In 2007, just before the EU’s growth pains began, then European Commission president (and now non-executive chairman of Goldman Sachs International and advisor to Goldman Sachs) Jose Manuel Barroso proudly proclaimed the EU to be the world’s first ever humanitarian empire. Asked by a journalist what kind of a structure the 28-nation bloc is, Mr Barroso said:
“We are a very special construction unique in the history of mankind. Sometimes I like to compare the EU as a creation to the organisation of empire. We have the dimension of empire.”
Whereas superstate empires of old were built on military conquest, the EU empire is built on voluntary pooling of power, Barroso gushed. “What we have is the first non-imperial empire.”
In a similar vein Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s Brexit negotiator, recently urged the EU to become an “empire of the good and not of the bad” in a speech at the London School of Economics.
Whether imperial or not, good or bad, the EU empire, like all empires before it, has an insatiable thirst for expansion. The bloc’s last major enlargement was in 2004 when ten countries acceded, including seven from the former Eastern bloc (Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania), one from the former Yugoslavia (Slovenia), and two Mediterranean islands (Malta and Cyrpus), bringing the total number of EU Member States from 15 to 25. Since then only three new countries have joined, Romania and Bulgaria in 2007 and Croatia in 2013.
Now, instead of growing, the EU could be about to shrink for the first time in its history. If the UK government actually follows through on Brexit — a big “IF” that grows bigger by the day as pressure rises on the government to hold a second referendum on continued membership of the EU — the number of EU Member States will slip from 28 to 27 while the bloc’s population will shrink by 65 million, over one-tenth of its total.
The EU is also having increasing difficulty keeping some of its eastern European Member States in check. Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic still refuse to accept refugee quotas imposed by Brussels. Relations with the Polish government have soured to such a degree over the overhaul of its judicial system that, according to the president of the European Council, Donald Tusk — himself of Polish origin — Brussels’ trust in Warsaw is now “dead.” Tusk also warned that Poland’s governing party, PiS, could pull his home nation from the union unless there were sufficient “benefits” (i.e. money) to membership.
Against such a backdrop you might expect the EU to hold back on any further expansion plans, at least until it gets its current house in order, but you’d be wrong. As a new working document reveals, the European Commission has been working tirelessly behind the scenes to set the stage for a brand new wave of enlargement that could see as many as six Western Balkan nations accede by 2025.
“With strong political will, the delivery of real reforms, and lasting solutions to disputes with neighbours, Montenegro and Serbia should be ready for membership by 2025,” the text reads, according to a draft seen by EU Observer. By that point Albania, Bosnia, Macedonia, and Kosovoare also likely to be well advanced along “their European path.”
Serious questions have been raised about the readiness of some of these countries for EU membership. Serbia, for example, does not even recognize Kosovo’s independence. Neither, for that matter, do five current EU members.
There are also concerns about their commitment to genuine reforms. Chris Patten, a former British diplomat and European Commissioner, once said that the problem with the Balkans is that “they pretend to do what we ask them and we pretend to believe them.” In the meantime, the EU has consistently prioritized security interests in the Balkans over other conditions such as human rights, a policy recently labelled as ‘stabilitocracy’ by Srđa Pavlović.
Nonetheless, the accession of six new members will bring the total number of EU Member States to a whopping 33 or 34, depending on whether or not the UK government actually follows through on Brexit. And size is what ultimately matters when it comes to empire building.
Serbia and Montenegro have already opened accession talks while Albania and Macedonia are hoping to do so later this year, if Macedonia can resolve its name dispute with Greece.
The timing of this latest announcement of the EU’s enlargement plans could not be worse. It comes just days after a call from European Commission president Jean Claude Juncker to increase each Member State’s contribution to the EU budget to plug the shortfall that will be left behind should the UK pack up and leave. In 2015 the UK was the second largest contributor to EU funding with a net spend of €11.5 billion.
While Juncker did not set a specific amount for the increase, he did call for abandoning the EU’s longstanding benchmark of 1% of economic output. “We need more than 1% of European GDP, quite clearly, if we are to pursue European policies and fund them quite adequately,” Juncker said. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there appears to be little appetite for belt tightening in Brussels’ halls of power.
Four north European countries are forecast to shoulder the bulk of the financial burden — Germany, which already provides 19% of total EU funding, and Austria, the Netherlands and Sweden. Under the projections from the European Parliament’s Directorate-General for Internal Policies, Austria will have to shell out an additional €413 million a year, or €47 (£41) for every citizen, to close the funding gap left behind by the UK’s exit — a 15.33% rise in its contribution. On a per capita basis, only the extremely-eurosceptic Swedes will get a worse deal with each citizen expected to pay €55 (£48.50) more every year.
All four of these countries already have large and swelling Eurosceptic populations. As such, they are unlikely to be thrilled at the prospect of having to shell out yet more funds so that the total number of net recipients of EU funding — countries that pay in less than they take out — can increase from 16 to 22, especially while the EU’s East/West divide continues to deepen and the biggest net recipient of all, Poland, may be considering leaving the EU. By Don Quijones.
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