Overstretching the EU's Overstretched Boundaries

In 2007, I was mystified when the European Union declared that Bulgaria and Romania had met the Copenhagen Criteria, the set of standards to which states must adhere if they hope to gain entry into the EU. Among others, these include the preservation of democracy, human rights and respect for minorities, a competitive market economy, as well as accepting the underlying principles of the EU. It appeared that despite rampant corruption, maltreatment of minorities like the Roma, and poor economic growth, these countries were admitted to the EU. 

Not much progress has been made for the other states that acceded to the EU like Turkey, a country whose hopes for accession are as miserable as the financial crisis in which the EU finds itself today. And perhaps that’s a good thing for Turkey’s sake. Yet, just two decades after one of the most violent wars in the late twentieth century, Croatia has recovered, becoming this month the twenty-eighth member of the EU. Whether or not Croats have seen accession into the EU in a wholly positive light is debatable. The country’s accession has come at perhaps one of the most financially trying times in the Union’s history and has deeply affected neighbouring Slovenia. According to the BBC though, Croatian President Josipovic euphorically claimed that “the accession of Croatia to the EU is confirmation that each one of us belongs to the European democratic and cultural set of values.”

The guiding principles of the EU were articulated in an era during which the European powers had to reconcile the destructiveness of the 1940s and the uncertainty of the Cold War. In 1952, the European Coal and Steel Community was, in a way, established to denationalize the resources of the Ruhr basin, an area over which Germany and France had traditionally struggled. In 1957, the Treaty of Rome signed between BENELUX, France, Italy, and West Germany effectively created the European Economic Community (EEC). Later, in the 1970s and 1980s, the European Community expanded to include states such as Denmark, the UK, Ireland, Greece, Portugal, and Spain.

Given the changing geopolitical circumstances of the 1990s following the reunification of Germany and the fall of the Soviet Union, the EC outlined the Copenhagen Criteria, a standard to which states should adhere if they hoped to gain entry into the Community. In 1993, the Treaty of Maastricht effectively established the EU, and two years later, Austria, Finland, and Sweden joined.

In 2004, the EU admitted en masse ten more countries, including Cyprus, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Slovakia. The great expansion of the EU in 2007 to include Bulgaria and Romania raised many questions about what it meant to be European and resurrected age-old debates about where the boundaries of a European identity lie.

With increasing attention to the difficult economic crises in which the EU finds itself, it’s worthwhile to reassess some old questions about whether the EU has overstretched its boundaries. I don’t mean just in typical geographic terms, but in the idea of a European Union. What was the original purpose of the Union and has the EU accomplished it? Why has it continued to expand and admit new members when it is so clearly in disarray?

The purpose of European governance, which, as Mark Mazower has suggested in his latest book Governing the World, can be traced back to the Concert of Vienna in 1815, a conservative reaction to what the great Europeans powers saw as the inevitable result of the French Revolution and Napoleon's conquest. Each attempt to "unionize" the European continent was made to re-stabilize the economics and policies of European states. The original purpose of the EU, as we understand it today, aimed to denationalize the nationalistic programmes that wreaked so much havoc on the continent from the interwar years to the aftermath of the Second World War. In short, one of the ideas underscoring early iterations of the EU was the ongoing socio-economic and cultural rivalry between Germany and France, and the insecurity of smaller states like BENELUX which resulted from that rivalry.

This isn't to say that the former Czechoslovakia (which in any case had been part of the Holy Roman Empire, Austria-Hungary, etc.) or newly-founded states like Slovenia have not experienced their fare share of violent history. I'm also not arguing that states from central, eastern, or southeastern Europe should not be part of regional governance. However, the principles of the EU were established in the context of the Cold War and then modified to fit an increasingly changing post-Soviet era. These principles were defined by and for the traditional Great Powers, most of which shared a common history throughout the destructive wars from 1914 to 1945.

So far the EU has accomplished some remarkable feats, notably in academic exchanges at the university level and other cultural achievements. Whether or not the EU has achieved its objective of maintaining a general European peace has yet to be seen, however. Additionally, the economic challenges the EU faces today appear almost insurmountable, especially when one considers the difficulties in reconciling sovereign needs with EU principles such as imposing upon a nation heavy austerity measures which clash with the socio-economic expectations of the people.

In this sense, it's incredible that given such dire economic circumstances the EU continues to admit more countries. Aside from high unemployment rates in most towns beyond the beaches of the Adriatic, Croatia's social and political cleavages, exacerbated by war in the 1990s, have not disappeared. Just last month, thousands of protesters gathered in Vukovar to demonstrate against the use of Cyrillic alphabet in a region where Serbs and Croats fought viciously when Yugoslavia fell apart. The residual effects of war are fresh in the minds of many people who experienced the conflict and lost family just 20 years ago.

Perhaps accession into the EU will be a good thing for Croatia and all the people residing there, but some nonetheless fear corruption and other maladies from which many Balkan states have suffered. It's far too early to tell. However, one thing is for sure. The EU, which continues to expand and encompass such a wide range of states and peoples (as well as their problems), should place a moratorium on the accession process if it chooses to admit new members. Even better, however, would be to stop expanding altogether, to circumscribe the Union's challenges, and to clean up their own house before inviting others to join.