The European Union's Four Speeds of

Enlargement and Membership

By: Dr. Sam Vaknin

Also published by United Press International (UPI)

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November 14, 2002

Updated January 30, 2011

The European project variably known as the European Community and the European Union is driven by fear, not by promise. It is and has always been a phobic, defensive enterprise rather than a hope-filled polity.

Its founders, in the mid-fifties, sought to prevent future waves of virulent and aggressive nationalisms. Later, in successive rounds, the framework was reluctantly and grudgingly enlarged to encompass the poorer countries of south Europe and Greece in an attempt to forestall uncontrollable tides of destitute economic immigrants.

When communism crumbled, the resulting new and liberated states feared the clutches of a resurgent Russia. The European Union offered “enlargement” (and NATO membership) as a solution. Again, it was the dread of an external threat that shaped the bloc, not any overriding vision.

More recently, the constituents of the former Yugoslavia and Albania, having endured slaughters and internecine warfare and poised as they are on the doorstep of a tranquil and prosperous continent are blackmailing the European Union into accession: “If you do not allow us to accede” – these kleptocratic poor imitations of nation-states openly threaten – “we will erupt on your threshold and swamp you with blood, refugees, immigrants, and crime”. Who can resist such an offer? Not the European Union.

Pomp and circumstance often disguise a sore lack of substance. The summits of the Central European Initiative are no exception. In Novemver 2002, one such conclave was held in Macedonia's drab capital, Skopje, the delegates including the odd chief of state. The congregants discussed their economies in what was presumptuously dubbed by them the "small Davos", after the larger and far more important annual get together in Switzerland.

Yet the whole exercise rests on a series of politically correct confabulations. To start with, Macedonia, the host, as well as Albania, Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine and other east European backwaters hardly qualify for the title "central European". Mitteleuropa is not merely a geographical designation which excludes all but two or three of the participants. It is also a historical, cultural, and social entity which comprises the territories of the erstwhile German and, especially, Austro-Hungarian (Habsburg) empires.

Moreover, the disparity between the countries assembled in the august conference precludes a common label. Slovenia's GDP per capita is 7 times Macedonia's. The economies of the Czech Republic, Poland, and Hungary are light years removed from those of Yugoslavia or even Bulgaria.

Nor do these countries attempt real integration. While regional talk shops, such as ASEAN and the African Union, embarked on serious efforts to establish customs and currency zones, the countries of central and eastern Europe have drifted apart and intentionally so. Intra-regional trade has declined every single year since 1989. Intra-regional foreign direct investment is almost non-existent.

Macedonia's exports to Yugoslavia, its next door neighbor, amount to merely half its exports to the unwelcoming European Union - and are declining. Countries from Bulgaria to Russia have shifted 50-75 percent of their trade from their traditional COMECON partners to the European Union and, to a lesser degree, the Middle East, the Far East and the United States.

Nor do the advanced members of the club fancy a common label. Slovenia abhors its Balkan pedigree. Croatia megalomaniacally considers itself German. The Czechs and the Slovaks regard their communist elopement a sad aberration as do the Hungarians. The Macedonians are not sure whether they are Serbs, Bulgarians, or Macedonians. The Moldovans wish they were Romanians. The Romanians secretly wish they were Hungarians. The Austrians are sometimes Germans and sometimes Balkanian. Many Ukrainians and all Belarusians would like to resurrect the evil empire, the USSR.

This identity crisis affects the European Union. Never has Europe been more fractured. It is now a continent of four speeds. The rich core of the European Union, notably Germany and France, constitutes its engine. The mendicant members - from Greece to Portugal - enjoy inane dollops of cash from Brussels but have next to no say in Union matters.

The once shoo-in candidates and members since 2004 - Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and, maybe, Slovakia, if it keeps ignoring the outcomes of its elections - are frantically distancing themselves from the queue of beggars, migrants and criminals that awaits at the pearly gates of Brussels. The Belgian Curtain -between central European candidates and east European aspirants - is falling fast and may prove to be far more divisive and effective than anything dreamt up by Stalin.

The fourth group comprises even newer members - such as Bulgaria and Romania – and “countries” such as Macedonia, Albania, Yugoslavia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and even Croatia. Some of the latter are tainted by war crimes. Others are addicted to donor conferences. Yet others are travesties of the modern nation state having been hijacked and subverted by tribal crime gangs. Most of them combine all these unpalatable features.

Many of these countries possess the dubious distinction of having once been misruled by the sick man of Europe, the Ottoman Empire. In a moment of faux-pas honesty, Valerie Giscard D'Estaing, the chairman of the European Union's much-touted constitutional convention, admitted in November 2002 that a European Union with Turkey will no longer be either European or United. Imagine how they perceive the likes of Macedonia, or Albania (to which they apply the epiteth “The Ottoman Bloc”).

As the Union enlarges to the east and south, its character has been and is being transformed. It has become poorer and darker, more prone to crime and corruption, to sudden or seasonal surges of immigration, to fractiousness and conflict. It is a process of conversion to a truly multi-ethnic and multi-cultural grouping with a weighty Slav and Christian Orthodox presence. Not necessarily an appetizing prospect, say many.

The former communist countries in transition are supposed to be miraculously transformed by the accession process. Alas, the indelible pathologies of communism mesh well with Brussels's unmanageable, self-perpetuating and opaque bureaucracy. These mutually-enhancing propensities are likely to yield a giant and venal welfare state with a class of aged citizens in the core countries of the European Union living off the toil of young, mostly Slav, laborers in its eastern territories. This is the irony: the European Union is doomed without enlargement. It needs these countries far more than they need it.

The strategic importance of western Europe has waned together with the threat posed by a dilapidated Russia. Both south Europe and its northern regions are emerging as pivotal. Enlargement would serve to enhance the dwindling geopolitical relevance of the EU and heal some of the multiple rifts with the USA.

But the main benefits are economic.

Faced with an inexorably ageing populace and an unsustainable system of social welfare and retirement benefits, the EU is in dire need of young immigrants. According to the United Nations Population Division, the EU would need to import 1.6 million migrant workers annually to maintain its current level of working age population. But it would need to absorb almost 14 million new, working-age, immigrants per year just to preserve a stable ratio of workers to pensioners.

Eastern Europe - and especially central Europe - is the EU's natural reservoir of migrant labor. It is ironic that xenophobic and anti-immigration parties hold the balance of power in a continent so dependent on immigration for the survival of its way of life and institutions.

The internal, common, market of the EU has matured. Its growth rate has levelled off and it has developed a mild case of deflation. In previous centuries, Europe exported its excess labor and surplus capacity to its colonies: an economic system known as "mercantilism".

The markets of central, southern, and eastern Europe - West Europe's hinterland - are replete with abundant raw materials and dirt-cheap, though well-educated (though indolent and not well-trained), labor. As indigenous purchasing power increases, the demand for consumer goods and services will expand. Thus, the enlargement candidates can act both as a sink for Europe's production and the root of its competitive advantage.

Moreover, the sheer weight of their agricultural sectors and the backwardness of their infrastructure can force a reluctant EU to reform its inanely bloated farm and regional aid subsidies, notably the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). That the EU cannot afford to treat the candidates to dollops of subventioary largesse as it does the likes of France, Spain, Portugal, and Greece is indisputable. But even a much-debated phase-in period of 10 years would burden the EU's budget - and the patience of its member states and denizens - to an acrimonious breaking point.

The countries of central and eastern Europe are new consumption and investment markets. With a total of 300 million people (Russia counted), they equal the EU's population - though not its much larger purchasing clout. They are likely to while the next few decades on a steep growth curve, catching up with the West. Their proximity to the EU makes them ideal customers for its goods and services. They could provide the impetus for a renewed golden age of European economic expansion.

Central and eastern Europe also provide a natural land nexus between west Europe and Asia and the Middle East. As China and India grow in economic and geopolitical importance, an enlarged Europe will find itself in the profitable role of an intermediary between east and west.

The wide-ranging benefits to the EU of enlargement are clear, therefore. What do the candidate states stand to gain from their accession? The answer is: surprisingly little. All of them already enjoy, to varying degrees, unfettered, largely duty-free, access to the EU. To belong, a few - like Estonia - would have to dismantle a much admired edifice of economic liberalism.

Most of them would have to erect barriers to trade and the free movement of labor and capital where none existed. All of them would be forced to encumber their fragile economies with tens of thousands of pages of prohibitively costly labor, intellectual property rights, financial, and environmental regulation. None stands to enjoy the same benefits as do the more veteran members - notably in agricultural and regional development funds.

Joining the EU would deliver rude economic and political shocks to the candidate countries. A brutal and rather sudden introduction of competition in hitherto much-sheltered sectors of the economy, giving up recently hard-won sovereignty, shouldering the debilitating cost of the implementation of reams of guideline, statutes, laws, decrees, and directives, and being largely powerless to influence policy outcomes. Faced with such a predicament, some countries may even reconsider.

EU Again Postponing the Inevitable: Western Balkans Memberships (Brussels Morning)


In 2003, an exuberant European Union met with the countries of the Western Balkans (Macedonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, Serbia, and Albania) in Thessaloniki, Greece and promised all of them accession. Some established EU members, like Austria, sponsored this collective vision.


Slovenia joined a year later and Croatia became an EU member in 2013. Both are former Yugoslav republics. This rankled: the 5 remaining rumps of Yugoslavia felt unjustly excluded. Twenty years later, they still are – and do.


Equally impoverished and badly governed countries – Romania, Bulgaria, Cyprus, and Malta, to mention but a few – joined over the years. Arguably, the strategic importance of the Western Balkans exceeds that of Romania. So, why the delay?


In the meantime, Russia has been busy exploiting the EU’s inexplicable and discriminatory procrastination to make inroads into the region, most notably in Serbia and Bulgaria and, more recently, in North Macedonia.


As European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyden, admitted recently, at the GLOBSEC conference in Bratislava, “it is not enough to say that the door is open”. Indeed, ‘tis not.


Von Leyden came up with the solipsistic proposal to grant the mostly agricultural Balkan polities access to Europe’s digital market mechanisms and tools, including its e-commerce and cybersecurity aspects. This would increase the trade in physical goods and in services, she pronounced oracularly.


She reiterated the typical vow to increase pre-accession funding, but, as usual, refrained from pegging a number on her largesse. This kind of bribery (or ransom) has been going on for decades, leading exactly nowhere.


On the sidelines, informally, the Commission mooted the tantalizing possibility of granting the patient countries of the Balkans access to Europe’s Horizon funding for innovation and research and development.


Equally the EU’s TEN-T, its trans-European transport network policy, could soon open its doors to the expectant wannabe members.

Both proposals are surrealistic in their irrelevance. The countries of the western Balkans require investments in infrastructure, advanced farming, manufacturing, tourism, and education, not in cybersecurity and cross-continental high speed trains.


By far the most offending gesture was the mealy-mouthed invitation to the ambassadors of the long-spurned candidates to sit in on preparatory meetings of the council in Brussels, sharing a conference table with representatives of the actual constituents of the hallowed Union.


The urbane Minister of Foreign Affairs of North Macedonia, Bujar Osmani, welcomed closer integration pre-accession, but in thinly disguised exasperation, warned that the region is just “hanging” and in dire need of “scaffolding”.


He recalled previous instances of fervid imminent accession that faded together with the emergencies that bred them. In 2015, when migrants made the western Balkans their preferred gateway to Europe, the EU called for swift integration. Such talk dwindled as the smuggling of Syrian and other refugees abated. 


Another Albanian, the Prime Minister of Albania, Edi Rama, bitterly reminisced on how the countries of the EU stingily hoarded COVID-19 jabs and refused to share them with the decimated locales of the Western Balkans. On that occasion, some of these countries turned to Russia, Turkey, and China as well as to their regional proxies (Serbia) to beg for the life-saving vaccines.


In the meantime, tensions in the region are again ramping up. Kosovo and Serbia are at each other’s throats on a host of bilateral issues. Serbian President, Alexander Vucic, cancelled his participation in GLOBSEC, presumably irked and incensed by the belated inclusion of the Kosovar Prime Minister, Albin Kurti.


The EU’s foreign policy honcho, Josep Borrell, and the envoy to the region, Miroslav Lajcak, were left idle as the much anticipated round of talks in Bratislava failed to materialize. Montenegro’s President, Milo Djukanovic, half-jokingly reminded the grandees that, in the Balkans, no one knows what the day will bring.


The Western Balkans has always been a powder keg. Only the prospect of EU accession is keeping it pacified, collaborative, and compliant with norms of civility and liberal-democracy.


But hope alone cannot sustain this departure from previous history. China and Russia are making inroads. It is high time to render the European Union more European and finally fully united.



EU Should Not Reverse Brexit (Brussels Morning)


Lord Michael Heseltine, a Conservative (Tory) stalwart, called, on the seventh anniversary of the infamous referendum, to reverse Brexit. He cited damage to the economy and to the reputation of the United Kingdom, as well as the “frustration of our younger generation”.


Years of turmoil – the pandemic, the war in Ukraine, Boris Johnson’s shenanigans – masked the pernicious outcomes of the inane and self-defeating decision to exit the European Union.


The UK’s regional economies and exports are shrinking. The country is headed to an economic performance that may be as bad as sanction-ridden Russia’s. From university research to airports, Britain is a mess.


Now, even avowed Brexiteers are calling to reconsider the fateful breakup. But Europe should resolutely reject any attempt by the UK to rejoin its ranks. The EU needs to send an unequivocal and firm message that it is the gateway to prosperity, not a revolving door.


The EU stands to gain little from a re-accession of the UK. Even prior to Brexit, Britain’s net contribution to the EU’s budget, corrected for its rebate, was a paltry 5-6% of the total. The EU is the UK’s largest trading partner and export destination. It is also the largest investor in the UK. The economic asymmetry in favor of the UK is glaring.


Throughout its reluctant history in the EU, the UK has been an aggressively disruptive and often Europhobic force. Time and again, it obstructed progress on a multitude of issues.


Never a team player, the UK’s main contributions to the Union amounted to rancor and dysregulation. Geopolitically, it willingly served as an America Trojan horse amidst the European family. Rather than constitute an Anglophone bridge across the pond and thus enhance the EU’s CFSP clout – it rendered the EU irrelevant and fractured.


The Brexit campaign exposed “multicultural” Britain for what it truly is: ochlocratic, Euroskeptic, xenophobic, and populist. The EU does not need another Hungary or Poland in its ranks.


The UK’s is the fifth largest economy in the world. But it has never truly integrated with the other members of the EU. Nor was the UK influential in terms of policymaking: it failed spectacularly to export its liberal, anti-statist, and anti-protectionist principles precisely because it refused to apply them to its fraught relations with the EU bloc.


For a while, the UK served as an employment sink and employer of last resort to youth from Poland and other countries of the former Soviet sphere. But these Gastarbeiter were more than outweighed by well-paid British expats and by the millions of Brits who populated vast swathes of southern Europe.


Britain’s army was never properly consolidated with its continental counterparts. The UK did not cooperate with other members of the EU on foreign policy and security issues. It maintained its less than splendid isolation throughout its membership.


If the UK wishes to re-enter the EU, it should be offered a deal akin to Switzerland’s or Norway’s. This is the natural solution to any future re-integration.


The UK should rejoin EFTA and then the EEA. It could also sign bilateral agreements with the EU which would effectively extend the scope of the single market and its regulations to Britain.


Isolationism carries heavy reputational (soft power) and economic costs in today’s globalized world. No one can afford to go it alone. The aggressively haughty UK is learning this lesson the hard way.


Actions, choices, and decisions have consequences. A change of heart rarely cuts it even in individual affairs, let alone in the international arena. The EU has to keep the perfidious UK at arm’s length exactly as one would his divorced ex.



Brexit Self-harming and Its Aftermath (Brussels Morning)


In clinical psychology, the behavior is known as self-defeat, self-harm, or self-destructiveness. In the annals of the European Union (EU), it is known simply as Brexit.


On January 30, 2020, following years of arduous negotiations often bordering on extortion on both sides, the United Kingdom have exited the EU.


In 2016, in a referendum unwisely called by David Cameron, the Conservative Prime Minister at the time, about half of Britons (51%) voted for this act of self-immolation, spurred by nationalist populism and anti-elitism.


How did Britain fare in the wake of Brexit?


Hard to tell. Global disruptions to supply chains, investments, and consumption owing to COVID-19, the wars in Ukraine and in Gaza, and climate change have utterly distorted the gathering of data and have rendered statistics doubtful.


In the UK, the economy grew by 4.1% in 2022 and succeeded to match EU growth rates in 2023 and 2024, according to provisional figures. The ONS (Office for National Statistics) chronicled a recovery from the pandemic: by September 2023, economic activity was 1.5% higher than prior to the global cataclysm.


This is comparable to France, considerably more than Germany’s, and dismally lower than the likes of Japan, let alone the USA. The Brexit gamble did not pay off in terms of enhanced growth and FDI: the UK is still tethered to the continent, economically at least.


The figures are profoundly misleading, though. Inflation in the UK ratcheted up to 10% in 2022. Exports to the EU have declined, subjected as they are to new bureaucratic impediments.


Unencumbered by EU red tape and veto power, the UK signed bilateral trade agreements with Australia and the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

But this is a far cry from the grandiose promises of the economically illiterate promoters of Brexit. Negotiations with the likes of Canada and India – far more relevant trade partners – seem to languish.


A country’s currency is the best gauge of its crowdsourced monetary, fiscal, and trade health. The British Pound stood at 1.40 to the euro in 2015. It is now trading at c. 1.15. Enough said.


Such precipitous decline is supposed to encourage exports (which it hasn’t) and domestic consumption (which it has, having rendered ever more expensive imports far less affordable).


Migration was a main point of contention between the UK and the more lenient EU. It is ironic, therefore, that migration actually surged and has reached new highs post-Brexit.


According to the venerable newspaper Le Monde, the flow of incomers doubled after Brexit, to 682,000 people between June 2022 and June 2023.


To make matters worse, a net 330,000 qualified personnel abandoned the splendidly isolated isles, creating labor shortages and an inflationary pressure on wages.


Newly instituted border controls between the UK and the EU adversely affect both tourism and mobile workers, for example in the critical finance industry.


Short on friends in the continent, having negotiated Brexit in bad faith, the UK is turning even more emphatically to its former colony, the United States.


About three fifths of Britons now regard Brexit to have been a disastrous mistake. Only 30% still support it. Even its most ardent proponents, though, admit that the benefits of the maneuver will accrue only in the long-run.


The EU, in the meantime, has rid itself of an abusive and intractable partner reminiscent of Hungary. It has been functioning more smoothly ever since, gradually reverting to its original charter as a free trade pact.



Berlin Process: Gaslighting the Western Balkans

(Brussels Morning), October 2023


In Tirana, another summit of the Berlin Process between the EU and the Western Balkan polities has ended in grandiloquent and largely empty promises.


The impoverished, hopelessly corrupt, and badly governed countries of the region – Albania, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Bosnia Herzegovina, Montenegro, and Serbia – are caught in the EU’s delusional hall of mirrors aka “accession” and “enlargement”.


These backward locales are supposed to miraculously undergo two revolutions: green and digital. In the meantime, they are faced with multiple dangling carrots such as freer movement of goods and services into the EU common market and within it as well as investments in roads, other transport modalities, and energy, including electricity. Hope springs eternal.


The EU imposed a few “minor” and equally delusional conditions on this utopia: a better business climate, fewer regulations, integration of the domestic markets, and the perennial fight against corruption.


The truth is that the Western Balkans will never accede to the EU. The war in Ukraine, Brexit, and the rise of authoritarian regimes in new members such as Hungary made sure of that.


In the wake of the elections in Slovakia and the contested elections in Poland, the EU is teetering on the brink of disintegration. The last thing it needs at this fraught time is new members, most of which are at each other’s throats periodically but predictably (cf. Kosovo and Serbia currently). Such local conflagrations also threaten workers mobility and thus the common economic space.


The EU is also faced with a major immigration crisis with the Western Balkans aspirant states serving as the main route of transit to the heart of Europe (notably Germany and France) from the landing beaches of Greece and Italy.


The EU has survived multiple traumas in the past two decades, including major financial crises, energy dependency on a foe (Russia), and COVID-19. But it is badly scarred and wounded.


The EU’s response to these variegated exigencies has always been attempts at closer, often coerced integration: joint procurement, common debt, the same legal space, and shared foreign, security, and defense policies.


But this integrative reflex militates for a tighter, smaller, and more contained union. As it is, consensus among all existing members is near impossible to build on critical issues such as foundational values of democracy and the rule of law or over Brussels’s reach and control of the internal affairs of its constituents and constituencies.


This rancor and acrimony gave rise to populism and xenophobic nationalism everywhere and to an almost exclusive emphasis on the bilateral rather than the multilateral.


North Macedonia’s drawn out accession process is the most glaring example of this shift in emphasis, hampered as it was by Greece and Bulgaria, its disgruntled neighbors. Similarly, Hungary threatens to veto Ukraine’s mooted membership over its alleged mistreatment of the Hungarian minority in its midst.


The truth is that the EU has reached its absorption capacity long ago: it has been rendered inefficacious by successive waves of widely-disparate new members whose entry had been geopolitically motivated in the first place.


The EU has stagnated. It is unable to regulate itself through the maze of inane unanimity and qualified voting rights and the misallocation of its minuscule budgetary resources via cohesion funds for the more indigent members.


An egregious example of such misguided profligacy is the Common Agricultural Policy, one of the main impediments to the accession of Ukraine, an agricultural powerhouse. Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia are now faced with a WTO complaint filed by Ukraine over their bans of its grain entering their domestic markets.


The looming threat or a re-emerging Russia is not an impetus for enlargement. On the very contrary: the invasion of Ukraine engendered a siege mentality in the bloc. The European Political Community – an initiated polylogue among leaders, most recently in Granada – is intended to forestall accession, not to hasten it. It is about displacement, not resolve.


There is now talk of Macron’s “gradual integration”. After two decades of infertile talks, it is an interesting and welcome departure from conventional bureaucratese. But it is dead on arrival, literally impossible to implement without a major disruption to the EU’s daily business.


At heart is a debate about the very purpose of enlargement: is it a geostrategic tool or a functional and merit-based expansion of a common market with shared values?


If it is the former, then some candidates, like Ukraine, would enjoy a fast lane, ignoring the merits of their applications and the unforeseeable outcomes of war, while others languish in an apparently interminable process.




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