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EU expandingly shrinking
by Thanos Kalamidas
2015-05-23 07:30:06
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In Riga the EU leadership passed the message to the eastern neighbours that any talk about membership is very early and at the moment they can just improve neighbourly and commerce relations. Perhaps now the EU leadership has started realizing that the beginning of the escalating European crisis was the last expansion of the Union and the political decisions that led to it.

Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine were the six eastern neighbours that were hoping for somehow closer relationship but just like the majority of the last ten that joined EU ten years ago they want to join the Union because they have their own agendas and not because they understand what the Union is about.

Unfortunately - and with a little help from the positive financial times back in 1980s and most of the 1990s - EU became a stereotype of the land where the money trees grow. Everybody seems to think that there is a bottomless barrel with gold, euros and dollars,  somewhere in Brussels where money never end and the only thing the member states have to do is get at the door, show the membership card and state the amount of billions they need.

Then more myths were added to the stereotypes. The European free movement became the ultimate wish from every non-EU citizen. Nearly half of the poor and the ambitious of this world – and especially in wider Europe - dreaming of a chance in UK, Germany, Holland and Scandinavia. And the EU membership card was giving this privilege. On top of that it was the myths of equality, democracy, opportunity, free education, justice. Too much, especially for countries that had lived under dictatorial regimes like the one of Ceausescu in Romania. The EU membership card became the ultimate dream and the same time the reasonable thing since countries like Romania, Bulgaria or Hungary and Estonia are part of the European continent.

The European continent since the fall of the Berlin Wall, had dramatically changed. There was no more the mighty enemy from the east; on the contrary what really was, was a giant deeply wounded in the edge of an economic and social colapse. A country that was led in the beginning of its "free" era, by an alcoholic president in the surface and the criminal mafia underneath. With a newcomer president who was a mystery yet to everybody but seemed ready to embrace the west just to save his country even if that would mean exchange cowboy hats with George W. Bush.

In the beginning of the 21st century EU seemed more stable than ever, growth was rising in all member states and the idea of a common currency was looking better and better every day. The superficial excuse was that a common currency will make easier the commerce between the European member states that had already expand their market power globally as a union. That was the excuse, the truth was that competition between Europe and US had become tenser the last few decades – especially after the war of the raw metals – and Europe had no chance in this battle as long the continent’s economy was depended on the US dollar. So it was political necessity that led into the creation of the euro.

It was also political necessity to expand the Union with the addition of ten new member states the same year the new currency was introduced. The euro was in need for a wider market than just the 16 member states from which not all of them were ready or willing to join the new currency. But political decisions also brought political mistakes. The then EU leadership underestimated the political impact the new currency will have and the level of readiness the new member states had to carry the responsibilities of this membership.

eux01_400The long respected and in the past enforced EU criteria for a candidate state were pushed aside for a speedy membership since there were going to be no delays in the introduction of the new currency and the same time certain blackmails from the candidate countries – leading Poland – were accepted. Was any of those countries ready to join the EU? No, absolutely none.

Most of them were still trying to absorb the concept of democracy still led by politicians that had thrived in the former dictatorial regimes. Their bureaucracy, judicature, security services, army and social structure still lived in their dictatorial past. Their banking system was nonexistence and their media a joke. Problems like prejudice against minorities, racism and social discrimination in constant rise.

Out of the 35 criteria the EU had established for a new member state, the majority of the 10 candidates had past only a few which included agreement to EU foreign and defence policies, financial and budgetary provisions, science and research cooperation, freedom movement of goods, freedom of movement for workers and finally enterprise and industry policies. For the rest the majority had failed from little to dramatically at least. And perhaps there were excuses when it comes to the fisheries legislation or energy issues hoping that time will heal or the differences but the problems were with freedom of press, social policies, regional policies, justice, freedom, financial control, taxation, financial laws and services, information society, employment, fundamental rights protection, environment, health protection. These are criteria that mark the fundamental principles of the Union and the majority of those ten new members failed – in some dramatically like Hungary, Poland, Estonia or the Czech Republic – during the negotiations.

Ten years after these very same violations have come to bite EU. Hungary is a country with problems in freedom of speech, Poland is a country with judicature problems, Slovakia is a country with security problems, Estonia is a country with prejudice and discrimination problems and whole Europe is a continent in a financial crisis. The stereotypes also remained and the dream of the magic EU membership card that will get you in the vault of Brussels remains and the idea that to get that membership card all it takes is a political decision from Berlin.

Out of the six eastern neighbours that have shown interest to enter the club the best example is Azerbaijan of how much credibility EU has lost in 2004. The Caspian state is a dictatorship veiled under the name of a republic and democracy. A one party state where President Ilham Aliyev acts as a monarch and rules with a regime based on members of his family. The banking system of the country consist from one bank, the central bank of Azerbaijan which the president and his family often confuse with their personal wallet and of course it produces oil in a strong partnership with Amoco, BP, ExxonMobil, Statoil and other institutions that promote democracy.

His excuse? All it takes is a political decision, the same you took for Poland and Hungary or Estonia and in the end I’m bringing my oil in exchange. For the Union that expanded to ten new members in 2004 without counting or caring for the consequences, this sounds very reasonable. And similar are the excuses for the rest of the six. I suppose Ukraine has additional reasoning, fear to Russia. But is this enough? Ukraine is far from a democracy. On the contrary is reaching the edges of a far-right psychotic nation. But then again it all began with the Ukrainians falling for the dream that every EU member-card-owner has a Mercedes Benz and a state that constantly funds wishes with endless buckets of euros.

The decision of the EU leadership in their talks with the six eastern neighbours to tell them that this is not the time to talk about membership and they have to wait was political and correct and it will also be good for the EU if the meantime the European leadership uses this time to clean house. To correct past mistakes and demand – if possible enforce - the necessary reforms from the already members states. What happens in Hungary with the freedom of speech or the discrimination in Estonia is embarrassing for the whole EU and it gives the excuse to people like Ilham Aliyev not to ask but to demand membership.

The next thing the EU leadership might find worth to think is if before talking with Azerbaijan and other Caspian countries their right to enter the European Union they should ask first a nation with a European historic and geographic identity, Russia. They should also wander if what has stopped them to do till now is the fact that a Putin or a Yeltsin were presidents or because of old prejudices against Russia? Furthermore imagine the strength of this union if literally all Europe and all Europeans were members.

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Emanuel Paparella2015-05-23 15:52:25
Indeed Thanos, the dream for the great European family mentioned at the end of your eye-opening piece was actually enunciated some two hundred years ago with these memorable words: “…by the power of universal Enlightenment, it might become possible to dream, for the great European family, of going the way of the American Congress…what an outlook, then of power, of glory, of well being, of prosperity! What a great and magnificent spectacle!” The man who enunciated that vision was none other than Napoleon Bonaparte. It bears noticing that the word “power” is mentioned two times, the word glory and well-being also appears, while the word “liberty” is nowhere to be found. No wonder Beethoven withdrew the dedication to Napoleon from his symphony Eroica.

Also, inappropriately, the word Enlightenment is used. It is inappropriate because what Napoleon had in mind had little to do with the principles and the ideals of a democratic pan-European polity (the present EU), but military and economic competition (with America) and imperial conquest, in other words, the greater France. Today we have the greater Germany, or perhaps the greater Russia, but the greater EU envisioned by its founding fathers remains a dream while the EU central bank is considered the ultimate reality with euros to compete against dollars, as you aptly point out in your piece.

In any case, there is a far more ominous cultural problem which is usually not mentioned in the prevalent analysis of the EU crisis, and which I have repeatedly mentioned in some of my contributions, and it has to do with the idea of the Enlightenment conceived as “inevitable progress.” This inevitable progress was the allure that attracted the ten countries admitted to the Union after the collapse of the Soviet Empire: everything seemed rosy, inevitable, and progressive. Belonging to the Union was like winning the lotto. But philosophically, it is determinism which eventually destroys the very foundation of freedom. Freedom is based on the possibility of progress but also on the possibility and potential for regress if the road taken is not the right one. People with those rosy expectations continue being in denial, because what was expected was "inevitable progress," never mind freedom: all EU countries would be rich and prosperous once they belonged to the Union. It is the dream of the President of Ukraine as we speak: he dreams of being a Euro-Parlamentarian and meanwhile he closes his eyes at the rampant corruption around him. The same applies to Putin, who in some stange way resembling Napoleon vis a vis the idea of Europe. He is in denial about the "inevitable regress" he has created for his country and therefore he blames the West and dreams of the return of the greater Russia, never mind liberty.

History will of course render its verdict in the future but we already know, or ought to know, that those who don’t reflect on their past history are condemned to repeat it. That may sound deterministic but it’s staring in our face once we wake up from our dreams and simply look around.

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