Why Enlargement Brakes?

15. 3. 2017

The case of Ukraine and the European reaction on it proved once again a general truth about the enlargement. Without this most effective soft power weapon in the EU’s arsenal, the European project remains helpless towards the external world.

For a long time enlargement was estimated as the most powerful weapon in the arsenal of the EU’s foreign policy, a symbol of its unique effective soft power. It was even something more because enlargement was also taken as the proof for EU’s ability of strategic thinking and acting vis-a-vis its nearest neighborhood. Thus, there was a substantive link binding the political will to extend the borders of the European unity project with the strong European self-confidence.

Now, a decade after its most successful enlargement of 2004, the strategic impetus of the European project has slowed down to such extend that the whole process of enlargement is in danger to brake entirely. This development tells us a lot about the current state of the EU and how much the world around Europe has changed recently as well.

The EU of today doesn’t believe any more in itself. The idea of enlargement has been always accompanied by deep hesitation on Europe’s ontological status, raising endless and inconclusive questions of the real borders of our continent. In a nutshell, the optimists and proponents of the enlargement argued that the real borders of the European project start always where reluctance to set and promote the European values occurs. The geography does not matter much from that point of view which—being embedded in a sort of European idealism—has reflected a naive but moving conviction on Promethean essence of the integration. The process of integration has to maintain its open nature as the founding fathers indicated in the Rome treaty and the prosperity, peace and happiness cumulated in united European countries cannot remain an exclusive good and must be shared with those who barely aspire to be members of the club. This idealistic approach has revealed in two recent decades to have quite practical geopolitical consequences as it has provided the basis for a powerful and attractive response of Europe to the collapse of the Soviet Union and changed entirely the fate of the Central and Eastern part of Europe.

Jan Zielonka, a Polish scholar who analyzed the impressive enhancement of enlargement capabilities in Europe in the outset of 21st century, argues in his book on The EU as Empire that this strength and ambition encapsulated in the enlargement project derives from the fact that the EU turned into new form of a postmodern empire, an internally highly complex but externally assertive political entity. If that was the case, this new empire had been in deep crisis before it started really to exist. It is to imagine that the process of enlargement has not been driven by any deep strategic convictions but by pure interests of a part of the EU members. In short, it is quite conceivable and justified to see the enlargement in terms of occasional national interests rather than of strategic goals and values. First and foremost it was German unification that triggered the idea of eastern enlargement to be on roll. It seemed a natural next step in the wake of the fall of Berlin wall and not by accident it was completely consistent with economic and security interests of a big Germany placed now in the middle of the continent. This development was in the interest of the UK as well, which sought to water down the political dimension of the Union and hoped to reach that aim through enlargement. There was an additional factor enabling the whole process of enlargement. Russia was practically absent from the international political stage in Europe of the 1990s, and this fortunate situation facilitated completion of the eastern enlargement.

Now the interests linked to the eastern enlargement have been mostly satisfied, at least in the German case, but the favorable international aura for new candidates has passed definitively. The Europe’s failure in the Arab Spring has shown the limits of the European foreign policy and of its ability to influence positively the situation in North Africa and Middle East. But especially in the East the EU has faced the strong opponent to its further enlargement policy—Russia, which has resolvedly refused to accept any activities of the EU in its post-soviet sphere of influence. The crisis on the Vilnius summit in 2013, the refusal of Yanukovych to sign the association agreement and the attempt to suppress the civil protests in Ukraine with the Russia’s support marked the turning point. For the first time (with exception of Georgia in 2008—the warning never taken seriously in Europe) the EU’s soft power exerted in order to widen the European influence in the neighborhood with rather modest promise of future membership has met with violent response. It was a shock for many in Europe and it has confirmed many fears and prejudices that have always accompanied the process of enlargement. It is paradoxical that the most successful political and economic project, which enlargement probably was in the whole postwar integration history of Europe, has become for many in Western and Southern parts of the Union the source of all evil. Immigration, unemployment, confrontation with Russia have been indicated as negative consequences of the enlargement process and fueled the rising political power of far right, anti-European parties in many of old member counties, foremost in France and the Netherlands.

One could currently doubt whether the idea of enlargement is still present in the EU’s political agenda. But history accelerates again and the lack of strategic assertiveness and strength of the EU in times of an unprecedented upheaval in Ukraine can undermine in turn the European project as such. It is not clear whether the societies and the political elite in old member states really understand the meaning of current challenge comprised by the future of Ukraine. France, immersed in its own identity fatigue, seeks to keep Germany as close as possible in the framework of a restored small Europe. The UK is on the way to its deep splendid isolation from the EU and European affairs. Germany, as usual, is dramatizing the issue of its potential leadership in the EU, which can never be realized partly because of the historical identity problems partly of the failed strategic choices (Russia first). If this political uncertainty and instability correlates now with the wide spread anti-European mode in electorates, the EU’external activities can become blocked for a long time.

Finally, it is a question of the ability to provide new political instruments in order to solve the new political problems. If not enlargement, then what? After the last successful rounds of enlargement, but simultaneously facing the growing problems in accession negotiations with Turkey, the EU failed to construct new political instruments for its political presence and influence in the neighborhood to replace the enlargement perspective, which the EU itself doesn’t believe in any more. For a short time the concept of the ENP gave some basis for rather modest hopes which, however, were quickly frustrated after the Europe’s failure in Libya and at the Vilnius summit. There is a strong suspicion that Europe would have probably left Ukraine on its own and played it into the hands of Putin if it had not been for the victims at Majdan and the strong resistance of many ordinary Ukrainians, who didn’t accept the fact that a new wall had been built by Yanukovich between their country and Europe. This confused the politicians and the public opinion in the West and put them under obligation to act, even if reluctantly and with lacking self-confidence. The case of Ukraine and the European reaction on it proved once again a general truth about the enlargement. Without this most effective soft power weapon in the EU’s arsenal, the European project remains help less towards the external world. But there is one more, even more important lesson to be drawn from the Ukrainian case: the EU without enlargement perspective loses its own compass, contests its own values, and turns into an irrelevant selfish club of members.

Marek Cichocki

Research Director of the Natolin European Centre in Warsaw as well as Editor-in-chief of the magazine New Europe. Natolin Review. From 2007 to 2010 Advisor to the President of the Republic of Poland and Sherpa for the negotiations of the Lisbon Treaty. Since 2003 he is also publisher and Editor-in-chief of the Teologia Polityczna yearly. Permanent Professor in the Institute of Applied Social Sciences at the University of Warsaw.

Share this on social media

Support Aspen Institute

The support of our corporate partners, individual members and donors is critical to sustaining our work. We encourage you to join us at our roundtable discussions, forums, symposia, and special event dinners.

These web pages use cookies to provide their services. You get more information about the cookies after clicking on the button “Detailed setting”. You can set the cookies which we will be able to use, or you can give us your consent to use all the cookies by clicking on the button “Allow all”. You can change the setting of cookies at any time in the footer of our web pages.
Cookies are small files saved in your terminal equipment, into which certain settings and data are saved, which you exchange with our pages by means of your browser. The contents of these files are shared between your browser and our servers or the servers of our partners. We need some of the cookies so that our web page could function properly, we need others for analytical and marketing purposes.