Switching Empires

The Enlargement of the European Union (EU)

By: Dr. Sam Vaknin

Also published by United Press International (UPI)

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December 13, 2002

European Union (EU) leaders, meeting in Copenhagen, are poised to sign an agreement to admit ten new members to their hitherto exclusive club. Eight of the fortunate acceders are former communist countries: Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia. Bulgaria and Romania are tentatively slated to join in 2007. The exercise will cost in excess of $40 billion over the next three years. The EU's population will grow by 75 million souls.

In the wake of the implosion of the USSR in 1989-91, the newly independent countries of the Baltic and central Europe, traumatized by decades of brutal Soviet imperialism, sought to fend off future Russian encroachment. Entering NATO and the EU was perceived by them as the equivalent of obtaining geopolitical insurance policies against a repeat performance of their tortured histories.

This existential emphasis shifted gradually to economic aspects as an enfeebled, pro-Western and contained Russia ceased to represent a threat. But the ambivalence towards the West is still there. Mild strands of paranoid xenophobia permeate public discourse in central Europe and, even more so, in east Europe.

The Czechs bitterly remember how, in 1938, they were sacrificed to the Nazis by a complacent and contemptuous West. The Poles and Slovenes fear massive land purchases by well heeled foreigners (read: Germans). Everyone decries the "new Moscow" - the faceless, central planning, remote controlling bureaucracy in Brussels. It is tough to give up hard gained sovereignty and to immerse oneself in what suspiciously resembles a loose superstate.

But surely comparing the EU or NATO to the erstwhile "Evil Empire" (i.e., the Soviet Union) is stretching it too far? The USSR, after all, did not hesitate to exercise overwhelming military might against ostensible allies such as Hungary (1956) and the Czechoslovaks (1968)? Try telling this to the Serbs who were demonized by west European media and then bombarded to smithereens by NATO aircraft in 1999.

Though keen on rejoining the mainstream of European history, civilization and economy, the peoples of the acceding swathe are highly suspicious of Western motives and wary of becoming second-class citizens in an enlarged entity. They know next to nothing about how the EU functions.

They are chary of another period of "shock therapy" and of creeping cultural imperialism. Rendered cynical by decades of repression, they resent what they regard as discriminatory accession deals imposed on them in a "take it or leave it" fashion by the EU.

Anti-EU sentiment and Euroscepticism are vocal - though abating - even in countries like Poland, an erstwhile bastion of Europhilia. Almost two thirds of respondents in surveys conducted by the EU in Estonia, Latvia, Slovenia and Lithuania are undecided about EU membership or opposed to it altogether. The situation in the Czech Republic is not much different. Even in countries with a devout following of EU accession, such as Romania, backing for integration has declined this year.

These lurking uncertainties are reciprocated in the west. The mostly Slav candidates are stereotyped and disparaged by resurgent rightwing, anti-immigration parties, by neo-nationalists, trade protectionists and vested interests. Countries like Spain, France, Ireland, Greece and Portugal stand to receive less regional aid and agricultural subsidies from the common EU till as the money flows east.

Core constituencies in the west - such as farmers and low-skilled industrial workers - resent the enlargement project. Anti-Slav prejudices run rampant in Italy, Austria and Germany. The incompatibilities are deepest. For instance, according to research recently published by the Pew Center, the new members are staunchly pro-American, though less so than ten years ago. In stark contrast, the veteran core of the EU is anti-American.

Many of the denizens of the candidate countries regard the EU as merely an extended Germany. It is the focus of numerous conspiracy theories, especially in the Balkan. The losers of the second world war - Japan and Germany - are out to conquer the world, this time substituting money for bullets. Germany, insist the Serbs and the Macedonians - instigated the breakdown of the Yugoslav Federation to establish a subservient Croatia. Wasn't Slobodan Milosevic, the Serb dictator, ousted in favor of the German-educated Zoran Djindjic? - they exclaim triumphantly.

Germany is reasserting itself. United, it is the largest country in Europe and one of the richest. Its forces are keeping the fragile peace in Balkan hot spots, like Macedonia. It will contribute to the EU's long-heralded rapid reaction force. It owns the bulk of the, frequently overdue, sovereign debts of Russia, Ukraine and other east European countries.

One tenth of Germany's trade is with the candidate countries, a turnover comparable to its exchange with the United States. German goods constitute two fifths of all EU trade with the new members. Germans are the largest foreign direct investors throughout the region - from Hungary to Croatia. German banks compete with German-owned Austrian banks over control of the region's fledgling financial sector. The study of German as a second or third language has surged.

Last year alone, German corporations plunged $3.6 billion into the economies of the acceding countries. German multinationals like Volkswagen and Siemens employ almost 400,000 people in central Europe - for one tenth to one eighth their cost in the fatherland.

Quoted by the World Socialist, the German Chamber of Industry and Commerce (IHK) estimates that the production costs in mechanical engineering and plant construction are 20 percent lower in Poland than in Germany, while quality is more or less the same.

Germany runs the EU rather single-handedly, though with concessions to a megalomaniacally delusional France. In September, the German and French leaders, meeting tête-à-tête in a hotel, dictated to other members the fate, for the next 11 years, of half the EU's budget - the portion wasted on the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

Germany's hegemonic role is likely to be enhanced by enlargement. Many of the new members - e.g., the Czech Republic - depend on it economically. Others - like Hungary - share with it a common history. German is spoken in the majority of the candidates. They trade with Germany and German businessmen and multinational are heavily invested in their economies. A "German Bloc" within the EU is conceivable - unless Poland defects to the increasingly marginalized French or to the British.

Germany's federalist instincts - its express plan to create a "United States of Europe", central government and all - are, therefore, understandable, though spurned by the candidate countries. Germany is likely to press for even further enlargement to the east. The EU's commissioner for enlargement is a German, Gunter Verheugen.

The dilapidated expanses of the former Soviet satellites are Germany's natural economic hinterland - on the way to the way more lucrative Asian markets. Hence Germany's reluctance to admit Turkey, a massive, pro-American, potential competitor for Asian favors. Integrating Russia would be next on Germany's re-emerging Ostpolitik.

This firmly places Germany on an economic and military collision course with the United States. As Stratfor, the strategic forecasting consultancy, put it recently: "In Washington's opinion, America's obsessions should be NATO's obsessions." Germany, the regional superpower, has other, more pressing priorities: "maintaining stability in its region, making sure that Russian evolution is  benign and avoiding costly conflicts in which it has only  marginal interest".

Moreover, there is an entirely different - and much less benign - interpretation of EU enlargement. It is based on the incontrovertible evidence that the German ends in Europe have remained the same - only the means have changed. The German "September Plan" to impose an economic union on the vanquished nations of Europe following a military victory, called, in 1914, for "(the establishment of) an economic organization ... through mutual customs agreements ... including France, Belgium, Holland, Denmark, Austria, Poland, and perhaps Italy, Sweden, and Norway".

Europe spent the first half of the 19th century (following the 1815 Congress of Vienna) containing a post-Napoleonic France. The Concert of Europe was specifically designed to reflect the interests of the Big Powers, establish the limits to their expansion in Europe, and create a continental "balance of deterrence". For a few decades it proved to be a success.

The rise of a unified, industrially mighty and narcissistic Germany led to two ineffably ruinous world wars. In an effort to prevent a repeat of Hitler, the Big Powers of the West, led by the USA, the United Kingdom and France, attempted to contain Germany from both east and west. The western plank consisted of an "ever closer" European Union and a divided Germany.

The collapse of the eastern flank of anti-German containment - the USSR - led to the re-emergence of a united Germany. As the traumatic memories of the two world conflagrations receded, Germany resorted to applying its political weight - now commensurate with its economic and demographic might - to securing EU hegemony. Germany is also a natural and historical leader of central Europe - the future lebensraum of both the EU and NATO and the target of their expansionary predilections, euphemistically termed "enlargement".

Thus, virtually overnight, Germany came to dominate the Western component of anti-German containment - even as the Eastern component has chaotically disintegrated.

The EU - notably France - is reacting by trying to assume the role formerly played by the USSR. EU integration is an attempt to assimilate former Soviet satellites and dilute Germany's power by re-jigging rules of voting and representation. If successful, this strategy will prevent Germany from bidding yet again for a position of dominance in Europe by establishing a "German Union" separate from the EU.

If this gambit fails, however, Germany will emerge triumphant, at the head of the world's second largest common market and most prominent trading bloc. Its second-among-equal neighbors will be reduced to mere markets for its products and recruitment stages for its factories.

In this exegesis, EU enlargement has already degenerated into the same tiresome and antiquated mercantilist game among 19th century continental Big Powers. Even Britain has hitherto maintained its Victorian position of "splendid isolation". There is nothing wrong with that. The Concert of Europe ushered in a century of globalization, economic growth and peace. Yet, alas, this time around, it has thus far been quite a cacophony.

Also Read:

Europe's Four Speeds

Europe's Agricultural Revolution

How the West Lost the East

Forward to the Past - Capitalism in Post-Communist Europe

Left and Right in a Divided Europe

The Concert of Europe, Interrupted

The Eastern Question Revisited

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