Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

The European Union at a Crossroads?

Alice-Catherine Carls


By Alice-Catherine Carls

October 27, 2014


The making of Europe has taken a long century. When World War I broke out in 1914, the fighting was less about competition for land in Europe proper than about access to Central Asia’s lands, resources, and commercial routes. One century later, this competition looks eerily similar, but it is now overt, and the stakes are considerably higher. Between Gavrilo Princip the assassin in 1914 to Gavrilo Princip the hero in 2014, from the Pale of Settlement in 1914 to resurgent anti-Semitism in 2014, from the search for oil in Mesopotamia in 1914 to the dependence on Russian natural gas in 2014, from the first colonial soldiers dying in France for the Allied cause during the Great War to continued Muslim immigration, from the creation of the “Middle East” in 1918 to its collapse in 2014, Europe has had to constantly renegotiate its geographic, economic, cultural, and religious boundaries. It has survived the Great Depression, the GULAG, the Holocaust, decolonization, and the Cold War. Today, it appears to be at a crossroads.

A historical snapshot of the European Union’s founding is instructive here. The European Union today counts twenty-eight countries. Six countries – Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands –united in 1951 to form the European Coal and Steel Community. The next countries to join formed increasingly broader circles around this industrial core, with the gradual additions of the United Kingdom, Ireland, Denmark, Greece, Spain, and Portugal by 1992. Finland, Sweden, and Austria then joined in 1995.

With its maritime perimeter secured in the Mediterranean Sea, the Atlantic Ocean, the Norwegian Sea, and the Barents Sea, the European Union then focused on the newly freed countries of East Central Europe. In the largest enlargement to date, it admitted ten countries in 2004 – Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, Cyprus, and Malta. Bulgaria and Romania joined in 2007, and Croatia in June 2013. With a GDP of $15.83 trillion and a population of over 511 million united in a single market, the European Union is a formidable force. The seemingly irresistible enlargement of the European Union, which has almost doubled since 2004, must appear threatening to Moscow, even if it is not meant to do so.

History offers three important lessons about the boundaries and vitality of Europe today. First, Ukraine’s emergence earlier this year as an active buffer zone between European expansion and Russian resistance confirms that the contest for the Eurasian land bridge which heated up between the European Union and Russia over the past twenty years, as I wrote in my articles about the Silk Road of the 21st century, has made Ukraine the geographic crucible between Russian and European commercial routes. The current crisis in Ukraine indicates that Russia may be using a modified version of the Curzon Line to define Europe’s geography. This line, which runs along Poland’s eastern border, was established by the Allies in 1919; it was Stalin’s main argument for the post-1945 European order. If such is Vladimir Putin’s goal, a future Ukrainian settlement might leave western Ukraine landlocked and separated from eastern Ukraine.

Second, the European Union’s formation between 1951 and 1991 did not proceed in a vacuum. The United Kingdom established the European Free Trade Association in 1960 and continued supporting it through the 1970s, and the Soviet Union kept Eastern European economies tied together through the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance, or Comecon, from 1949 until 1991. Since the end of the Cold War, Russia formed a number of economic partnerships with its former Soviet republics that emulated the European Union to some degree. During the last twenty years, Russia and the European Union both signed treaties with Central Asian countries that led to the reopening of the Silk Road. The latest to date, the Eurasian Economic Union Treaty, is set to take effect on January 1, 2015. Uniting Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia, and possibly Kyrgyzstan, it will create a single economic market of 171 million people with a GDP of $3 trillion and endless trading and transportation opportunities.

Third, the European Union model of economic cooperation and political integration, despite its shortcomings, is still the most sought-after and the best model to face global challenges. Its response to internal migration and external immigration issues may not be perfect, but it offers important lessons on how to deal with issues of national identity, minorities’ rights, and conflict prevention. It has a great deal of experience in reforming its institutions along a functionalist path of integration. The European Union owes this political flexibility to the “dress rehearsals” for a United States of Europe that took place during the 1919-1939 years. Without the experience gained from early coal and steel cartels, agricultural unions, and peace initiatives that culminated in the 1929 Briand proposal for a united Europe, the European Union might not be as successful and assured as it is today.

Some current examples of the vitality of the European spirit give hope. The tenth Eurasian Summit (ASEM) which took place in Milan on October 16, 2014, comprised of fifty-one countries stretching from Western Europe to the Pacific, and two international organizations, promotes cooperation on issues ranging from sustainable development to climate change and minority protection. It provides a forum for discussion, not competition, and affirms the role of both Russia and Europe in a global economy. Recently, German Chancellor Angela Merkel remarked that Germany wants to focus on reconciliation between former enemies. “Europe’s unification is the true lesson of our history,” she told a young audience. This month, an evening colloquium at the Sorbonne in Paris commemorated the pacifist efforts of French novelist and 1915 Nobel Prize winner Romain Rolland and other French and German authors and artists who sought understanding and reconciliation between their countries. Finally, the 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to French writer Patrick Modiano for his understanding of a “plural Europe” and his focus on the Holocaust. All these four initiatives recognize the European heritage and embrace its future challenges.


- Alice-Catherine Carls is the Tom Elam Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Tennessee Martin.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”