Contradictions at the heart of an expanding Europe

  • Themes: Europe, France, Geopolitics, Germany

Western Europe is pursuing a contradictory policy, declaring a commitment to both enlarge the EU and integrate its members ever deeper, in opposition to the wishes of its electorates. Will the region's turn to the political right herald a refashioning of the EU into a looser body, in which states such as Ukraine can find their place?

Caricature map of political situation in Europe in 1899. Credit: history_docu_photo / Alamy Stock Photo

After years of opposition, political leaders in the EU’s western European core have finally backed a further round of enlargement and the prospect of membership for its hinterlands in the east.

In September, the presidents of the European Commission and the European Council both made speeches calling for the EU to prepare itself for the addition of up to nine new members from the Balkans and former Soviet Union, potentially as soon as 2030.

This was followed by a strategy document commissioned by France and Germany, the ultimate arbiters of the European project, setting out the nature of these preparations if the EU is to be ‘enlargement ready’. Meanwhile, Spain, has announced a summit in October to work out the means of further enlargement ahead of a European Council meeting in December, which may open talks on membership for Moldova and Ukraine.

This reversal in their thinking comes in response to Russia’s show of aggression, which has changed the strategic calculus in western European capitals. The foremost issue is the need to do something with Ukraine, which cannot be left to fend for itself when the fighting eventually subsides.

Inevitably, the rest of Europe will bear responsibility for securing and reconstructing the country, for which integration into the EU offers an obvious means, following in the path of Ukraine’s central European neighbours who underwent a transformation in the 1990s and 2000s as the EU took them under its wing.

At least in theory, Ukraine will be forced to make reforms that create the conditions for rapid investment and growth. Entry to the EU will allow it tariff- and visa-free access to the prosperous markets of western Europe. In the meantime, the EU can boost the country’s development with cohesion funds and subsidies for agriculture.

The strategic calculation runs wider, however, than the question of rehabilitating Ukraine. Russia’s actions in the last eighteen months have made clear the vulnerability to Moscow’s ambitions of the other unintegrated parts of eastern Europe, which can no longer be maintained as a grey zone buffering Russia and the EU. These include former Soviet republics, such as Georgia, where Moscow has successfully maintained a pro-Russian government, and Moldova, where it is trying to create a similarly pro-Russian regime, against the wishes of the current pro-European administration.

Russia’s influence also extends into the Balkans, where it has backed the Serbs in their ongoing contest with their neighbours, most significantly in Bosnia, where Serbs are pushing for greater autonomy in the face of threats from Bošnjaks, but also in Serbia itself, which is resisting efforts by a Western-backed Kosovo to establish its independence.

More broadly still, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has provided seeming confirmation that the world is entering a period of great power competition in which the EU must strengthen its international position to stand its ground against rising powers such as China and avoid becoming a supplicant to the US.

Eastward enlargement offers one means to achieve the stated goal of establishing a ‘geopolitical EU’, increasing its territory by a quarter, its population by more than fifty million and, with the integration of Ukraine, incorporating massive tracts of additional agricultural land, reserves of mineral and rare earths, and a large new industrial base.

Conversely, a failure to enlarge risks weakening the EU, as Poland and its neighbours are forced to assume primary responsibility for Ukraine with the help of the US and the UK, deepening the EU’s east-west division and allowing the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ countries to undermine the EU’s position in eastern Europe by establishing themselves as the dominant external powers.

Accordingly, leaders in the European core have at last come round to the opinion of their counterparts in the east, which have long supported the EU’s further enlargement as a means to stabilise their neighbourhood, reunite with stranded diasporas, secure their investments in the Balkans and Ukraine, and integrate states that share their commitment to national sovereignty, at the expense of the more liberally-minded west.

The quid pro quo of the western Europeans’ newfound enthusiasm for a ‘widening’ of the EU is a revival of two long-standing demands. One is for the EU’s ‘deepening’, a feature of the enlargement debate dating back to the 1990s, which reflected concerns in western Europe about preserving the EU’s integrity as its membership expands.

The second, more immediate, issue is one of functionality, given the risk of institutional paralysis, with as many as thirty-six member states gathered around the table in the European Council who must agree by qualified majority, and sometimes by unanimity, before decisions can be passed collectively. Underlying this is a basic political interest in retaining the pre-eminent position of the western European core – particularly of France and Germany – which suffered a setback with its expansion to the east in the 2000s and has only been partially restored following the departure of the UK, which previously constituted an alternative centre of power.

In doing so, liberal politicians in western Europe can consequently preserve the liberal character of the EU, with its purported commitment to the ideals of democracy, tolerance and the rule of law, seemingly challenged by the rise of authoritarian powers such as Russia and China and the ‘illiberal democracies’ within the EU’s own midst. To this end, veteran federalists, such as the European parliamentarian Guy Verhofstadt, have reacted to the prospect of further enlargement with renewed calls for the EU’s transformation into a European superstate, led by a European Executive with its own budget and powers over taxation and foreign and defence policies.

Meanwhile, in milder form, the Franco-German strategy paper proposes various changes to decision-making procedures in the Council, most importantly ending the right of individual member states to veto decisions and instead subjecting these to a revised form of qualified majority voting, which reinforces the power of the EU’s larger states, most of which lie in western Europe.

The paper also calls for an end to the right of smaller members to a European Commissioner, the award of new powers over decision-making to the liberally-minded European Parliament and a strengthening of the EU’s Article Seven procedure, which has been used to sanction Hungary and Poland for violations of the EU’s ‘fundamental values’.

The second demand – again a long-standing feature of the enlargement debate – is that the authoritarian, corrupt and, in some cases, politically dysfunctional aspirants in eastern Europe must meet strict conditions before they can be allowed to enter the EU in what is presented as a ‘merit-based’ process of accession.

The nature of these conditions have been a moveable feast in the past, but more or less includes the need to establish democracy and a free-market economy, to implement the EU’s law book, the acquis communitaire and its numerous associated technical reforms, and to resolve outstanding political disputes which might otherwise burden the EU’s existing members.

In the case of Ukraine, this last demand implies a resolving of the status of the breakaway regions in the east which Russia has claimed. Similarly, Georgia would have to determine the status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which are occupied by Russia, and Moldova of the breakaway state of Transnistria.

Meanwhile, in the Balkans, Serbia must recognise Kosovo, while Kosovo must itself grant some form of autonomy to its Serb-populated regions. In Bosnia and Herzgovina, Serb and Croat separatists are required to accept their place in the country and work with the Bošnjak population to establish a modicum of institutional functionality.

Yet the glaring problem with such plans is that they run counter to the entire political direction of European politics, which are moving decisively rightwards in response to a raft of perceived failures by its liberal elites, from  immigration to the burgeoning costs of net zero, and high inflation caused in part by the fiscal laxity of the lockdowns in 2020-21.

Across western Europe, liberal governments are being steadily replaced by conservatives augmenting their conservative counterparts in the east. Italy and the Nordic countries have already turned. Right-wing parties may yet take power in the Netherlands and Spain following the fall of their unpopular predecessors. Meanwhile, France’s National Rally, the Alternative for Germany, Belgium’s Flemish Interest and Austria’s Freedom Party are surging in opinion polls.

These parties may differ somewhat in character and policies, but their common denominator is attachment to the idea of national sovereignty and opposition to the kinds of integrationist measures laid down by liberal politicians as the precondition for further enlargement of the EU to the east.

Such views are backed by electorates that have grown sceptical of the EU following a succession of crises dating back to 2008. A poll by Encompass earlier this year found only two countries (Spain and Lithuania) where a majority of voters believed integration should go further. In France, only a third of voters are seemingly on board with the government’s call for a deeper EU. In Eurosceptic Sweden, support for this vision is just seventeen per cent.

By contrast, across Europe, voters express far higher emotional attachment to their own country than they do to the EU – double in most countries and nearly treble in the case of Greece. Against this backdrop, it would take a brave politician to submit the treaty changes required to amend the EU’s constitution to referendum, as countries such as Ireland and Denmark must do.

Nor is there popular enthusiasm in western Europe for further enlargement if this involves bringing in new members on anything like the existing terms. Even if the western Europeans held onto their positions of power in the European institutions, enlargement would expose ordinary Europeans to new and unwanted problems.

One is the question of money and the sheer expense of enlargement given the relative poverty of the EU’s prospective new members and the particular costs attached to Ukraine with its ruined infrastructure and huge agricultural sector. To finance its planned expansion, the EU would have to raise more cash from taxpayers and divert funds away from existing members.

Looming large is also the issue of immigration, not only from the region itself, but from third countries in Asia and the Middle East, for whom the Balkans and parts of the former Soviet Union are an established migration route to western Europe. Unsurprisingly, polls suggest significant majorities in western Europe reject the current policy of enlargement to the east; in Austria, just twenty-nine per cent of voters are supportive.

In recognition of the problem, the Franco-German paper proposes to stagger the enlargement process, initially offering aspirant states in the east membership of the new European Political Community, then a form of temporary associate membership, in which they abide by the rules of the single market and accept the authority of the European Court of Justice before finally graduating to full EU membership.

In seeking to solve one problem, however, such proposals serve to create another by alienating the aspirant countries which European leaders insist must join the EU to fulfil their geopolitical goals.

After twenty years of waiting, the suggestion that the region must first pass through various outer tiers before eventually being fully admitted to the EU has been widely dismissed as insufficient and interpreted as further evidence that politicians in western Europe simply do not want to enlarge the EU to the east.

Going forward, this can only perpetuate the region’s basic reluctance to enact the reforms which the EU has laid down as conditions for entry – which are often unpopular among electorates and come at personal cost to politicians by narrowing the room for corruption, rent-seeking and criminality – and, by extension, prolonging the existing state of stasis in the enlargement process.

In a sign of their continued lack of faith in its authenticity, some politicians in the Balkans have responded to the recent promises of membership by suggesting they would be better off joining the BRICS, which, with the admission of six new members in September – Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the UAE – is actually enlarging.

It would be wrong, however, to suggest that western Europe’s turn to the right represents the end of EU enlargement, following the show of support for this by its liberal establishment. On the contrary, the turn potentially represents a new opportunity for aspirants in the east to join the EU as conservative governments begin to reshape it.

Every new generation has refashioned the EU according to the politics of the age. During the Cold War, hard-headed realists established the European Economic Community as a capitalist free-trade zone in opposition to the communist Council for Mutual Economic Assistance in the east.

With the Cold War’s end, a new generation of liberal idealists took control of the European project and established the EU, a highly-integrated quasi-federation with aspirations to statehood, whose members shared institutions, a currency and a flag while abandoning national sovereignty in a swathe of policy domains from the economy to immigration.

Now, in the shifting circumstances of the 2020s and 2030s, the EU is likely to be refashioned once again under the stewardship of conservatives which reflects their particular political priorities. Some elements will probably remain the same, such as a basic free-trade zone within the EU. States may co-operate more deeply in some areas where they share common interests, such as combatting illegal migration and promoting what they see as a threatened European identity.

The most salient feature of a refashioned EU, given what conservative parties have said in the past and stand for in power today, will be a retreat from the current integrationist model. Powers will return to capitals, where governments will be freer to do what they want within their own national borders without censure or sanction from the centre.

The power of the European institutions will be curtailed and veto rights tightened to prevent Brussels compromising core national interests. The single market will take on a more voluntary character, with its various precepts becoming more advisory in nature. States will abandon the free movement of labour and the passport-free Schengen arrangements. The Eurozone will be reorganised, allowing countries which cannot thrive inside it to make an orderly exit. The whole system of financial transfers inside the EU, from Target II payments to cohesion funds and agricultural subsidies, will be rolled back radically.

This is not merely speculation. In many respects, this vision of a new United Nations of Europe is already coming to pass. The Schengen zone has partially collapsed under the strain of illegal immigration. Frontex is rigorously enforcing the EU’s external borders, and the EU is striking deals with neighbours to end migration flows.

Meanwhile, in eastern Europe, states such as Poland and Hungary are refusing to obey EU decisions which contravene their national interests, financial transfers from the west are declining as the latter gets steadily richer (and the EU withholds funds from Hungary and Poland), and the flow of migrants to the west under the free movement arrangements has radically slowed.

A looser union such as this, involving greater decentralisation, fewer rules, and less collective burden-sharing is one in which further enlargement will be much more straightforward. The problems of collective decision-making which weigh on the minds of politicians in western Europe will fall away as power returns to national capitals.

To the extent that states such as Bosnia and North Macedonia are dysfunctional, devolution will render the problem a national rather than a European one. Without liberal internationalists insisting such states must continue to exist, they may anyway break up, allowing more functional nation states to take their place.

At the popular level, issues of money and financing will fall into relative insignificance in the absence of massive cross-border transfers from richer to poorer members. Meanwhile, tighter controls of the EU’s external border and controls on borders within the EU will ease concerns about illegal immigration, and the end of free movement will prevent movement from eastern to western Europe without the consent of the recipient state.

In eastern Europe itself, the rolling back of the single market will lower the technical barriers to entry, while the values to which they are asked to adhere will be ones they hold dear themselves, such as the preservation of the nation and traditional structures, including church and family. Achieving membership will be no more difficult – and probably less so – than the task faced by the Mediterranean when joining earlier incarnations of the EU.

In the absence of generous subsidies and development funds, and rights such as free movement of labour, the offer of EU membership will not be as attractive for the eastern Europeans as it is today. Aspirant members will at least have, however, a realistic chance of being admitted to the EU, in contrast to the existing situation, and on equal terms to current members.

At the same time, the EU itself will have greater reason than ever to integrate the east. Conservatives will share their liberal counterparts’ wish to bind the unintegrated parts of eastern Europe to the west as a means to stabilise the region and contain Russian expansionism. They will be keen to admit the ethnically-homogenous and Christian countries to the east to strengthen European civilisation in the face of mass migration and the rise of non-European powers.

As a matter of politics, conservative governments will also be keen to prevent backsliding into liberalism by incorporating new countries committed to conservative values and national sovereignty, and permanently tipping the balance of power within the EU in their favour.

Such a union will be anathema to the liberal politicians who currently wield power in western Europe and their large support base. They face the prospect of a diminished EU, which falls far short of their vision of a borderless, multicultural Europe under powerful central institutions that lock in their ideals and values. Inevitably, they will continue to use their residual power to preserve the old EU and insist on its further integration, diminishing the prospects of it ever enlarging.

If the next phase of European politics continues on its current trajectory and is dominated by conservatives, then such opposition is likely to be contained. Instead, the refashioning of the EU into a looser union will offer new opportunity to complete the process of enlargement to the east and allow states such as Ukraine, Moldova and their peers in the Balkans to finally take up their place among the family of European nations.


Timothy Less