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European integration in a fragmenting world

Sep 03,2022 - Last updated at Sep 03,2022

MADRID  —  Global stability is a fragile asset, as the war in Ukraine and heightened tensions over Taiwan have recently shown. In a world that is tearing itself apart, the European Union should make trust in the European project a top strategic priority. Against the backdrop of unfulfilled EU membership aspirations, other powers could exploit citizens’ frustration, as we are now seeing in the Western Balkans, where Russia is seeking to reassert its influence. More than ever, the Union must demonstrate that it is a useful and reliable partner for all European countries, regardless of their formal relationship with the EU.

The present is a period of paradox for Europe. Despite a succession of severe convulsions, European integration has recently undergone a historic acceleration. Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit Europe two and a half years ago, practically all of the EU’s decisions have sought to strengthen member states’ political integration.

Historically, the success of European integration has created the possibility, as well as the challenge, of enlarging the Union to include new members. The EU must continue to integrate, knowing that its vocation extends to the entire European continent. But, to guarantee its continuity, the EU will have to offer accession candidates new forms of participation that help to foster a feeling of belonging to the European project.

In fact, the EU’s internal political integration and its enlargement to include other European countries are two historically inseparable processes. In a speech at the beginning of this century at the Humboldt University of Berlin, then-German vice chancellor and foreign minister Joschka Fischer clearly explained the historical importance and difficulty of European integration. “The need to organise these two processes [the EU’s political integration and enlargement] in parallel is undoubtedly the biggest challenge the Union has faced since its creation,” Fischer said. “But no generation can choose the challenges it is tossed by history.”

The EU will never renege on its longstanding commitment to extend its integration project to countries that show a clear willingness to join. Ukraine and Moldova, driven toward the Union by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s senseless war, were granted candidate status in June. And the EU’s recent decision to start formal pre-accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia could trigger a positive dynamic that strengthens Western Balkan countries’ ties with European institutions.

Ukraine is part of Europe, and its citizens have repeatedly demonstrated their eagerness to become part of the EU. If the country meets the bloc’s entry requirements, there is no reason why it should not be admitted. To facilitate Ukraine’s integration process, the EU has a responsibility to assist in the country’s physical and political reconstruction from the ravages of Putin’s war. Researchers at the Kyiv School of Economics estimate that rebuilding Ukraine’s physical infrastructure alone will cost at least $100 billion. Clearly, reconstruction will have to be a collective effort.

Today, with war on the EU’s borders, all options for deepening Europe’s political integration, and not only the Union’s enlargement, must be on the table. French President Emmanuel Macron, for example, has proposed a “European Political Community”. But, whatever name the new structure takes, it must create opportunities for cooperation with the EU, thereby making integration a tangible reality for candidate countries.

Achieving this will require the EU to foster cooperation between candidate countries. While the Union’s current bilateral approach to accession candidates enables a separate assessment of each country’s membership prospects, it also risks turning enlargement into a predominantly competitive process.

The EU must therefore offer non-members an ambitious and realistic regional integration model. Promises of eventual membership and the long negotiations that precede it will harm the Union if they generate frustration among candidate countries’ governments and citizens. North Macedonia, for example, had to wait too long, 17 years, between being granted candidate status and receiving the green light to start accession negotiations.

Recognising that there may be other formulas besides enlargement for integrating the European continent does not imply that this policy has been unsuccessful. Without the EU’s 2004 enlargement to Eastern Europe, the bloc would not be the commercial and regulatory power it is today. Successive enlargements have made the EU one of the world’s biggest economies, accounting for around 16 per cent of global GDP (in purchasing-power-parity terms).

But, in cases when enlarging the EU to extend the zone of European stability is not feasible for geographical or political reasons, the fundamental question for European policymakers has been what alternative instruments they could use. Ever since West German chancellor Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik established the basis for rapprochement between the West and the Soviet bloc in the late 1960s, establishing bonds of economic interdependence has been the main answer.

But such a strategy presupposes the existence of responsible geopolitical actors, and the main lesson of the Ukraine war is that Russia is currently not a responsible actor. Clearly, economic interdependence does not contribute to stability if it produces asymmetric dependencies that leave one party vulnerable in times of conflict. Europe will have to stop feeling vulnerable, and a lot will have to change in the Kremlin, before the EU can consider any formal relationship with Russia in the future.

The EU’s undeniable success in advancing regional integration does not make it a finished project, or even one with a predetermined ending. But Europeans must remain on this path. Today, that means the EU must pursue its strategic interests while attending to the European ambitions and prospects of all the countries in its immediate neighborhood.


Javier Solana, a former EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, secretary general of NATO, and foreign minister of Spain, is president of EsadeGeo, Centre for Global Economy and Geopolitics and distinguished fellow at the Brookings Institution. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2022.

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