coming from Cyprus. Turkey's size, its large Muslim population, and geographical location are clearly the real reason for Europe's hesitance. Still, the problem is that Ankara has lost its momentum for reform, and Europe has lost its credibility.
Each of these instances shows different facets of the European malaise. EU institutions, conceived half a century ago, have adjusted as the Union has taken in more countries, but do require comprehensive reforms in order to function effectively with 30-plus potential members. Pending approval by the Irish, the forthcoming Lisbon treaty will go some way to correcting that, but it can do nothing to rewind the half-decade that Europe has lost.
EU expansion was also expected to bring about an ever more diverse Union. Yet, in western Europe, support for further expansion is at an all-time low, even in traditionally pro-enlargement countries such as Britain and Italy. In the wake of the global financial maelstrom earlier this year, politicians from the new member states warned about the descent of a new "iron curtain" in Europe. Economic and social differences have brought out profound divisions, rather than deepening the Union's cherished diversity.
Above all, the predicament of these past five years has made it plain that the EU enlargement policy is unsustainable in the long run. Expansion is routinely described as Europe's most successful foreign policy. But taking in country after country hardly qualifies as a foreign policy at all. The question is not whether the EU will again be ready to expand; it is where the EU ought to end.
Given the plethora of stakeholders in the European arena, a firm decision on this is not easy to take. But it is the single move likely to shift the focus away from enlargement as an existential question, and back to European integration as the paramount means for fostering prosperity and spreading peace on the Continent.
Enlargement has provided a powerful tool to achieve these goals. But it is now sinking the EU because it has become a goal unto itself.
Fabrizio Tassinari is a Senior Fellow at the Danish Institute for International Studies and a non-Resident Fellow at Johns Hopkins' SAIS Center for Transatlantic Relations. His book, Why Europe Fears Its Neighbors, will be published in September.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Johns Hopkins University.