The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts was in London for the latter half of last week giving a few talks and testifying in front of a House of Lords committee on the European Union as a foreign policy actor. I’ll be writing more about that experience later this week, but I bring this up because the European Union has been on my mind as of late. Which is to say, I agree very much with the opening sentence of Wolfgang Münchau’s Financial Times column about how it has gone off-track: “There has hardly been a year when the EU has not been on the brink of some crisis: banking, sovereign debt, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and now refugees.” Indeed, the European Union’s constant need to focus inward has been a major source of exasperation on this side of the Atlantic.
The thing is, Münchau kept writing more sentences after that, and those sentences raise a whole host of problems:
I put [the European Union’s current malaise] down to two catastrophic errors committed during the 1990s and at the beginning of this millennium. The first was the introduction of the euro; the second, the EU’s enlargement to 28 members from 15 a couple of decades ago. You might agree with one or other of these statements, or with neither of them. But few people will agree with both. . . .
This is not an argument about any particular member state with whose actions one happens to disagree. Nor is it an argument about the principle of enlargement, which is fundamental to the EU. My quarrel is with the speed of accession, and the criteria that aspiring members have to meet. Just as countries have maximum absorption capacities for migrants, the EU has a maximum absorption capacity for new members. I have no idea what that number is in any given time period, but it surely is not 13 members in a single decade.
Enlargement affected Europe’s ability to respond to the shocks of subsequent years in two ways. First, it forced the EU to take its eye off the ball at a critical time when it should have focused on building the institutions needed to make the euro work. Second, enlargement meant that EU countries that were not in the eurozone suddenly found themselves in the majority. That shift naturally shaped the EU’s own agenda. I recall the obsession during those years with competitiveness, a typical small-country economic issue. Debates on the reform of Europe’s treaties during those years focused on voting rights and the protection of minorities. It was the overwhelming view of European officials and members of the European Parliament that the eurozone itself did not need to be fixed.
How to put this gently . . . this is not only wrong, but it’s wrong in such a peculiar way that it makes me wonder if Münchau understands what makes the European Union important.
The most obvious logical flaw here is that even though Münchau acknowledges that the euro is a big problem, the real problem with enlargement is that it somehow distracted Brussels away from fixing the euro. But the idea that the way to push toward financial integration was to create a flawed single currency that would be reformed over time would have meant that the European Union’s first, second and third priority over the past generation would have had to have been the euro, to the exclusion of all else.
That seems like a super weird prioritization of interests. And it neglects to consider the European Union’s greatest post-1990 achievement: the peaceful integration of most of Eastern Europe into the club.
It’s always worth remembering that this kind of peaceful integration was far from assured in the early 1990s. At that juncture, these countries were experiencing severe economic hardships and there was the occasional murmuring of irredentism among the transition economies. There were legitimate fears that these countries would soon follow the path of former Yugoslavia into sectarian conflict. Western Europe’s history of handling receding empires and instability in the east were, um, not encouraging.
That did not happen, and a big reason why is that these countries were keen to join the two institutions that they identified as Western: the European Union and NATO. To do this, they implemented an awful lot of institutional reforms designed to ensure civilian control of the military, improve the competitiveness of their economies and preserve civil liberties. By the time time the first round of Eastern European members were admitted in 2004, they had spent 15 arduous years making themselves over.
The effect of this on Europe was powerful. As the Nobel committee noted when it awarded the European Union the Peace Prize in 2012:
After the fall of European communist regimes around 1990, the union was able to expand to include several countries in Central and Eastern Europe, where democracy had been strengthened and conflict checked. The Nobel Committee also believes that the question of EU membership is bolstering the reconciliation process after the wars in the Balkan States, and that the desire for EU membership has also promoted democracy and human rights in Turkey.
The fact that Münchau cannot identify which states should not have been admitted to the European Union is an additional clue that something is off, and make his priorities clear. What he cares about most is E.U. financial integration.
For Eastern Europe and the rest of the world, however, the European Union is known for two signal accomplishments: ending any chance of another Franco-German war, and bringing Eastern Europe in from the cold. The euro, should it ever recover from its dysfunction, may eventually fall into that category. But it’s a luxury. The successful integration of Eastern Europe was a political and security necessity for the European Union after 1989. And anyone who tells you differently does not understand why the European Union is important.