More European Union does not mean more Europe – a lesson for the 20th anniversary of the EU’s enlargement

by Filip Blaha

Europe’s greatest strength lies in its diversity, we should not try to suppress it, but embrace it.

It is now 20 years since the biggest ever enlargement of the European Union. Ten new countries, mostly former members of the Eastern bloc, have joined the former community of Western states. It was a move that was supposed to finally bring peace, prosperity and freedom to the eastern post-communist states. That is to say, what had already been the norm in Western Europe for over half a century. And while we can undoubtedly say that joining the European Union was a great benefit, on this anniversary, it is important to ask why the benefits have not been more significant, and to reflect on the possible causes and shortcomings of the EU that should be corrected in order to achieve greater prosperity.

Europe has historically been a continent where many great empires and states have risen and fallen. It has been influenced by both Asia and Africa. It cannot be said that every prosperous state within Europe shared a larger set of common cultural or social characteristics. Each empire approached education, religion, science and social life differently. In its own way, however, it has always found its way to prosperity. Thanks to the great human curiosity of Europeans, it has historically been possible to forge social and commercial links with countries as far afield as China, Japan and India. Cultures that could not be further removed from the European one. It is this protracted curiosity and openness that has led to a great exchange, not only of goods, but of ideas. It was these that were able to lift up the fragmented European culture and kick-start great development and enrichment.

The European Union was built as the heir, or rather the solution, to this prosperous but fragmented Europe. For if there was one thing that united Europe and its great empires, it was war. The last two, the most terrible, were the ones that led European politicians to the idea that would forever prevent wars and herald an age of prosperity and peace. This idea, or community, revolved around the principle of interdependent trade and the single market. For, as the French philosopher Frederic Bastiat said, “where goods do not flow across borders, soldiers will march”. In a united and prosperous Europe, there would simply be no need for war.

It was for this purpose that the ten eastern states joined the original western project of Germany and France. And after them, a few others. Over the years, the European Union has undoubtedly brought that prosperity and peace. However, even after 20 years of accession, Eastern Europe has not managed to catch up economically with the West, which has begun to decline economically. The European Union countries’ share of global GDP is declining, despite their bold plans to be the most competitive economy in the world. European leaders feel that the solution to these problems is “more Europe”, but often they mean more “European Union”, or rather, more European Union bureaucracy. More Europe in the form of removing inter-state barriers to the four freedoms – free movement of people, goods, services and capital – is surely the solution to many of today’s problems. However, the introduction of more and more regulations and controls that more “European Union” entails significantly reduces the potential of the single market.

The idea of the single market and the interconnectedness of economies is great. Thanks to the free movement of goods, people, services and capital, the EU’s population is among the richest 10 percent in the world. However, less is sometimes more. Every single problem or challenge does not necessarily need the gold-plating of European legislation, and there is no one right solution that the European Commission has to devise and impose on every country. Each Member State has emerged from a different historical and social context and has built its own institutions and its own path to prosperity. The European Union’s attempt to find one common solution then indirectly erases this cultural and social difference and deprives Europe of the existence of a market in ideas that are the driving force behind technological progress and prosperity.

Certainly some groups of states have much in common and should not be prevented from forming bilateral agreements and deepening their co-partnership adjacent to the EU framework. However, the EU should not have the ambition to be a cure all or perhaps even a future state. In the history of its functioning, there have been too many cases where such efforts have ended in disaster. Be it the euro crisis, which was caused by the wrong and too rapid enlargement of the eurozone. The common agricultural policy, which ended in mountains of butter and lakes of wine. Or the impending over-regulating digital and technological policies that are slowly but surely putting Europe on the back foot in terms of innovation. 

It was one of the EU’s originally good ideas – common trade – that forced Estonia to adopt a senseless amount of tariffs and regulations against states after accession, thus destroying the free trade instrument that paved the way for Estonia’s prosperity and its very entry into the EU. It was the over-emphasis on subsidies that created the oligarchs in the Visegrad Four countries, who have now latched onto the legislative, executive and, in some cases, the judiciary, in order to keep the European rents flowing into their pockets. Thus, despite its undoubted benefits, EU membership has also meant many steps backwards for the countries that joined 20 years ago, slowing them down from catching up economically with the West.

Rather than devising new and absolute ways, the EU should reflect on its past failures and perhaps leave a little more to the member states to solve new problems. After all, in doing so it will be honoring one of its guiding principles – respecting the rich diversity among European states and letting the free market of ideas find the solution. Indeed, what the European Union really needs is more Europe, more European diversity, different solutions from different countries and more of a common market. The more European Union that we have been getting so far could jeopardize this very diversity.

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