Is it true that the EU will collapse if it stands still?by Robert Cottrell / May 20, 2004 / Leave a comment
Excited about European Union enlargement? I thought not. The EU has never done well as a popular project, at least among those whom it claims as its citizens. Nor, since the ebbing of its supranational ambitions, has it offered much in the way of a political project, as shown by its recent failure to draft a constitutional treaty declaring crisply what it is and what it does. To the considerable extent that the EU has succeeded, it has done so as a bureaucratic project. But even here, it could soon be in serious trouble. The admission of ten more countries on 1st May threatens to make it so big and disparate as to be at least temporarily unmanageable. The time may be coming to test the proposition, often repeated in Brussels, that if the union does not keep on moving forward, then it will collapse.
Other EU enlargements have been difficult in this way, but not on such a scale. The new members on this occasion are much more numerous, and much more diverse. They include eight central European countries whose economies were wrecked by half a century of communism. All are recovering, but incomes in the region will take decades to reach west European levels. Relative poverty will make these countries natural opponents of the costly regulation and standardisation which the EU has made a habit of imposing on business and governments. Throw a bit of bad feeling into the mix, of which there is plenty available from the past year’s wrangles over Iraq and the EU constitution, and a messy outcome is guaranteed.
For the sort of worst-case scenario towards which this might lead in the next 12 to 18 months, imagine a furious and sustained bust-up among governments in Brussels over tax harmonisation, structural funds and the EU budget all at once; a refusal by one or two of the new members, and one or two of the old ones, to ratify the proposed EU constitution; another collision between old Europe and new Europe over policy towards America, or perhaps towards Russia; and all this against the backdrop of a continuing sense of crisis in the German economy, the arrival of populist parties in the ruling coalitions of one or two central European countries, and, God forbid, another terrorist outrage in a European capital to set nerves on edge. How much of the EU would be…