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EU: At 50, A Victim Of Its Own Success?

  • Ahto Lobjakas

Has the EU expanded too far for its own good? (epa) BRUSSELS, March 22, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- With the European Union's first half-century drawing to a close, few are in a mood to celebrate, despite a long list of achievements. Paradoxically, one of the EU's biggest successes -- enlargement -- has led to deep divisions within the bloc over its future course.


The paradox that best sums up the EU's current predicament is that the bloc appears to be vastly more attractive to people outside its borders than to its own citizens.


According to a poll published in the "Financial Times" on March 19, 44 percent of EU citizens believe life has gotten worse since their country joined the bloc.


On the other hand, most people in countries like Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, and elsewhere crave EU membership.


Losing Its Way


Facing the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome, its founding document, the EU seems to have lost its way. There is hardly a subject on which the majority of its 27 member states agree and hardly a project that is moving forward.


At the heart of the malaise that seems to have engulfed the EU is the unraveling of the bloc's constitution, which at one time was intended to be the crown jewel of the EU's 50th birthday celebration.


Signed in 2004 by all member states, it was rejected by referendums in France and the Netherlands in 2005.


Jose Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, said it all during an EU summit earlier this month, when he warned that the bloc's very "raison d'etre" risked coming into question. "We may disagree here or there, but we should defend this European integration project," he said.


'Enlargement Fatigue'


There are many explanations what has gone wrong. Yet nearly all have one thing in common: the EU's enlargement in 2004, adding 10 new member states, had something to do with it.


It was a feeling of alienation and insecurity, attributed to enlargement, that led to the French and Dutch rejections of the constitution.


The 10 new, poorer members came to be seen by many people in the "old" EU states as a potential threat to the jobs, benefits, and cradle-to-grave social benefits they had grown used to.


The countries most affected by that feeling comprise the core of the EU's members. France, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and Italy were the six founding members of the EU in 1957. Now their populations are turning inward, complaining that the "deepening" of the union has fallen victim to its "widening."


For the first time in many years, candidate countries have not been invited to a major EU event when the bloc's current German presidency hosts a birthday summit in Berlin on March 25.


A celebratory three-page declaration, drafted by Germany, will make no mention of future enlargement -- although that prospect still has supporters in Britain and the new member states.


This is a staggering turnaround in the space of just three years.


Further Enlargement Still Possible?


Speaking at Nova Gorica/Gorizia, on the Slovenian-Italian border, on May 1, 2004, then-European Commission President Romano Prodi euphorically predicted that enlargement was just the beginning.


"Today's enlargement is the fifth and the largest in the history of the union and I am convinced that it will not be the last," he said. "Other European countries and nations will decide to join our undertaking until the whole continent is unified in peace and democracy."


Those were heady days. All of the Balkan states had been promised membership by an EU summit at Thessaloniki, Greece, in June 2003. Turkey had been given candidate status in December 1999. Ukraine's leaders were told by Prodi himself in 2003 that the EU's "door is not closed."


Now there is no consensus among EU member states when any of the total of seven countries promised membership in one form or another -- from Croatia to Turkey -- will eventually join, if at all.


Countries further afield -- Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia -- have been told to mothball their aspirations for fear of provoking a permanent "no" to their membership prospects.


Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn made a rare attempt at putting the EU's internal woes into a broader context at a conference in Brussels on March 19.


"I think it is worth recalling who cheered on June 1, 2005, -- or June 3 -- after the French and Dutch referenda," Rehn said. "Who cheered in Southeastern Europe or Eastern Europe? They were the radicals in Turkey -- the nationalists in Turkey -- the radicals in Serbia, and the pan-Slavists in Russia. Why? Because they thought the European Union had become too weak and too internally oriented to project its soft power of transformation in its immediate neighborhood or future home territory."


Just three years after the EU's biggest-ever enlargement, people like Rehn find themselves having to backpedal furiously to save what they can.


When the European Neighborhood Policy was unveiled in 2003, Prodi said it would not address the question of membership -- pending an envisaged EU-wide debate on Europe's borders.


Rehn now misses no opportunity to fend off calls for just such a debate, contending that, in the EU's present internal climate, it could only result in the falling of a new "silver curtain," drawn in indelible "india ink," permanently separating from the EU most of the current membership hopefuls.

EU Expands Eastward



To view RFE/RL's archive of coverage related to EU expansion, click here .

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