Europe’s New Second-Tier

On Sept. 26, the European Commission announced that Bulgaria and Romania would join the European Union even earlier than previously planned. The two former Soviet satellites will join the EU on Jan. 1, 2007, instead of 2008.

For the European Union, the accession of the two East European countries marks the end of a long cycle of eastward expansion, swallowing up former communist states. Croatia, Macedonia and Turkey will now have to wait indefinitely, while neither Ukraine nor Moldova are on the agenda at all.

But the real significance of the announcement last week is not just a question about the future of the states in question. The accession of Bulgaria and Romania has created a precedent that radically overhauls the nature and organizational principles of a united Europe. Both Bulgaria and Romania were accepted into the union essentially as second-rate members.

Previously, all members of the European Union — at least on paper — enjoyed equal rights. In point of fact, of course, this was far from the case, and the accession of countries from Eastern Europe drastically changed the nature of the union. From a club of rich nations at roughly the same level of development and with similar political, cultural and social institutions, the European Union has become an organization comprising two groups of countries with fundamentally different economies and societies. The dominant position of the West vis-a-vis the eastern periphery has been entrenched by economic practice and has made possible what is essentially colonial exploitation of the East’s resources. A confederation in form, it is becoming an empire in essence, with all of the attendant consequences — the most important of which is the erosion of democratic institutions in the West itself. The union of Western democracies with the corrupt regimes of the eastern part of the continent, where parliamentary institutions are no more than a facade for oligarchic rule, is evidence that a united Europe will cease being a community of free citizens.

Public opinion in the West quickly realized what was going on, hence the almost unanimous popular discontent with the expansion project. If it had been put to a popular vote, it would have been shot down in flames. Disillusionment has also set in in East European countries, where people have noticed that, instead of the promised economic boom, the union of East and West has only brought with it new problems. The votes against the Constitution in France and the Netherlands was only the first political symptom of the crisis.

On paper, however, the expansion looked like a process that was almost democratic. Formally, at least, no one resolved to divide Europeans into first- and second-class citizens. Previously, there were associate members, who did not have full rights. But only now have states within the union been officially and publicly deprived of some of their rights.

Formally Romania and Bulgaria have failed to meet a number of the conditions for membership, so they effectively are not full members. But other countries accepted earlier also did not meet all these conditions. Indeed, violations were flagrant and widely acknowledged, from the level of corruption in Poland to the absence of civil rights for the Russian-speaking populations of Estonia and Latvia. This did not stop them becoming full-fledged members. Even worse, ruling elites in the “new European states” have not shown the slightest interest in dealing with these problems. In some respects, the situation has gotten worse. Mass popular unrest in Poland and Hungary and the ongoing crisis with Russian schools in Latvia are stark examples.

It might look like Brussels has taken a look back and, in order to avoid making the same mistakes, has erred on the side of caution with Romania and Bulgaria. But if this is supposed to be a cure, then it is worse than the illness itself. Inequality among states inside the community undermines very elementary principles of democracy and federalism.

Of course, officials at the European Commission are not really interested in the fate of democracy in “Old Europe.” They have other problems. And the decision regarding Bulgaria and Romania is nothing less than a natural step in a broader process in the evolution of the EU — from a democratic community to something like a modern equivalent of the Holy Roman Empire.

The Moscow Times, 5 October 2006 Copyright 2006

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