How the European Union’s eastern expansion created Brexit and made an enemy of Russia

Mary Dejevsky

Fifteen years ago this week, the European Union grew overnight from 15 members to 25 in the biggest and most ambitious enlargement it had ever ventured. The new members, eight of them former Soviet-bloc states, were ablaze with celebratory fireworks; there was ecstatic waving of blue and gold flags; Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” played on a seemingly eternal loop. And among the most enthusiastic supporters of this larger, wider EU was none other than the UK.

Among existing EU states, enlargement, especially to the east, was desired for a host of reasons. It was the realisation of a dream few had believed attainable even 15 years before: the restoration of a Europe “whole and free”. It salved the consciences of many western Europeans by offering a kind of recompense to all those other Europeans forced to languish for so long behind the Iron Curtain. And it reinforced what was seen as a constellation of shared (Enlightenment) values.

For Thatcher and her successors, however, another motive was also in play. This wider Europe, they hoped, would be harder to dragoon into line behind the Franco-German aspiration for an “ever-closer union”. A wider, initially at least more diverse, European Union could not only delay the achievement of a deeper EU, but might have the effect of sabotaging that deeper union once and for all.

All these years on, it could be argued that this enlargement to the east, augmented three years later by the accession of Bulgaria and Romania, and followed six years later by Croatia, has sabotaged a lot more than the striving for an ever-closer union.

First, it is questionable how successfully “old” and “new” Europe – terms for which the central and east Europeans harbour a special hatred – have really “knitted” together. Economically, an initially impressive spurt in growth has not for the most part been sustained, leaving a persistent lag between old and new. There is simmering resentment among “new” Europeans that they provide cheap labour to “old” Europe, and even that they are treated as markets for substandard goods. The resentment is mutual. Poland had to stop treating the EU as a cash cow, a senior EU official warned this week.

But it is the question of “shared values” that has loomed largest, with both Poland and Hungary facing punitive measures from Brussels for what are seen as flaws in their democracy and judicial systems. Indeed, the “values” gap seems to have widened, following the election of more nationalistic and Eurosceptic governments in these countries.

“New” Europe’s reluctance to accept a share of the many migrants who made their way to the EU borders in 2015-2016 has been a particular cause of friction. This is thought to be one reason why – according to a recent survey by the Koerber Stiftung nonprofit organisation – almost half of all Germans asked (46-47 per cent) now say enlargement was a mistake. Previously, they had been among its greatest supporters.

Now, it is true that a majority of the former Soviet-bloc countries are not guilty of backsliding; true, too, that idealism in the west may have obscured a big difference in attitude at the outset. Where “old” European states saw membership of what became the EU by and large as a sharing of sovereignty designed to fend off another war, the former Soviet-bloc states tended to see EU membership rather as a shelter for their newly restored or acquired sovereignty, which they were not at all willing to share.

Which leads to the second factor: security and Russia. For entirely understandable reasons drawn from their recent and not so recent past, the central and east Europeans brought with them into the EU a pervasive fear of their giant neighbour to the east. Reinforced by the UK’s persistent cold warrior mindset, this had the effect of skewing the EU’s foreign policy and security priorities which had previously been more balanced as between northeast and south.

What had been a generally pragmatic way of getting along between the EU and Russia quickly grew adversarial after 2004, to the point where the relationship became dubbed a new cold war. This was largely a consequence of Nato’s expansion to Russia’s western border. But the EU’s mishandling of its talks on a free trade agreement with Ukraine – whose most fervent advocates were to be found among the “new” Europeans – only made matters worse.

There had been a time when Russia drew a clear distinction between Nato and the EU, which allowed the European Union a more productive role. But security aspects of the EU’s draft agreement with Ukraine put Russia on its guard, with the result that Nato and Russian forces are now deployed in close proximity on what has become the new dividing line of Europe.

Where, it might be asked, would EU-Russia relations be now if neither the European Union nor Nato had expanded to the east, and/or if the clash over Ukraine had been avoided. Would “new” Europe feel less secure, or would it in fact be safer because Russia would feel more secure, too? Alas, we shall never know.

Then, of course, there’s the big one: Brexit. It is true that the Leave campaign played fast and loose with facts and figures. But would Leave have won without the Blair government’s misjudgement on how many “new” Europeans would take advantage of free movement to the UK after 2004? It still seems to me that there was a scandalous blurring of the lines between EU free movement and non-EU migration (which the government has failed to control, although it has the power). But migration was an issue in the referendum, and EU membership was widely blamed for the UK government’s perceived loss of control.

After 15 years, then, the verdict on EU enlargement looks distinctly mixed. The words hasty and overambitious come to mind, with a large dollop of unintended consequences. It seems a high price has been paid by the European Union for a project that seemed at once so idealistic and so right. But could the verdict change?

To look on the bright side, it was probably unrealistic to expect that “new” and “old” Europe would mesh successfully after so long apart and 15 years of such different experiences. It may simply be a matter of time before the “new” European states get over their preoccupation with sovereignty. Genuine economic convergence may also take much longer than they, or we, had expected or hoped.

Similarly with Russia. There are already signs that a more realistic appraisal of Vladimir Putin’s actual power and Russia’s actual intentions may be gaining a hold in the EU mainstream, and that fresh concerns about the EU’s southern flank may restore something of the old balance to foreign policy. Doubts about the commitment of the United States, both now and in the future, to Europe’s defence could also encourage a fresh approach to Russia. The election of the new president of Ukraine offers an opportunity for both east and west.

Lastly, Brexit. There were many who predicted Brexit would precipitate the break-up of the EU, as others followed. So far, the opposite is true. Cohesion has increased, and could increase further once the always odd-member-out, the UK, has left (assuming it does). In the end, then, the consequences of enlargement may be judged to have brought as many benefits as losses – but it may take another 15 years to find out.