Europe’s Napoleonic Moment of Enlargement 

Again, like in the early 2000s questions are raised about “absorption capacity”, “institutional reform” and “economic cost” of the new wave of enlargement. Rather than serious discussion points, these debates are natural reflexes of the EU’s geopolitical coming of age. They represent EU’s doubts about itself and destiny that history has graced it with: Europe united and at peace.

Lenin was not speaking of the enlargement, but he very well might have been, when he said “There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen”.

Two decades ago, the EU made a historic decision of accepting new member states from Central and Eastern Europe. As the dusk of the last day of April 2004 gave way to the dawn,  the world’s most successful peace project expanded over what had once been the bloodlands of Europe

While people gathered for celebrations in Warsaw, Lech Wałęsa felt a profound sense of closure: “I fought for our country to recover everything it lost under communism and the Soviets… and now my struggle is over. My ship has come to port.” And like that, with the stroke of a pen, the EU united the European continent and helped it heal from the wounds of the Iron Curtain. In the words of Pope John Paul “Europe was able to breathe with both lungs again.”

Contrary to all the doomsday predictions, by any single metric,  enlargement proved to be a tremendous success. For the price of a cup of coffee a month the 2004 enlargement crowned the EU’s raison d’être by ensuring peace, stability and security of the continent. 

Economically, it elevated the prosperity of the entire Union to its historic highs, and none of the dire scenarios materialized: EU institutions did not collapse, labor markets did not engulf and economic mayhem did not ensue. 

Indeed, study after study confirmed the opposite. Enlarged EU institutions continued to operate normally and have successfully passed the test of time. They have shown great resilience through a series of crises, like the 2008 financial crisis, migration crisis, pandemic and most recently Russian invasion of Ukraine. Labour migration from new to old member states rarely reached even one per cent of the host country’s active working population.

An extensive study by the European Commission on the economic impact five years after accession concluded that the 2004 enlargement “significantly boosted the economies and improved living standards in the new Member States, thereby also benefiting the old member states notably through new export and investment opportunities. It has strengthened the economy of the Union as a whole, through the advantages of integration in a larger internal market. Enlargement has also enabled the EU to reap more fully the benefits of globalization.” 

“Overall, this [Central and Eastern Europe] enlargement was a major success for the EU and its citizens,” the study concluded. When the dust settled and all was said and done, ultimately the EU was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for transforming Europe “from a continent of war to a continent of peace”. 

However, not everyone was happy. Euro-skeptics were alive and kicking back then, as well. The then Czech President and an steadfast Putin ally, Vaclav Klaus, warned new EU member states that they would “lose their sovereignty” and soon become “disillusioned”. Although time has proven him wrong, politicians like Klaus have never been particularly fond of adhering to facts; and he certainly  was not an isolated voice. 

Back then, much like today, populists held strong influence across Europe and enlargement quickly became easy target and scapegoat for everyday problems. Billboards featuring “polish plumbers” tapped into people’s anxieties and fears—akin to a modern-day equivalent of red bus NHS mendacity. Slogans such as “build the wall” and “take back control” swamped the European political landscape. 

Their first casualty would soon emerge. In 2005 France and Netherlands, through national referendums, rejected the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe, effectively burying any hopes of swift and meaningful EU integration. Opposition towards the enlargement was one of the key drivers behind the “No” vote. 

Shortly thereafter, phrases like “enlargement fatigue” and “absorption capacity” became common catchphrases in EU politics. A series of subsequent crises, including the financial crisis, BREXIT, migration, and the rise of illiberalism, absorbed most of the EU’s political attention and relegated enlargement to a secondary concern. 

Notably, Jean-Claude Juncker had his own “read my lips” moment when he made no new enlargement pledge. Being appointed as Enlargement Commissioner became synonym for uselessness. The role of Enlargement Commissioner became synonymous with ineffectiveness, with its stature steadily declining from Oli Rehn to Štefan Füle and Johannes Hahn, only to reach its lowest point with Olivér Várhelyi.

The steady decline of political interest in enlargement brough the Council several times to the standstill and became cause of harsh debate among member states. Consequently, in an act of strategic myopia, the EU convinced itself that enlargement is not a priority anymore and that it can wait. 

Few phrases captured Europe’s pusillanimity more eloquently than the then-US diplomat Nuland with her now venerable “Fuck the EU”. And so decades passed without any real progress, and enlargement was sentenced to political exile awaiting an unlikely savior: Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.

Buddha was onto something when he noted “The trouble is, you think you have time”. This ancient wisdom aptly encaptures the EU’s [lack of] action on enlargement over the past two decades. The Russian invasion of Ukraine served as a wake-up call for European politicians who had long believed they could indefinitely enjoy the dividends of peace. 

Russian carnage in Ukraine overturned fundamental principles of international order and showcased how important enlargement is for Europe’s peace, stability and security. Europe could not longer seek refuge in Kagan’s paradise. The time had come, as per the now popular EU discourse, for the EU to answer the call of history. And answer it, they did. 

In what would be unimaginable not too long ago, the EU metamorphosed into a military power that took head on Russian aggression against Ukraine. In the words of Matthijs and Meunier: Kantian idealism was out, Hobbesian realism was back in. Through unprecedented financial and military assistance, Europe has now overtaken US support for Ukraine. Its revolutionary decoupling from Russian gas and oil took by surprise even EU’s greatest skeptics. EU economic sanctions play a pivotal role in crippling the Russian economy. 

And last year, in what was enlargements annus mirabilis, the EU took a series of decisions that broke a decades-long deadlock on enlargement. Ukraine, Moldova and Bosnia attained candidate status, Albania and North Macedonia opened accession negotiations and Kosovo finally got visa liberalization. It is now almost certain that Ukraine and Moldova will open accession negotiation by the end of this year. 

In other words, Lenin weeks are in full swing.

For now, it is evident that the EU’s focus on enlargement is here to stay. Most recently, at the Bled Strategic Forum, President of the European Council, Charles Michel, set out an ambitious goal for the EU to be ready for enlargement by 2030. In her latest State of the Union address, President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, reflected a sense of edifying urgency as she noted that “we cannot – and we should not – wait for Treaty change to move ahead with enlargement”, since the “history is now calling us to work on completing our Union.” 

And this was not just Michel and der Leyen speaking. Crucially, there is now a strong consensus across the member states that enlargement is a priority. Last year in Prague, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, spoke of the importance of enlargement in dramatic terms invoking nothing less than the Velvet Revolution iconic call to arms “When, if not now? Who, if not me?”

Similarly, President Macron, speaking at GLOBSEC, left no doubt about France’s change of heart for the enlargement: “For us, the question is not whether we should enlarge – we answered that question a year ago – nor when we should enlarge – for me, as swiftly as possible – but rather how we should do it.” When France says this, enlargement fatigue is passé

Yet, once again, just as in the early 2000s, skeptical voices emerge across Europe, raising the same age-old concerns about the potential “absorption capacity,” “institutional reform,” and “economic cost” of the new wave of enlargement. 

Rather than substantive discussion points, these debates are natural reflexes of the EU’s geopolitical coming of age. They mirror the EU’s own doubts about itself and the destiny that history has bestowed upon it: Europe united and at peace.

One of Hollywood’s biggest releases of the year is a film about Napoleon, an emperor who came closest to uniting the European continent by blood and iron. 

The visionary Napoleon once dreamed: “Europe thus divided into freely formed nationalities, internally free, would make peace between States would have become easier: the United States of Europe would become a possibility,” declared Napoleon 200 years ago. 

Today the EU stands on the verge of making Napoleon’s dream come true without a single shot being fired. All the shooting is being done by Ukrainians.

And so, finally let me conclude with a touch of humor. There is a story that during the Battle of Wagram, Napoleon was frustrated with continuous justifications of his military echelon on the lack of progress in capturing Vienna. In response, Napoleon reportedly replied “If you’re going to take Vienna, take f***ing Vienna.” 

So, in a way, Europe is coming to its own Napoleonic, or perhaps Nuland-esque, moment: “If you’re going to enlarge, then fu***ng enlarge.”

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