From The Economist Global Agenda
There are worries that a European Union of 25 member countries will prove unmanageable. But the queue to join continues growing. Could the Union one day expand to take in the whole of continental Europe and beyond?
RATHER like the various theories of the universe, it is possible to imagine a European Union that goes on expanding, one that reaches a certain size then remains stable, or one that eventually implodes. So far, the EU continues in its expansionary phase. On Saturday May 1st it undergoes its fifth and most ambitious enlargement since its foundation, as the European Economic Community, in 1957 (see table below). The EU aims to admit Romania and Bulgaria in 2007, and Croatia may also join around then.
Already, there are worries that the current enlargement will prove a step too far. Getting agreement between 25 squabbling countries may prove near-impossible. There are also fears that mass migration from the poorer eastern entrants will cause a backlash against the EU among richer existing members. Already, EU citizens have doubts about the European project: a poll last December by Eurobarometer found that fewer than half of its people now agree that the Union is â€œa good thingâ€?.
However, while fears of the Union falling apart are growing, so is the queue of aspiring membersâ€”and not just among countries that geographers would call European. Israel and Morocco would both like to join. If they get in, why not Algeria, which held a reasonably democratic election in early Aprilâ€”and which belonged to France, and thus to the EUâ€™s predecessor body, until the 1960s? Or Tunisia, the first North African country to sign an association agreement with the EU?
After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 led to a rush of applications from countries previously behind the Iron Curtain, the EU refined its entry requirements. Under the â€œCopenhagen criteriaâ€?, agreed in 1993, applicants must be stable democracies that guarantee the rule of law and human rights; they must have a functioning market economy; and they must be capable of taking on all the obligations of EU membership, including its colossal body of existing laws (known as the acquis communautaire).
There is one other stipulation in the EUâ€™s treaties: members should be â€œEuropeanâ€?. But the meaning of this is not defined. Turkey has had its application formally recognised, despite most of its territory being in Asia. Georgia would like to join, but while geographers place it in Europe, it is actually to the east of Syria and Jordan. Azerbaijan is also geographically European but its chances of ever being accepted seem remote. Nevertheless, Mikhail Saakashvili, Georgiaâ€™s president, predicts that all the countries in the Caucasus will eventually join.
Some would argue that â€œEuropeanâ€? means culturally Europeanâ€”including being predominantly Christian. But the EU has ruled out discriminating on religious grounds, by acknowledging Turkeyâ€™s application and by making it clear that Bosniaâ€”also predominantly Muslimâ€”will one day have its application considered, as will the other Balkan states if they continue making progress towards the Copenhagen criteria.
If all of southern Europe can apply, why not all of eastern Europe? Maybe one day but, as Heather Grabbe of the Centre for European Reform puts it, â€œBelarus is too authoritarian, Moldova too poor, Ukraine too large and Russia too scary for the EU to contemplate offering membership any time soon.â€? The EUâ€™s single-market commissioner, Frits Bolkestein, argues in a new book* that these four countries should be permanently ruled out (he thinks Turkey should be, too). It is a good job that they are all a long way from fulfilling the Copenhagen criteria because the cost of incorporating them would be enormous.
There are several small, prosperous, western European states that the EU would welcome with open arms: Norway and Switzerland (whose governments have contemplated joining but whose citizens voted against) plus Iceland and micro-states such as Jersey, Liechtenstein and Monaco. These all have relationships with the EU offering them most of the benefits of membership while sparing them some of its obligations, so they are under no great pressure to join.
The countries that do want to join are mostly poor. What most attracts them are the big EU subsidies that helped lift earlier joiners, such as Spain and Ireland, from rags to riches. But the generosity of the EUâ€™s wealthier paymasters is already under great strain and would reach breaking-point if more impoverished countries joined on the same terms as past entrants.
This problem is compounded by the size of some of the poor, would-be members: Turkey could be the Unionâ€™s most populous member by the time it is ready to join, in about 2015. This would upset the current balance of power, in which the biggest countries (and thus those with the most votes) have been the main paymasters. In the biggest and richest current member, Germany, the opposition Christian Democrats, who oppose Turkish membership, could quite easily return to power in the 2006 elections.
The arguments that the EUâ€™s leaders have used to justify enlargementâ€”that it will make Europe a region of prosperity and peace, and that it will further the Unionâ€™s aim of becoming a global powerâ€”could justify its expanding to encompass the whole continent and beyond. But both existing and wannabe membersâ€™ doubts about further enlargement will grow in the coming years, especially as the latest entrants struggle to implement tough EU rules, without the generous subsidies of the past to oil the wheels of integration. As the Union gets bigger, Brussels may come to be seen as remote and dictatorial. The waning attractions of full EU membership may eventually persuade some applicants to accept the alternative the Union offered them last year: under the â€œWider Europeâ€? initiative, the EUâ€™s neighbours will get free trade and other benefits in return for political and economic reforms. If so, the steady-state theory of the EU may eventually prove correct.
“Other News” is a personal initiative seeking to provide information that should be in the media but is not, because of commercial criteria. It welcomes contributions from everybody. Work areas include information on global issues, north-south relations, gobernability of globalization. The “Other News” motto is a phrase which appeared on the wall of Barcelonaâ€™s old Customs Office, at the beginning of 2003:â€?What walls utter, media keeps silentâ€?. Roberto Savio