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Binging on Expansion: Lessons From the Enlargements of the European Union

Cesare Merlini

In a time of grandiose plans that are unlikely to ever come to pass (such as the U.S. plan for the democratic transformation of the Middle East), the recent enlargement of the European Union—bringing in ten new members—represented exactly the opposite phenomenon. Far from a grandiose plan, enlargement was never seriously considered or debated by the peoples of Europe—despite the rhetoric of politicians, including EU Commission President Romano Prodi, to the contrary. Rather, enlargement was regarded as something that had to be done, willy-nilly, because the various candidates could not be left out of the Union for reasons both internal and external to the EU. Previous enlargements, while perhaps not seen as part of a grand design either, were more popular; enthusiasm for enlargement seems to have declined slowly but continuously.

The notion that the EU is an economic giant and a political dwarf is so common that it has become a platitude, but a resilient one. Now, with this latest enlargement, the political dwarf has gained in stature; relatively more than the economic giant since the newcomers are not as rich as the member states that they have joined. But has the political dwarf grown obese rather than strong? Has Europe been binging rather than nourishing itself? Psychologists say that binging often comes from a lack of purpose in one’s life. So, does Europe lack purpose?

Another famous saying, this one originating from Henry Kissinger, is that Europe is a regional power (while the United States is a global one). Indeed, in a world of global challenges, it often seems that Europe lacks a global role. But has Europe even acted as a regional power by expanding from the six founding countries in 1957 to the current twenty-five? If it has, one might say the Union has done so in the same way as Molière’s Bourgeois Gentilhomme wrote prose: unknowingly.

A major instrument of regional policy has been the array of association agreements with neighboring countries. Several such agreements were conceived from the start as intermediate steps before entry and in most cases have played a useful role. Others were devised to create prospects of economic, political and security cooperation as an alternative to membership and have been only partially successful.

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Cesare Merlini

Former Brookings Expert

Istituto Affari Internazionali, Rome

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