Is the EU truly in crisis?

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Following the rejection by the French and Dutch voters of the constitutional treaty, Europe was thrown into a state of confusion and doubt, although the results of both referenda, predicted earlier, were hardly surprising. Without the new constitution, its proponents argued, further European Union enlargement would be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve; pessimistic observers went so far as to suggest that Europe might not be governable, or even viable, without the streamlined decision-making procedures foreseen in the constitution. As a result, prospects for Turkey’s full membership are also claimed to have faded, despite protestations to the contrary from the Commission.

Two interrelated questions emerge from these gloomy scenarios. First, is there a good reason to be alarmed about the state of the EU? And second, will Turkey lose its chance for full membership in the wake of the current loss of confidence in Europe?

To begin with the first: the so-called crisis has less to do with the EU itself than with the domestic politics of some of its member states that have been suffering from economic underperformance. The French and Dutch referenda reflect an increased emphasis on national priorities rather than dissatisfaction with the way in which the EU itself is governed.

Contrary to the perceived state of EU over-reach, enlargement has helped the Union’s economy, as reflected by the substantially higher rates of growth of the 10 new members. Nor has the EU lost its attraction for candidate countries as well as future hopefuls in its neighborhood.

What is perceived to be the EU crisis appears to reflect crises of leadership in many of the member states, where the leaders (responsible for decisions taken on an intergovernmental basis) fail to inform their national constituencies about the EU and to share a vision of how that entity would be capable of enhancing collective interests. On the other hand, short-term populist considerations on the national political level, such as resisting globalization for the sake of protecting domestic labor markets, carry the danger of serious economic crises that would threaten the very basis of the post-war European success story.

Parochialism of national politics also seems to get in the way of obtaining a clear perspective on Turkey’s membership. A persistent lack of familiarity, compounded by the alien image of the Turk and the resulting inability to imagine Turkey as part of Europe (although Turkey is a member of all European institutions except the EU), is often camouflaged behind the more objective-sounding arguments (such as the country’s size, level of economic development, costs to the EU of its integration) that are commonly made against Turkish membership, even as accession negotiations are scheduled to begin. The fact that only six percent of the French and three percent of the Dutch "no" voters cited Turkish membership as the reason for their vote is also obscured in the arguments against Turkish integration.

In view of the strong arguments for Turkey’s membership that emphasize its contribution to European security and stability, those who are against Turkey’s membership are proposing an ingenious alternative: to anchor Turkey in Europe by means of a privileged partnership. This offer is rejected by both the Turkish government and the enlargement commissioner, who pointed out recently that Turkey was already a "privileged partner".

The issue of Turkish membership, however, could be turned into a positive challenge if approached from a fresh perspective rather than from entrenched positions. A federal Europe governed from Brussels is not in the cards; this is also the lesson to be taken from the French and Dutch voters’ reactions. Variable geometry best describes the way in which the Union is now organized, and even the way EU-15 was organized before 2004. Not all members are in the Euro-zone, not all of them have signed the Schengen agreement, but none of them are described as privileged partners. "Ever closer union of the peoples of Europe", as expressed in the Treaty of the European Union, is achieved by means of shared values, shared institutions, rule of law, rights and obligations, and not by centralization of the means of government.

Consistent with its dynamic nature, an enlarged Europe can best maintain coherence by means of this variable geometry. A coherent definition of variable geometry, in turn, would help to reconcile the legal definition of the Union with its de facto arrangement, and would allow the EU to proceed with the agreed program of enlargement that has been such an essential part of its success story.

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