A brief history of the european union



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Looking forward
Today’s EU still lies under the shadow of the failed Constitutional Treaty. This will remain true even if the Lisbon Treaty is eventually approved. Lacking a major new substantive project and fearful of rising unpopularity, the EU’s champions have turned their attention in two directions. One is to smaller (if not unimportant) projects within the current framework. Most prominent among these is the “Lisbon agenda,” a collection of proposals for still-greater liberalization of the Single Market. Though originally intended to produce a new burst of activity like the “Single Market 1992” plan of the 1980s—and announced in 2000 with the audacious goal of giving Europe “the most competitive economy in the world” by 2010—the Lisbon agenda has mostly fizzled. Public support for liberalization is low, and may well be disappearing entirely with the onset of the global financial crisis in 2008. The other major focus of attention is one that has dominated the scene for many years now: enlargement. Again, part of the “no” votes against the Constitution clearly flowed from protests about the consequences of the 2004 enlargement (even if the Constitution itself would have done nothing to affect them). Many Western Europeans seem to feel that the original European project was designed to shore up their social model and strength in the world, and that extending the EU to poorer, less socially-generous countries has eviscerated the framework (or will eventually). But the most recent attention has focused on a potential enlargement that provokes even greater anxiety: that of Turkey.

Turkey originally applied to the EU in 1987, but was not taken seriously. Though it was a longtime NATO member and had extensive trade deals with the EC already, Turkey was a poor Muslim country in which the military retained a distinctly undemocratic role in politics. For a long time few in Brussels believed that the Turkish application could change its status. Central and Eastern Europe marketized, democratized, and finally joined while Turkey stood on the sidelines. But at the turn of the millennium came a surprising chain of developments. Turkey elected a new leader, Recep Erdogan, from a supposedly less pro-Western, more Islamist party—and he began a remarkable series of reforms with the explicit goal of moving his country toward EU membership. Though few Western Europeans were genuinely enthusiastic about Turkish membership, they had difficulty denying that they would begin negotiations on accession if it could meet the criteria outlined for Eastern European candidates (the so-called “Copenhagen criteria” of viable democracy, a functioning market economy, respect for human rights and minorities, and willingness to accept the full body of EU legislation). In particular, Western leaders and diplomats were anxious to avoid saying “no” explicitly to Turkey, for fear of political developments that might follow from a clear statement that Turkey would never be welcome in the EU. To the further surprise of most people in the EU, Turkey made steady progress on its agenda of domestic change and in October 2005 the EU agreed to open official negotiations to prepare its accession.

This prospect evokes all the fears that came with the 2004 enlargement and then some. If Turkey’s relative poverty (a GDP of about 30% of the EU-25 average) and lack of generous social regulation and welfare raises the specter of a “Turkish plumber” in economic competition, demography and culture expand on that perception of threat. The “big bang” enlargement of 2004 brought in 10 states, but only one with more a population over 10 million (Poland, with 40 million). Turkey has 70 million, and perhaps more importantly, it is growing rapidly in an era when both Western and Eastern European populations are projected to shrink. By the time it might join the EU, it would be the largest member-state—giving it the most weight in the Council of Ministers and Parliament. Though its 99% Muslim population has lived with a severely secular state for most of the 20th century, their religion is a source of major anxiety. Even before the events of September 11, 2001 and the opening of the Bush administration’s “war on terror,” integration (or basic acceptance) of Muslim immigrants in Europe was a salient and difficult issue. Overall, then, some EU citizens see Turkish accession as opening doors to a burgeoning source of economic competition, demographic takeover, social conflict, and possibly terrorism.

More broadly, Turkish accession symbolizes profound choices in what the EU project will be about in the future. The positive rationale for membership, like the key EU thinking on Central and Eastern Europe a decade ago, is that EU accession is the best way to consolidate democracy, human rights, and markets in this critical state on Europe’s borders. Welcoming Turkey in will strengthen its pro-Western forces internally. Not only will this dynamic operate in Turkey, hopefully, but its inclusion may be a potent symbol of Western acceptance of Muslims elsewhere. If Turkey is left out when equally poor countries in southeastern Europe are not, on the other hand, many Muslims in Turkey and elsewhere may take this as a strong signal to turn away from the West. Thus Turkish accession seems like a logical extension of the rationale for the 2004 enlargement: using the EU project mostly as a set of incentives and a strong framework for the consolidation of democracy, the rule of law, and market capitalism. On the other hand, besides the worries noted above, a Turkish accession might signal a decisive shift away from the “European” side of the EU and toward more passive aspirations of just “Union.” That is, it may mean giving up on the notion of building a strong European actor in the world, and instead focusing mainly on extending a unified zone of peace and prosperity. As Giscard d’Estaing remarked undiplomatically during the Convention, many of those who hope that the EU will deepen into a powerful actor on the world stage see Turkish accession as “the end of Europe.” Turkey is arguably so big and so different from current members that it will make cohesive EU action in foreign policy (or major internal policies like social policies) hard to imagine.

Some point out that this decision may already have been made with the 2004 enlargement. In shifting from a Europe of fifteen mostly rich, Western European states to one of twenty-seven (as of the accession of Romania and Bulgaria in 2007) with much greater heterogeneity, the character of EU decision-making changed a great deal. Not so long ago meetings of members’ heads of state in the European Council were clubby, intimate affairs of personal relations and quiet deal-making. Today these meetings include over a hundred people and have taken on more of the dynamics of an assembly. Turkish accession might just consolidate a change that has already taken place, pushing “European” coherent centralized action off the stage in favor of a more diffuse “union”-focused arena.

To the extent that this logic prevails, the future EU might drop any pretenses of centralized action outside of economic policies and look to leverage its incentives of membership into extending its zone of peace and prosperity as far as possible. Since the late 1990s there have been serious discussions in Brussels of enlargement east to Russia’s borders. If Turkey is accepted, we might next see debate over possible membership for Morocco. The “European” aspect of the project might fall away, growing into an organization devoted to the ever-wider spread of open markets, democracy, the rule of law, and human rights. This scenario certainly seems to play to the strengths of the EU project so far. It has been extraordinarily successful—fairly called the most successful effort in history—at anchoring previously-antagonistic countries into cooperative relations, similar basic values, and openness. It has been considerably less successful in its attempts to rally European countries into a single voice in world affairs, or in centralizing large positive policy actions internally.

Yet it is also not hard to see why many Europeans may feel less inspired by an EU that focuses on the extension of union—and thus why we should expect continued challenges to the clarification of the EU project around this less “European” conception. One of the original motivations for delegations of national sovereignty to these new institutions was to allow Europe’s small and medium-sized states to recapture some of the influence and capacity for action that they enjoyed before the rise of the superpowers. Turning over French or Spanish or Belgian power in order to gain a strong voice on the world stage is easily connected to benefits for the French, Spanish, or Belgian people who are turning over the power. Doing the same in order to help consolidate the rule of law in Turkey has a more distant and complicated relationship to such benefits. It seems likely, then, that to the extent EU enlargement continues, we will see increasing attention to “multi-speed” proposals. The old Western European core will consider deeper, more centralized policy integration that excludes the more recent members. Depending on how successful they are, the EU may not only maintain its institutional ambiguity but render it even more complicated.
* * * * * *
Today’s European Union remains embroiled in its identity crisis. Many of its ambiguities have been left behind on the road to today’s quasi-federal EU. But at the same time, the development of EU institutions and geopolitical change confront Europeans with more questions than ever.

One clear message sent by today’s EU is that more education about it is necessary. The distance of EU institutions from their citizens’ lives, their arcane policy-making processes, and the technical nature of their responsibilities have created one of the least understood political systems in modern times. This is true not just of average Europeans, but of elites as well. The stakes and rules of the EU game are often only understood by specialists and direct participants in EU policies. It is even more true in the United States, where ignorance of how our closest allies have transformed their continent is near complete. If this essay has taken a small step to change this, it has attained its goal.



1 In a free trade area, countries abolish all internal tariff barriers between them. In a customs union, countries also adopt a common set of tariffs vis-à-vis third countries.

2 Euratom was and remains a rather minor European collaboration in research on atomic energy.

3 The founding members of EFTA were Britain, Portugal, Austria, Switzerland, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. Finland joined in 1961, and Iceland joined in 1970. Britain and Denmark withdrew in 1972 on joining the EEC; Portugal did so in 1986; and Austria and Sweden withdrew on joining the EU in 1995.

4De Gaulle, the leader of the French Resistance to the Nazis during World War II, was briefly Prime Minister immediately after the war. When French politicians rejected his plans for a more centralized, presidential system, however, he withdrew from politics, only to return in 1958 as the country fell into crisis in a fight over independence for its largest colony, Algeria. At that point the political elite agreed to allow de Gaulle to draw up a new, presidential constitution, the Fifth Republic.

5 Nonetheless, two developments stand out in the 1970s. In 1974, the governments agreed to hold trimesterial “European Councils” to set the political agenda for EEC. These meetings have become very important in launching new initiatives and making major collective decisions. In 1979, they created the European Monetary System (EMS) to dampen intra-EEC currency fluctuations.

6Tariffs are explicit taxes on foreign trade. “Non-tariff barriers” are any sort of other standards or rules that may block foreign producers from competing with national producers. For example, Germany long required that a beverage could only be sold as “beer” in Germany if it had only four ingredients; this kept many other countries’ beers out of the German market, and so was effectively protectionism. Similarly, national requirements on product safety or quality or environmental standards can impede international competition. The Single Market plan set out to create common standards (or common recognition of several standards) on all such issues.

7 The Economist , December 14, 1991.

8 The criteria were: inflation rate within 1.5% of the average of the three lowest members’ rates, long-term interest rates within 2% of the average of the three lowest members’ rates, annual budget deficit below 3% of GDP, total public debt ratio under 60% of GDP, and at least 2 years’ participation in the European Monetary System’s limited exchange-rate bands.

9 Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Romania, Cyprus, and Malta. Turkey had also applied previously, making for 13 candidates overall.

10 Though the EMS crisis of summer 1993 forced a widening of the fluctuations permitted between European currencies (from +2.25% to +15%), speculation quickly diminished and exchange rates stabilized within the prior margins.

11 Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands.

12 Countries like Belgium, with total public debt far in excess of 60% of GDP, were allowed to participate if they were making progress in the right direction.

13 Previous to the enlargement, a qualified majority in the Council of Ministers required 54 of 76 votes; 23 was thus a blocking minority. France, Germany, Britain, and Italy each had 10 votes; Spain had 8; Belgium, Greece, the Netherlands, and Portugal had 5; Denmark and Ireland 3; and Luxembourg 2. With the addition of Sweden, Austria, and Finland, the blocking minority became 26, making certain previous blocking minorities (i.e. Britain, Germany, and the Netherlands often allied on free-trade issues; Spain, Italy, and Greece formed the “olive belt”) insufficient. The British, Spanish, and Italian challenge was an attempt to keep the blocking minority at 23 while adding the new votes. An elaborate compromise ended the crisis and further complicated the rules.

14 ”Harmonization” is the EU term for making disparate national legislation more similar.

15 At the time, Luxembourg’s 2 votes in the Council of Ministers each represented less than 200,000 people; Germany’s 10 votes each represented 8 million.

16 Parliament membership was limited to 700 seats, even though this means current members will lose some seats after enlargement. The Commission currently includes one member for each small country, and two for each big country; after enlargement, it will simply be one member per country.



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