From the beginning, Europeans have greeted President Bush’s “transformational diplomacy” with disdain. To them, the mess in Iraq demonstrates the failure of a policy that relies on speaking loudly and carrying a big stick. Instead of pursuing a policy of invasion, Western Europe has used the prospect of membership in the European Union to help transform the countries of Central and Eastern Europe into stable market democracies, thus continuing a process that saw Greece, Spain and Portugal join after they too pursued a democratic path.
The crisis in Europe that has emerged in recent weeks, first with the rejection of the European constitution by voters in France and the Netherlands and then with the breakdown of budget negotiations at last month’s E.U. summit, has put the brakes on talk of continuing the enlargement process. The consequences of turning inward will not be temporary—nor confined to Europe alone. Nations that had hoped to join instead face a future marked by economic decline, creeping authoritarianism, growing instability and possibly even violence. As for the European model of transformation—recently heralded as the reason “Why Europe Will Run the 21st Century”—it will lose its luster in other parts of the world, which looked to Europe’s success as a way to direct their own future.
In the last 15 years, many east European countries reformed their economies, tackled corruption and opened their political systems in the expectation that E.U. membership would bring them the peace and prosperity their western neighbors had long enjoyed. That hope may now be lost for all remaining aspirants but Bulgaria and Romania, whose negotiations with the E.U. are far enough along that they may join in 2007. Turkey will have to rethink its assumption that the opening of formal accession talks on Oct. 3 would be the first sure step to membership down the road. The Balkan countries of Croatia, Macedonia and Bosnia will have to revise their hopes that the years of war could finally be put behind them as they joined Europe, paving the way perhaps for Serbia and Montenegro and a final resolution of the festering sore of Kosovo. And Ukrainians will have to think again about whether the 2004 Orange Revolution really heralded a new Euro-Atlantic orientation after years of increasingly corrupt and authoritarian rule.
For all of these countries, Europe’s current crisis could not have come at a worse moment. Conflict over the future course of reform will be likely in them all, halting if not reversing the progress made to date. Europe’s entire periphery will be that much more unstable—with consequences for stability within the E.U. itself.
The growing resistance to enlargement is shortsighted. Let’s remember what earlier enlargement did for Europe in just 15 years. A continent that produced World War I, World War II and the Cold War has been transformed into a Europe nearly whole and free and at peace. Never before have so many countries with so many people made such political and economic progress in such a short period of time as the countries imprisoned for decades behind the Iron Curtain. These gains are now being put at risk.
Take the Balkans. While the violence of the 1990s is behind us, the situation there remains fragile. For now, the ugly face of nationalism is being held in check as Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia and Serbia have embarked on the reforms necessary to be considered for E.U. membership. Once that door closes, the political consensus in favor of reform will likely shatter as leaders fall back into their old ways. The situation in Kosovo remains particularly volatile—with the only viable long-term solution being for both Kosovo and Serbia to join the larger Europe.
Turkey offers the more immediate challenge. While voters in France and the Netherlands made clear that they did not want Turkey to join their Union, can Europe really afford not to continue on a path that would lead to membership for the first primarily Muslim country? Consider what might be lost. Because of the need to satisfy the E.U.’s criteria, Ankara’s leaders have already undertaken extraordinary reforms. On the political side, Turkey has abolished the death penalty, allowed much greater freedom of speech and introduced civilian control over military budgets. On the economic front, Ankara has slashed government subsidies. The government has reached out to the country’s Kurdish minority and to neighboring Greece, with which relations are better than ever. All this might be lost if Europe fails to leave open the possibility of Turkey’s membership.
Similarly, without the incentive of E.U. membership, Ukraine’s new leaders may prove either not committed or not strong enough to root out corruption and reform the security services. These are tough challenges—but ones that Ukraine’s neighbors were determined to overcome once they realized this was the price they had to pay for entering Europe. If Ukraine fails to get a clear signal that its future lies with Europe, the hopes of the Orange Revolution will fade fast.
The consequences for Europe of a failure to keep the enlargement process moving are grave. Failure in Turkey might well inflame Muslim populations throughout Europe. And while many Europeans fear that Turkish membership brings Europe to the borders of Iran, Iraq and Syria, Europe cannot hope to play a stabilizing role in the broader Middle East if it does not help Turkey succeed.
After the bright hopes of last year, failure in Ukraine would be disastrous for the former Soviet Union as a whole, producing a sense of crisis not only for Ukraine’s neighbors in the east but also for some of its E.U. neighbors in the west, potentially increasing Moscow’s leverage over these nations.
There is too much at stake for Europe to accept risks like these. Washington must help its European friends in developing policies that minimize the damage. NATO’s expansion policy, which has languished as E.U. enlargement took center stage, should be put back on the front burner to address the fears and aspirations of countries like Ukraine, Serbia and Bosnia. The E.U. must also create new kinds of association arrangements that fall short of membership, and thus do not evoke the kind of public opposition that full membership now does.
Unless the door to Europe is kept ajar, the instability that continues to bedevil Europe’s periphery in the broader Middle East and the former Soviet Union will come to plague Europe itself and all that has been accomplished there. The consequences would be bad not just for Europe, but also for the United States, which needs a strong partner to address challenges emanating from Northern Africa, the Middle East and Eurasia.
If Italy were to enter a phase of uncertainty, with shaky governments, with a new government, and be attacked on the financial markets, this would be a huge problem. Not just for Italy, of course, but for the rest of Europe. Italy is just too big to fail.