The right to join Europe’s club is not a reward

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EU membership is not a prize, still many refer to it in that way. Ironically, the best way to ensure candidate states adopt economic discipline and economic reform is to keep them perpetually at the EU’s doorstep.

Crowds in the streets and an assertion of independence by parliament and judiciary seem to have restored democracy in Ukraine. These developments pull the country towards western Europe and away from Russia. The European Union will this week decide whether to begin discussions on Turkish accession. Should Ukraine also be a candidate?

It is a measure of the EU’s success that everyone wants to join. In last weekend’s Romanian presidential election, each party claimed to be keener than the next about the country’s imminent accession. Moroccans wish the Strait of Gibraltar bridged so they can qualify as European. There is something odd about a club that arouses more enthusiasm from those outside than those inside. But there are reasons.

Mutual support for freedom and democracy is one of the purposes, perhaps the central purpose, of the EU. But such mutual support is a process from which the weak gain more than the strong. Integrity of institutions, like personal integrity, is enhanced or diminished by the integrity of those with whom you associate.

Only three European nations have been truly democratic sovereign states throughout the last century. The two that are members of the EU, Britain and Sweden, are among the most eurosceptical. The other, Switzerland, has chosen not to join. The stronger a country’s own institutions, the less need it perceives for those of Europe.

The EU’s promotion of free institutions has been a triumph so far. A rehabilitated Germany was brought back into the international community. The Mediterranean expansion of the 1980s was a gamble that southern countries would be able to integrate with western Europe and thus secure democracy and promote economic development. In Spain and Portugal, the outcome is successful beyond reasonable expectations. The record of Greece is inferior but still good.

This year’s simultaneous admission of 10 new states is a bigger gamble still. Although their combined population is not much larger than the Mediterranean group, the gap in living standards is much greater. There is a high probability that at least one of them will encounter severe economic difficulties or a crisis of democratic legitimacy in the next 10 years.

The EU is not strong enough to cope easily with such problems. Both the establishment of the euro and the admission of candidate states demonstrated that it was much easier to impose rules on countries wanting to join than on those that were already members. If it were feasible, the best means of imposing economic discipline and liberal democratic reform would be to keep countries such as Turkey and Ukraine perpetually on the doorstep of the EU but never to let them inside.

But the EU is not a device for rewarding good behaviour. There are many different views of its future. Some see it as a purely economic association, others want it to be the embryo of a federal state. But even a minimalist view of the union involves substantial economic integration.

Goods and services can cross borders without formality, capital can be freely transferred, companies can choose to invest in one area or another, without much regard for national boundaries, people can go and work in other member states if opportunities arise.

All these measures of integration require faith in the quality of the processes of other states. Goods must be what they say they are, and must be owned by the people who claim to own them; investment demands secure property rights. Access to public services, whether healthcare or justice, must be available everywhere on a basis not too different from people’s experience at home.

Even a small degree of foreignness impedes economic integration. Few contiguous countries are as similar as Canada and the US but there is far more trade between adjoining states than across the Canadian border. Without sufficient similarity of institutions, economic integration is a sham and political integration a pipe dream.

EU membership is not a prize. Most Americans would regard as ludicrous and impertinent the suggestion that Costa Rica should be rewarded for its admirable record of democracy, peaceful co-existence and economic development by becoming the 51st state. Yet many talk about EU expansion in essentially those terms.

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