How odd to reflect that, a mere 25 years ago, the European Union had only 27 member states. Now, a quarter century later, all the European countries are members of the Union. The penultimate stronghold of resistance was Belarus, where the Lukashenko brothers were finally ousted by a popular uprising. The very last continental country to join was that inviolable strongroom Switzerland, which held out till 2030 before finally joining the puissant Union, the same year Sweden became a fully-fledged member of NATO. The international press correspondents club in Brussels marked the occasion by awarding Switzerland the “Václav Klaus” Prize, named after a Czech president notorious for swimming against the current.
In this year of our Lord 2034, the question of Turkish accession still hasn’t been decided, even though the country does meet all the formal requirements. This exclusion is entirely owing to staunch opposition from Germany, Great Britain and France. Turkey cooperates closely with the European Union, and fully benefits from its structural funds, among other things. But it’s not officially in the club. “We’re entitled to all the dishes on the European menu, but we’re spared the nauseating bureaucratic Brussels sprouts,” as the Turkish prime minister recently put it in a nutshell. Thanks to its secular state, thriving market economy and lively democracy, Turkey has become a role model for its Muslim neighbours in the region. The country’s population outstripped Germany’s 10 years ago, and this simple demographic fact – along with the still unresolved Cyprus question – is the underlying reason for Turkey’s peculiar position on the outskirts of the Union.
The end of an ethnocentric Union
A quick glance in the rear-view mirror shows that every enlargement of the EU has brought ever tougher challenges in train. A nimbus of nostalgia still surrounds the easeful enlargement of the European family back in 1995, with the advent of such rich, neutral, middle-ground-seeking countries as Finland, Austria and Sweden. The 2004 enlargement, on the other hand, involving the integration of eight ex-Communist countries in Central Europe, along with two Mediterranean islands, proved an economic and psychological ordeal for a union hitherto “ethnocentred” on the West. Even within the Union, the former Eastern European countries are still gnawed by their bitter experience of Communism and the planned economy: they remain very wary of government intervention and overregulation. The fiercest resistance to the EU’s makeover into a “super-state” came from precisely those countries, along with Bulgaria and Romania, and their accession was to take a heavy toll on the Union. The subsequent integration of the ex-Yugoslav republics, starting with Croatia, then all the others, plus Albania, was costly in economic terms, but strongly anchored in popular support: “a resuscitated Yugoslavia, but in a bigger, pacified and democratised package”, as one journalist put it.
In spite of all the prophecies of doom, significant headway has been made since then on environmental and climate issues – though there were several setbacks along the way, and no fewer than four Copenhagen Conferences were held in the space of two decades. The biggest stride forward was the creation of a common energy agency, which put a stop to the worst abuses of national energy policies. So 25 years ago the Union first got a president – something that now seems a matter of course. On the other hand, we are still at loggerheads over whether he or she ought to be a skilful negotiator or a charismatic leader. The major European powers are partial to outstanding, even flamboyant, leaders – provided the latter hail from their country. The smaller countries, on the contrary, show a marked preference for CEOs. Europe’s role in foreign policy has grown significantly over the past quarter century. In the 1970s, US secretary of state Henry Kissinger was already bemoaning the fact there was no number to call to reach Europe, hence its lack of clout. Now, ever since the EU got itself a number, it has taken the reins of international diplomacy in hand, potently proving the point by settling a number of conflicts raging in East Africa. So Olof Palme’s statement that Swedish accession to the EEC was inconceivable owing to the need for a coordinated foreign policy now seems ancient history.
Superpower or mega-meltdown?
What will the EU be 25 years down the road? A 40-strong “superunion”, or a patchwork coming apart at the seams, worn out by successive enlargements and debilitated by internecine strife? The Swedish magazine Fokus envisions an EU with 40 members – and plenty more clout than today – that has cashiered one of its most controversial policies: farm subsidies. In this scenario, “the feisty French farmers are finally vanquished by relentless resistance from several new member countries”. It has also achieved its aspiration of becoming a key player in the international arena, and European peace-keepers are ready to deploy to hot spots anywhere in the world at a moment’s notice.
In the second scenario, however, Fokus portrays a union with growing pains, incapable of pursuing further enlargement or even really integrating the newcomers. The nations of Central and Eastern Europe, hard hit by the economic crisis that struck in 2008, have never recovered and flounder in frustration and stagnation. Mass unemployment again sweeps the continent, sparking widespread social tension and the success of extremist parties. Ultimately, in this bleak picture of the road ahead, “The Lisbon Treaty will not have saved Europe or solved all the problems so many hoped it would.”