Together with monetary union, enlargement is the only real breakthrough the EU has witnessed in the last decade.
The failed Constitutional adventure has exacted a high price in terms of EU self-confidence in its capacity to honour pre-existing enlargement commitments. But there are no reasons for the EU to fear further expansion if and when this is properly managed. Historically, enlargement and integration have reinforced each other: no doubt, the EU at 27 is far more integrated than the EU at 15, 12, 9 or 6. In fact, together with monetary union, enlargement is the only real breakthrough the EU has witnessed in the last decade.
True, enlargement may have exacerbated existing tensions (e.g. on
transatlantic relations, levels of economic regulation, etc.) but can
hardly be accused of having created them. Enlargement has thus to be
digested, not rejected. This requires those in favour of an open Europe
to move towards a more proactive strategy: i.e. justifying and backing
enlargement policies both with data showing how the benefits of
enlargement massively outweigh its costs as well as with arguments
about how the EU needs to remain open if it is to promote open
societies worldwide and its periphery. Making visible the costs of
no-enlargement is thus crucial: should the EU continue with the
introspective approach seen so far and fail to honour existing
enlargement comments, this would lead to a disorderly periphery
presided by nationalist-populist authoritarian regimes, increased
regional tensions and migration pressures. The costs of managing a
closed EU would be twofold: first, to the outside, the EU would have to
be tougher on its neighbours (increasing border controls and policing,
restricting visa regimes, etc.); to the inside, this tougher discourse
would contribute to consolidate among the European public the sort of
nationalist sentiments and negative feelings about “near-abroads” which
may ultimately render impossible further political integration. The EU
may thus move from an "open" to a "close" approach, ultimately
incompatible with its values and principles.
To counter these trends, the EU needs to do some serious thinking about how to arrange its relations with its neighbours, how to be fair, flexible and efficient at the same time. This requires imagining new institutions and arrangements, to break up the rigid distinction between members and outsiders, to allow for varying forms of membership and flexible integration. The EU should break through the logic of borders rather than copying old-fashioned state models: rather than recreating borders and setting up walls, it should aim at crossing and diluting them into enhanced spaces of peace, prosperity and democracy.
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The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.