Wednesday, December 08, 2004

EU expansion

One thing that has come out of the recent crisis in Ukraine, and perhaps more to the point, the recent elections in Romania, is the lure that EU membership presents to many countries in Eastern Europe. Indeed, in Romania many have seen the election as being pivotal in deciding whether the country enters the EU in 2007 as planned, or whether it must wait for longer before acceptance. And Ukranians campaigning for Yushchenko, whether directly or indirectly, are in effect campaigning for an alignment with the Western world as opposed to an alignment within a murky Russian sphere of influence (although the effects of this may be more limited given yesterday's news, in which constitutional amendments were passed to increase the amount of devolved power within the constitution so as to avoid a secessionist movement in the East).

The EU has had one major tool in spreading economic "westernisation" and establishing democratic principles in eastern Europe: the promise of future membership. Expanded membership has in itself brought about a number of organisational problems for the EU, exemplified best by the ensuing debate over the constitution. Despite Lithuanian enthusiasm in signing the document, it is going to be pretty much impossible for it to pass the legislatures of all countries, especially given the strong "No" movements in several referendum campaigns. Yet a bigger question is going to emerge soon: how far can the policy of expansion actually go?

It has been one of the biggest paradoxes of expansion that at a time when the more "original" members of the EU are embarking on a programme of ever closer union, and in particular ever closer monetary union, that the membership of many still-developing economies into the EU, if not the euro, has taken place. If the process of territorial expansion is to continue, then the Howard proposals of a "two-speed Europe" will probably become fundamentally necessary. Accesion countries do not have economies robust enough at present to enter into economic and monetary union. And this will be of great disappointment to those who really do see Europe as a potentially centralised superpower (I'm looking in your direction, France and Belgium). Because if the accession countries cannot be made to join the euro, then it would be illogical to try and force Britain to join. Of course, France and Germany desperately want us to join the euro, because the economic strength and gravitas we bring to the table is quite immense. In any case, the drive for further integration must surely be checked by the new countries, who would quite reasonably seek to wait to be given the chance to catch up before other ambitious programmes could be embarked upon.

Returning to the limits of expansion, however, I think that there are two options ahead for the EU. One is to define the limits of Europe territorially and culturally. The other is much less plausible, for it would involve an expansion of the Union beyond areas traditionally considered European - certainly into Turkey, and quite possibly into the southern Mediterranean. What considering hypotheses like this highlights is the difficulty of actually establishing any kind of "European" identity. I, personally, am strongly pro-European; am often embarrassed by the Eurosceptic press in Britain, and think that a greater British participation in the "European project" would see a greater restructuring of the political institutions that could achieve highly desirable ends for the whole continent. What is ridiculous, however, is the controlling tendencies of central EU directives. We need instead a more nuanced German-style model of hierarchies within government and devolved power.

Of course, a study of Germany would be a salutary case for realising the limitations of arguing too strongly for national identity over any level. These arguments are even stronger when placed on a European level. How do we define Europe? Territorially, France, Spain, Germany are all very close together. Yet culturally there is a divide between the more liberal and 'secular' morals of Northern Europe and the more Catholic models of Southern Europe, which in turn has strong economic, if not religious, links with other countries in the Southern Mediterranean. Where would we place the borders of Europe? Does the mere desire of the Ukranians to push for a greater western-leaning policy justify eventual inclusion in the structures of the EU at some point in the 2010s, or do we say that territorially the EU is only viable over a certain expanse of land? With the question of Turkey, do we give EU membership as a reward for progress towards instituting "democratic norms" in the country, or do we say that cultural and territorial differences are just too great to be surmounted?

There are no easy answers to these questions, and I suspect that I shall return to them at regular intervals in the course of my postings. My preferred solution would be to try and avoid many of the controlling aspects of the EU government, and perhaps returning somewhere nearer the original aim of a free market governmentally speaking. Creating a genuine free trade area and allowing Eastern Europe, and possibly even further afield, to participate within the benefits of the economic liberalisation of the European Union would be a highly desirable end. Furthermore, on issues which need greater co-ordination, and in particular many facets of foreign policy, the EU has a great chance to act as a power for good. The example of Ukraine shows the benefits and weight of taking a united stand on a continental basis. Obviously I am not arguing for the entire harmonisation of foreign policy, and I believe constitutional provisions for a foreign minister for the entire EU are unhelpful and unnecessary. Such a model would provide for a huge expansion of the EU, which is something I would welcome, for it provides a wonderful framework for reconciliation and a greater feeling of shared destiny in world problems. But at some point, expansion will have to stop. Where these limits will, or even should, be fixed, I do not know. This won't stop me from trying as I write this blog.