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EU: Is Eastward Expansion Pressure Rupturing The Union?

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Can the European Union undertake a huge eastward expansion, which is meant to bring Eastern and Western Europe closer together, while at the same time deepening cooperation among key present members? Is the fabric of the EU able to bear the strain of these competing impulses, or is Europe in fact heading for some sort of split? In the first part of a two-part analysis, RFE/RL's Breffni O'Rourke looks at these issues.

Prague, 13 July 2000 (RFE/RL) -- From one perspective, the eastward expansion of the European Union could be seen as the greatest threat to this venture in European unity since it began almost a half-century ago.

Pessimists in Western Europe fear that the task of almost doubling the size of the union by another dozen countries could lead to such a dilution that the union, as it's known today, could cease to exist.

Much depends in the first instance on the progress of the EU Inter-Governmental Conference, or IGC, which is now working to agree on changes to union institutions, to equip them to cope with a greatly expanded membership. Without effective internal reform, an expanded EU would degenerate into a Babel of voices unable to formulate common actions. The IGC has until December to find answers, and that won't be easy, given the long-entrenched interests involved.

But the pessimists say that even if the IGC succeeds, the huge expansion will unavoidably tend to loosen the ties of cooperation among old-established members, ties which are constantly deepening as the partners learn to work better together.

Such fears, whether conscious or still subconscious, have sparked an impulse to counter the breadth of the expansion by creating a greater and more formal depth of integration between some of the key older members.

The impulse crystallized in the now-famous speech at Humboldt University in May by German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer. Fischer spoke in a visionary way about a European federation. The idea was then kept in play by French President Jacques Chirac, who put his own concept for a "pioneer group" of nations which would adopt a "European constitution." Italian leaders have also spoken encouragingly. Since then, terms like "core Europe" and "enhanced cooperation" have become popular to explain the older members' drive to preserve what has been achieved in over 40 years of effort.

But does this mean that in real terms the EU is splitting between the advanced nations and the not advanced, thus excluding the newcomers once again from the inner circle?

The director of the Brussels-based Centre for European Policy Studies, Peter Ludlow, says that case has been put best by influential former European Commission President Jacques Delors. Ludlow says that Delors, who is a pessimist when it comes to expansion, reasons this way:

"Yes, enlargement is a moral obligation for the 21st century, but don't kid yourselves into believing that you can have a European Union of the sort we wanted, when you are going to have, shall we say, 30 member states. So [therefore] we have to offer the new member states something tangible which looks very much, to my mind, like the European economic area which already exists, but [then] those of us who are serious about the European venture and are much further forward, we forge on, we create our own arrangements and we create a 'core Europe.'"

Ludlow himself disagrees with Delors and other pessimists. He asks why this enlargement should be viewed with excessive fear. After all, the EU has been expanded many times before, even if those were smaller in scope. He also questions the supposition that this eastward move differs basically from any earlier expansion. And what evidence is there, he asks, that the easterners will be unable or unwilling to join wholeheartedly in building the European venture? He says:

"There are those who are pessimistic, but I think they are unrealistic. I think they underestimate the real will, and the obligation on our side, [as well as] the real will on the side of the prospective member states, to join up."

Ludlow also cautions about expecting the road toward enlargement to be quick or easy. He says the chorus of complaints about the slowness of the process from Eastern politicians, including Polish and Hungarian ministers, is clearly motivated by the political need to keep up pressure on Brussels. But at the same time, he says:

"There are those undoubtedly in the media and elsewhere who talk of the slowness of the enlargement process, who frankly don't know what's involved in enlargement. It is an immensely complicated process, because every prospective member state has to carry through what is in effect a fundamental revolution, not only in their statute books but in the way in which their administration is organized."

Some see more likelihood that the union will be put under strain because of differences between existing members, rather than strain between the old and the new. That theory will form the subject of the second analysis in this series.

The European Union is under strain as it moves towards eastward enlargement. Some of the long-established members are considering closer integration among themselves to avoid a diluting effect of the planned expansion. This concept of "core Europe" could leave new members on the outskirts of the union, but it could also isolate some of the present EU members. In this second of two analyses, RFE/RL's Breffni O'Rourke looks at the latter possibility, namely that of a West-West split.

The eastward expansion process of the European Union is paradoxically helping to drive a wedge between the present members of the union.

That's because of two coinciding factors. One is the new impulse among some of the established EU members like France, Germany, and Italy to join together in what is being called "core Europe."

This "core" is an envisaged inner group, which would forge ahead with greater integration, leading eventually to some form of federation, even if that remains a hazy goal. It's an idea, which has arisen as a counterweight to the diluting effect of the expansion process.

The other factor is the sharpening tendency of the 18-month-old common currency, the euro, to divide those inside the eurozone from those still outside, namely Britain, Sweden, and Denmark.

Analysts see the monetary union as inevitably reinforcing the trend toward de facto federalism --- a destination vehemently opposed by countries such as Britain. Brussels-based analyst Peter Ludlow, of the Centre for European Policy Studies, puts it this way:

"You could arrive at a situation -- shall we say in 2004, 2005, 2006 -- where the others, by going into monetary union, have already accepted very, very important obligations towards one another, which do need to be underpinned by something like a constitution. [And they] say to the British, Danes, and Swedes, 'sorry, we will have to go on in the form of defining our obligations to one another in constitutional form.' At that point, you could well have a split within the present EU 15."

Another Brussels think-tank analyst, John Wyles of the European Policy Centre, also foresees a possible deepening rift, particularly if the September referendum on eurozone membership fails in Denmark. He says:

"Everyone has to acknowledge the danger is there, given the state of public opinion in the UK and indeed in Denmark. If the Danish referendum were to go against the euro, then I think it is almost impossible for the Swedes to contemplate membership, so you would get a euro 12 and three countries currently known as 'pre-ins' who would definitely move to an 'out' status."

The French presidency of the EU, which has just begun, is likely to broaden the gap between the two groups. That's because France wants a greatly intensified consultation process between eurozone finance ministers and the Frankfurt-based European Central Bank. That would further cut out the non-euro EU members.

The senior spokesman in Brussels for the French presidency, Denis Simonneau, tells RFE/RL:

"It's true that, by definition, the [coming] third phase of the economic and monetary union is the phase of increased integration. That creates effectively a disparity between those who are 'out' and those who are 'in' -- one sees at the moment the impact of exchange rates. It's true that the favorable rate of the [British] pound sterling compared with the euro has reached a level which is not beneficial for exports and for investors in England."

But analysts like Wyles say it can't be assumed that the so-called pioneer group that forges ahead will be synonymous with the common currency euro-12. He questions whether the eurozone 12 would make a "coherent and authoritative political grouping" for instance, in the area of common defense and security policy, without the participation of Britain. The answer to that, he suggests, is no.

He sees a more complicated pattern than that developing in the years ahead.

"It does not, to my mind, automatically imply that the euro-12 is the pioneer group. It is quite possible that there will be more than one pioneer group, and that the membership changes according to the issues involved," he says.

Wyles says he also he finds it conceivable that some of the new eastern accession countries would find themselves with the pioneers on some issues. And he does not find credible fears that the idea of building a core Europe is necessarily disadvantaging or dispossessing the easterners. He says:

"One should also not forget the extent by which the accession countries are [linked to the EU] by various agreements -- the Europe agreements, the accession agreements, the preparation for membership -- the ties that bind the candidate countries now to the 15 are strengthening every day, both political and commercial. There is an extent to which the candidate countries, I think, are going to be involved in this political dialogue if they know how, as it were, to manage their role and situation cleverly enough." Whatever happens, the next five or so years will be crucial both for present and future members of the European Union.