The Limits of Expansion: The European Union and NATO

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BIG is not necessarily beautiful, but the current agendas of both the European Union and NATO is one of steady aggrandizement. The more members each can take, it would seem, the better. Both institutions have come to be seen as two sides of the same coin, linked by historical circumstance and political acumen. The EU prospered under the stabilizing influence of NATO in Europe, a shield against the prospects of Communist incursion. NATO, in turn, established its credentials as a Cold War alliance that went the distance, keeping the US in Europe while safeguarding Western institutions. Both now face the challenges posed by their respective enlargement, notably in the eastward push that is integrating new states at some speed. What are the implications of these moves'? Recent events suggest that such expansions may have occurred too rapidly. A check of such advances may be needed, re-assessments may have to be made. In the case of the EU, a question mark was drawn over its proposed constitution by Ireland's negative vote on the Lisbon Treaty earlier this year. While seen by some commentators as the 'useful idiots of European extremism' (to use a term of the German writer Richard Wagner), the Irish highlighted significant problems within the organization. In truth, the EU is a behemoth few of its citizens actually understand. Why, then, allow it to grow and multiply in its functions when it can barely legitimize itself before its citizenry?

With NATO, complications also arise. Having fulfilled its functions as a Cold War bulwark, every effort by its supporters is being made to find another purpose. Is it to combat terrorism? Or perhaps the crisis wrought by climate change? Will it provide security against a renascent Russian threat? The jury is out and wandering the halls. No clear founding of a rationale has been had, but, as with the EU, enlargement is on the cards.

Origins and Rationales

In many ways, the origins of both organizations, seen together, provide the cornerstones of European success after 1945. Both came about in a post-World War environment. The EU can trace its origins back to the economic interests of the European Coal and Steel Community (1951); NATO, to an anti-Soviet pact in 1949 girded by the concept of collective defence in the wake of Communism's westward expansion.

But things did not stop there. Treaty followed treaty in the development of European policy, one might even say, a European 'identity". A form of federalism came into being. Hiccups did follow, registered in the fear that the EU might be getting ahead of itself (the Lisbon Treaty being the latest). The EU, some have even argued, is suffering a crisis in legitimacy. When it is not imposing regulations that are seen as cumbersome and intrusive, with an extra layer of unwelcome bureaucracy, it is regarded as remote. The European Parliament and Commission in Brussels are perceived to be lucrative escapes for politicians. Election turnouts are low, and its representatives are satirized and mocked.

The expansion project of the EU developed apace after the European Council meeting in Copenhagen in 1993. Categories on what Central and Eastern European countries would have to meet in order to accede to the union were drawn up. These included the establishment of democratic institutions, a respect for the rule of law and various safeguards for minorities, the adoption of a market economy and the incorporation into a genuine union {political, economic, monetary). Ten countries duly joined in 2004.

Students of NATO and EU history, amongst them commentators as notable as Vaclav Havel of the Czech Republic, see both as a democratizing influence on the continent, guarantors of liberty and democracy. Other commentators see this expansion and consolidation as possessing its own 'imperial' thrust, a colonialist resurgence. (1) EU enlargement has had enormous affects on its member states. The farm industries of wealthier states. …