Is This the End of 'The European Idea'?

The shock announcement on Sept. 25 by Manuel Barrosso, the European Commission President, that E.U. expansion is to 'pause' after the conditional acceptance into membership of Bulgaria and Romania, has thrown the chancelleries of Europe into disarray. Those two will be the last states to enter until the E.U. has reorganized its institutional framework, but even a few moments reflection suggests that this is about much more than making a few tweaks to the existing treaties.

This is a crisis! In reality, nothing less than the future of the whole 'European Idea' is now at risk!

A perfectly sensible new constitutional framework agreed to at member government level was endorsed by near to eighteen member states' legislatures, but voted down by the electorate in two important states, France and the Netherlands, largely for reasons unconnected to institutional re-organisation — more as a protest against expansion. Whichever way one looks at it, the E.U. Commission can justifiably claim enlargement fatigue. A 27-member body is per se unwieldy, let alone a larger one, although that bridge was crossed on May 1, 2004 when in one move, ten new entrants were accepted. But the big, even agonizing questions for some, are these:

How long will institutional reorganization take to achieve? Will it be done with reasonable haste, or with deliberate slowness? Ultimately must it be submitted by referenda to the electorates in France and Netherlands or others, who can of course use it to vote enlargement down again, or even as a means of protesting something unconnected in their domestic politics, as happens in some referenda? Can reorganization, as distinct from enlargement take place by member government agreement, rather than by national referenda, which should perhaps be saved for the bigger issues of the future of the E.U.?

The answers to these questions are key now to the future of the whole European Union idea and we suggest that a great and overdue debate defining this very European Idea should now take place, and that the leaders of the European Community be prepared to campaign to carry the majority of the citizens with them.

The Excluded

Croatia, the most advanced E.U. candidate next in line to Bulgaria and Romania, as we report, is in shock and feeling betrayed, but apart from that advanced Balkan country, the geopolitical reasons for continental expansion have not gone away. Serbia, that was to have been given assurances about eventual entry, as perhaps a necessary bromide after Kosovo is inevitably amputated. Macedonia, Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Montenegro all are on the outside looking in, and this one historic opportunity of forever closing down the Balkans as Europe's pre-eminent tinderbox, could be lost.

If membership were to be frozen at 27 countries, which could grow and prosper, alongside a handful of neighbouring but excluded European loser-nations — and those in the Balkans no less — it is a sure-fire recipe for violent trouble. No doubt European Commission representatives dealing with each of these countries right now, will be falling over themselves to reassure their 'clients,' that the train will start rolling again, as soon as the track is made secure. We hope that this is so. But consider say, if you were responsible for what could without redress, become a permanently excluded Serbia. Wouldn't you be tempted to approach fellow slav and orthodox Russia to be a wealthy and powerful patron and become the driving force, replacing the prospect of the E.U. in your country? Or Albania, should it revive its one time client status with China and give them territorial rights on the European mainland — a Hong Kong in reverse for the 'Asian century'? Even more serious perhaps, Albania, whose government is currently set on a modernizing course and accepting the norms to qualify for E.U. membership, if with no further hope of that and destined to remain outside the community, could quickly revert to becoming out of control as a criminal state, and even more of a portal into Europe for organized crime and illegal immigration.

What about Ukraine looking west? Are those 48 million people to be told that they will never now join the Europe of the E.U., that they must look instead east, to rejoining the nascent Russian empire and give Moscow everything it desires, with a great boost of slav citizens to be as they were before, cannon fodder for Russian adventurism? And Turkey? Whatever else, Turkey was at least 10 to 15 years away from membership, even if the decision would be to admit them. But in context, we are being told on the world political front that the west must encourage and build bridges to the moderate Moslems of the world and here is a country that fits that description precisely. A strong confident Europe could rise to the challenge of admitting Turkey, even if the free movement of labour were inevitably to remain restricted.

"The Confederate States of Europe"

Leaving aside for now the bigger, longer-term issues of Ukraine and Turkey, to permanently exclude the six small Balkan states would be like a United States of America having been formed with six continental American states remaining permanently outside the Federal Union (to avoid which, a bloody civil war was fought). A rogue 'Yugoslavia' — six or more Balkan states — an integral part of our small continent with a massive capacity for trouble, are perhaps a parallel for the Confederate States of America. The European Union should, once each has duly qualified, surely be able to absorb these Balkan 'tiddlers' just as they have done with Malta and Cyprus.

These are geopolitical imperatives of which the European leaders are well aware. Those politicians may not be individually big enough to rise above their narrower national politics, when the tabloid press and rabble-rousers of their countries give them a hard time on short-term issues. But on how, and with what urgency the Europeans approach these institutional changes that are now needed, will depend Europe's global position in say twenty years. Europe is just one bloc within a world where the U.S. presently dominates and other challengers are making rapid progress. East Asia is every day spectacularly rising. South Asia's economy and therefore political weight is growing to levels appropriate to its enormous proportion of the human race, and Russia with its new status as an energy superpower (and still possessing 9,000 nuclear warheads), is determined to rise again, this time as a militarily invulnerable, world economic power.

It would be a tragedy of historic proportions, even perhaps a costly one in blood and treasure, if narrow nationalist prejudices and short term racist attitudes largely fuelled by the fear of a tiny number of terrorists within the continent, meant that the European cake was only half-baked and left to sag on the shelf that way, whilst the rest of the world moves on.