European Union Enlargement: Pushing the Frontiers of Cooperation

from the July/August issue of Centerpoint

Jul 22, 2004

On May 1, 2004, the European Union (EU) accepted 10 new countries, raising the total to 25 member states, with a combined population of 454 million people. The new members are: Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Cyprus, and Malta. Given the economic disparity between the so-called EU-15 and the new member states and the promise of prosperity that EU membership brings, this event not surprisingly sparked festivities in the eight new members from post-communist Eastern Europe. But is this a big deal elsewhere?

Economically, this enlargement has expanded Europe's single market, which now constitutes the world's largest free-trade zone. But, unlike NAFTA, the EU is about much more than free trade. By its own rhetoric, the EU "is a family of democratic European countries, committed to working together for peace and prosperity. It is not a state intended to replace existing states, but it is more than any other international organization."

At an April East European Studies program meeting, Gunter Burghardt, ambassador of the Delegation of the European Commission to the United States, explained how much of Europe's political landscape has been transformed since the Treaty of Westphalia was signed three centuries ago. When it became clear the Westphalian system could not create peace on the continent, steps were taken after World War II to make the international system less competitive and more cooperative. By pooling their sovereignty in common institutions, European nations could make collective decisions on matters of joint interest at the supra-state level. It was believed that by cooperating in key industries (initially coal and steel), economic competition between traditional enemies such as France and Germany would never again escalate to war. There was also a hope that economic cooperation would spill over into political cooperation as well, leading to a European federation. Today, this sphere of international cooperation is growing, and that is a very big deal.

A Revolutionary Moment
The fall of communism in 1989 ignited a revolutionary spirit throughout the communist world and also instigated change within the EU. Debates on enlargement to post-communist Europe started in the early 1990s and, in 1993, the Council adopted the so-called Copenhagen Criteria, institutionalizing the requirements to join the EU club. At the same time, there was a push to continue deepening integration that began in the late 1980s with the Single European Act. Enlargement and political integration became inextricably linked in the EU's 1997 Agenda 2000. By requiring all new member states to adopt EU law at the maximum standard without any opt-outs, all new member states form a bloc of integration that can help the EU-15 to harmonize their levels of integration. Thus, EU enlargement may in fact reinforce the aspirations to deepen integration - and that is certainly worth celebrating.

Challenges of Enlargement
To mitigate fears within the EU-15, certain restrictions have been placed on new member states. For instance, most of the EU-15 countries have not yet allowed free movement of labor from the new member states. Entrance into the eurozone and Schengen system also has been postponed. This has created a multi-level membership, in which the EU-15 enjoy more rights and deeper integration than the 10 new member states. This disparity eventually is to be corrected, but it is unclear when this will occur.

Chief International Commentator for United Press International Martin Walker told Centerpoint, "The irony for the Eastern Europeans is that they joined the NATO security club just as NATO began running down through US neglect and European defense cuts, and have joined the EU prosperity club just as the prosperity stalled." The 75 million new EU citizens earn only 40 percent of the income enjoyed in the rest of the EU.

On the one hand, the new member states need EU structural funds and increased investment to raise living standards. Economic slumps in Germany, France, and the UK have led to questions about how generous the EU-15 can afford to be. On the other hand, at an earlier EES meeting, RAND economist Keith Crane argued that EU enlargement will link these slow-growing EU-15 countries with the dynamic economies of the post-communist world, which could give the EU a necessary economic boost.

As the EU adapts and changes to accommodate its 10 new member states, it is planning future waves of enlargement. If Bulgaria and Romania are deemed ready, they might accede as early as 2007. The European Council will decide later this year whether to begin negotiations with Turkey as well. Meanwhile, several Southeast European nations are working to meet the criteria to get on the EU invite list, which begs the question, can the EU keep up its pace of enlargement?

Even without voting reform, it is unclear how the enlargement will affect decision-making in the Council. "The expansion of the European Union may well mark the beginning of the end of the Franco-German alliance as the powerhouse of EU policymaking," said Robin Shepherd, an adjunct fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and former Wilson Center public policy scholar. "Since the establishment of the EU, these two countries have dominated decision-making, but things are likely to change in a Union of 25 members. The Franco-German alliance will probably remain intact and will still be powerful, but it will be just one among a series of shifting alliances that will eventually determine policy."

The Transatlantic Relationship
In the United States, EU enlargement is viewed by some with quiet approval and by others with suspicion. The official position is somewhat mixed. "The United States in recent years has shown itself schizoid about the EU," said Walker, who recently was appointed a Wilson Center senior scholar. "Successive U.S. administrations since Harry Truman have said they support EU integration in that a strong EU partner is in America's national interest. But a unified EU foreign and defense policy that diverged from NATO would be a real worry."

The majority view in the U.S. government is one of "ambivalent support" for the EU, said Avis Bohlen, former U.S. ambassador to Bulgaria and assistant secretary of state for arms control, at a recent East European Studies seminar. She said this camp prefers the EU succeed rather than fail, but is frustrated at its slow decision-making process and the apparent inability of the EU to pull its weight politically and militarily on the world stage. She said yet another camp views the EU with "contemptuous hostility," seeing it as competing with U.S. power and threatening to U.S. interests. This group of neoconservatives voices frustration at the EU's preference for multilateral action, negotiation, and compromise and its reluctance to use force.

Bohlen, also a former Wilson Center public policy scholar, said that these divergent American viewpoints converge on the issue of enlargement. The first camp sees enlargement as an historic achievement and admires the effective integration process. Moreover, many in the U.S. government recognize and appreciate how effective and efficient the enlargement process has been in pushing through liberal-democratic reform in the region, and hope the blueprint can be applied to Southeast Europe as well. The second camp also looks favorably on enlargement, believing it will impede the EU's development and dilute its influence, which would strengthen the U.S. international position.

The latter camp may be disappointed, however. "At first sight, EU enlargement would appear to mean that there will be more Atlanticist and pro-American voices in a Europe that was starting to sound more and more Gaullist in its critiques of U.S. hegemony," said Walker. "But this may not last, as the new members get locked increasingly into the EU's ways of doing things." He concluded, "If Americans take the very long view, and think about the time 40 or 50 years ahead when China and India (and maybe Brazil) are likely to boast economies of similar size to that of the United States, then the EU's attractions as a strategic ally and partner will be very evident."

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