20 June 2017

European Union enlargement mission

In confronting a crisis of identity, the EU needs to revive its core mission - incorporating states that qualify for accession and boosting their economic development. Instead of wasting time and resources on building a defense structure, the EU should stick to what it knows best - pursuing a common economic, legal and social space that includes the entire Western Balkan region and provides membership prospects for Ukraine, Georgia and other countries along its current eastern border.
A rejuvenated enlargement process would underscore that the Union is overcoming its recent crises over Brexit and its struggles with nationalism and populism. A good point to start the new initiative would be with Montenegro, a country that has just attained NATO membership and is in the midst of accession talks with Brussels. Incorporation by the end of this decade, or shortly thereafter, can be styled as the EU’s 2020 vision.

There are six compelling arguments for accelerated enlargement that would enhance regional and international stability. First, it would help energize political and economic reforms in all states aspiring to EU entry and diminish the danger of reversals. Politicians would understand that membership can be secured if reforms are speed up and the public will feel less anxious about their economic prospects.

Second, Montenegro’s entry would undermine nationalist and populist alternatives to the EU project and help forestall any pan-Serbian or pan-Albanian territorial aspirations. Nationalists and irredentists rely on uncertainty, fear and anger to stir conflict in countries left outside the EU. A positive scenario for Montenegro would contribute to eroding social grievances and national disputes in the region, similarly to developments in Central Europe over a decade ago. This would help counter the negative messages of anti-globalist and Euroskeptic populists, as successful politicians espouse the benefits of international institutions.

Third, Montenegro’s EU entry would deter Russian subversion. Moscow offers no viable substitute for the EU but works to undermine its effectiveness by corrupting local politicians, disinforming the media, stirring inter-ethnic animosities, threatening pro-Western governments and even planning violent coups, as was the case in Montenegro. The EU must demonstrate its resolve and not be intimidated by the Kremlin, which ultimately seeks to fracture the Union not to expand it.

Fourth, the incorporation of new states would revive the EU’s fundamental mandate of a united and prosperous Europe. The fact that long-time aspirants are admitted would underscore that the EU is reinventing itself as an attractive and beneficial multi-national institution that can improve economic prospects for each member. The inclusion of a small state like Montenegro would not be costly, in terms of EU accession funds, but the geopolitical benefits would prove enormous.

Fifth, a commitment to enlargement would validate the leadership role of key states such as Germany and France regardless of Britain’s exit. The elections in France have recommitted Paris to the EU and a similar process is likely in Germany later this year. Leaders with new popular mandates must not shirk from a historical challenge but take bold steps to build a united Europe. And sixth, the Union’s revival would underscore that it is not only a partner for NATO and the United States but also a problem solver and regional stabilizer in its own right. This would raise the EU’s stature in Washington and help strengthen transatlantic bonds. 

It would be a grievous mistake for the EU to concentrate on constructing a military arm in attempts to prove its relevance. This would undermine NATO, estrange the United States from defending Europe and feed Moscow’s ambitions. It could also deeply split the Union between quasi-pacifist West European states and Central-East European (CEE) members who understand that they can only be properly defended from Russia’s expansionism through U.S. leadership within a strong NATO.

Some EU officials are reviving the notion of an EU army to demonstrate that the Union remains a dynamic organization. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has claimed that the EU needs a permanent security headquarters and a common defense force. Most CEE leaders contend that a separate defense structure will undermine NATO at a time when the Alliance is most needed to defend against Moscow’s ambitions. Indeed, resources should be focused on improving NATO capabilities instead of creating weaker substitutes without Washington.

It is worth bearing in mind warnings from European Council President Donald Tusk that the EU should be mindful of its own ambitions after the Brexit vote. EU institutions need to support initiatives agreed among member states and not impose their own projects, as this could push more capitals toward the exit door. 

Although the motive behind an EU army may be rational – to demonstrate that Europe is a serious international player - a failed project that is more rhetoric than reality will simply deepen the EU’s decline. By contrast, the successful institutional integration of the entire Balkan peninsula and progress toward incorporating Ukraine and other European democracies can revive the Union and renovate the transatlantic agenda.

Europe's Edge is an online journal covering crucial topics in the transatlantic policy debate. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the Center for European Policy Analysis. 

Photo: Ye Pingfan/Xinhua