European Union

Confessions of a Multilateralist

Two cheers for the EU's historic expansion


Another day, another 10-country expansion of the European Union.

You'd think that the inclusion of eight formerly communist countries into Western Europe's grand unification project—marking the final formal end to the continental schism created at Yalta—would have ginned up at least a little stir among American chattering classes (especially the Euroskeptic wing), but things have been pretty quiet. Such is the boredom wrought from agonizingly slow bureaucratic acts where the ending has long since been given away.

But this outcome was not remotely an inevitability in early 1990s Central Europe. The new EU country of Lithuania greeted that tumultuous decade by having its citizens crushed to death by Soviet tanks. The Warsaw Pact, tens of thousands of occupying Soviet troops, and even the Soviet Union itself didn't all just magically disappear when the Berlin Wall came down; the former two had to be painstakingly negotiated out of existence by newly freed countries that had no might to back up their right, and the latter crumbled during a coup that scared the beejeebus out of 200 million people.

Such retrospectively mild events as the dissolution of Czechoslovakia and the Slovak damming of the Danube had observers at the time muttering darkly about the potential for Yugoslav-style bloodshed. Even the cyclical election successes of formerly Communist political parties, no matter how much they'd swallowed the free-market Kool-aid, was routinely interpreted in the West as a possible harbinger of backsliding into authoritarianism.

The fact that European integration seems so mundane now is mostly attributable to the remarkable and brave journeys Central Europeans have taken from smothering statism to democratic capitalism. But it can also be at least partly attributed the more calming side effects of "accession" itself, whether it be into the EU, NATO, or even such what's-this-one-for? talking shops as The Council of Europe.

The latter body, for example, was instrumental in pressuring the nascent and resurgently nationalist country of Slovakia into guaranteeing the rights of its national minorities, and especially dialing down its inflammatory talk about ethnic Hungarians. (Though it was NATO accession—which required treaty-ratified borders and minority rights—that probably sealed those particular deals.)

Haggling with Brussels bureaucrats, for better and for worse, allowed the former East Bloc countries to outsource some of their more potentially explosive nationalism-related issues, and became one of main yardsticks by which they measured their own progress (quickly overtaking the formerly all-powerful International Monetary Fund and World Bank).

Measured by narrow outcomes, this has been a smashing success—Hungarian leaders now spend more time celebrating friendship parks in neighboring countries than claiming to govern 15 million Hungarians (including the 5 million outside the country's borders) or lobbying to revisit the Treaty of Trianon.

And there are actually very good libertarian reasons to cheer Brussels' expansion into a 25-country, 458-million inhabitant behemoth: The club, after all, was founded (at American insistence) as a way to create an open market for coal and submerge the Franco-German tensions that had so bloodied the continent before. It has a 50-year track record of removing government barriers—to trade, to the movement of people, to the flow of money. And it is the biggest single reason welfare states like France have been selling off one state-owned monopoly after another. Giving the eastern folk a seat at the table means that the anti-Americanism of the Old now has to contend with the pro-Americanism of the New, and the digestion of agriculture-intensive Poland (where, The Economist points out, "there are more farmers…than in the whole existing Union"), may finally force Europe to chop down its obscene ag subsidies.

But, like the global free trade system itself, EU expansion draws critics who have a perfectly valid point—outsourcing of sovereignty, no matter how noble the motivation or result, comes at a democratic price. Citizens who can't affect their own countries' policies or basic direction become disenfranchised, and politically incorrect sentiments of nationalism shoved under the rug from afar may fester in the darkness. If the increasingly dysfunctional Transatlantic relationship is, as Robert Kagan famously put it, attributable to the difference between "power and weakness," that unhappy cycle is only bound to get worse, since the average European has an ever-more weak effect on international foreign policy.

Czech President and noted Euroskeptic Vaclav Klaus put it succinctly a few days before May 1: "Not everyone may know that in a few days our country will cease to exist as an independent and sovereign entity."

The country's other presidential Vaclav, the noted multilateralist Mr. Havel, had a different view: "I am convinced that this entrance above all decreases the power of the post-Communist economic mafiamen, flim-flammers and financial acrobats, as well as their political protectors," he wrote on the eve of enlargement. "We can all be happy that our generation had the good luck to live to see this moment," he added during Saturday's celebrations.

Over the long haul, Havel has been right more often than his rival Klaus. Here's hoping his winning streak continues.