Monday, July 1, 2013

Do EU and eurozone expansions bring hope and stability for the block?

Today Croatia becomes the 28th state of the EU and we are only a few months before Latvia officially adopts the euro. It seems that despite the economic crisis that brought much doubt about the block's credibility, there are plenty of countries that still want to join.

The enlargement efforts of EU to include the Western Balkans region also got a new boost, with the EU Council agreeing this week to start accessions talks with Serbia.

Despite the crisis, the EU remains an attractive block and a considerable player in our continent and the world. And it is indeed heartening to see that the enlargement efforts have not stopped during the crisis, but Europe continues to strive towards its unification.

It is important to stay on track and continue with our efforts, but it is also crucial to have a health check every now and again and ponder on where we stand as a continent. Despite all the cheering for Croatia and Latvia, I can not ignore the fact that some other European countries chose to reject or be skeptical about EU membership.

We have the case of Iceland that since applying for membership in 2009 following its economic meltdown, its new government chose to suspend its application just two weeks ago. This echoes the case of Norway, another Nordic nation and its two failed attempts to join the block.

Switzerland and Norway, together with Iceland are the only Western European states that continue to reject EU membership. Any future European federation won't be fulfilled without these countries being part of it.

EU rejection does not always come from outside the block, but from inside as well. The crisis has given the opportunity to many euro-skeptic groups to become more vocal, organized and gain influence in many EU countries. Notably in the UK, who although is a member of the EEC/EU since 1973, it is now considering to have a referendum and leave the Union altogether.

All the above are not things to be cheerful of. Europe needs to have the UK as a committed member and it is very important to have access to the North Pole through Norway and Iceland, a key region of the future. The Western Balkans are also important of course and I am not trying to diminish the success of the block in this region.

But it is obvious that the EU is still mainly an economic project and practices politics that are attached to the financial interests of each European country. It should develop to a political, cultural and even a military union if it wants to succeed and become a key player in the world.

Iceland although in trouble financially, it has very good state infrastructures and it would benefit very little from an EU membership in this sphere. Croatia, Serbia and the other Eastern European countries though need the EU to receive not just financial help, but also assistance to improve their infrastructure.

In other words it was financial reasons that pushed Iceland towards the EU, despite the country's traditional skepticism. Now that they have somewhat recovered from the crisis, they have decided to backtrack to their previous stance towards European integration.

This may be due to the overall Nordic mentality of euro-skepticism and reluctance to commit to an international organization, in fear of losing their independence, resources or wealth. But it may well be due to other reasons too.

During the first months since the Irish EU/IMF bail-out, there have been numerous Irish TV programs featuring debates and information about the crisis that had swept the country. In some of these debates, there have been guest speakers from other crisis stricken nations like Greece or Iceland.

In one RTE program a speaker from Iceland stated clearly, that his country will keep an eye on how the EU is treating the smaller nations during the crisis, in order to decide on their EU membership bid. Judging on how the richer and powerful nations have treated their poorer partners in the recent years, with all the spat between them and constant arguments, is it any wonder that the Icelandic public opinion turned sour on EU membership?

I mean who would want to join a club that its members treat each other with such disrespect? It seems that only nations in dire need of an economic and structural boost would do so. As it happens, these are the states of the Balkans or Eastern Europe and that to me is a clear failure of the European way of thinking and political reality.

The richer nations of our continent still avoid EU membership, because simply they would gain nothing out of it. All that they want to gain from the European project, they already receive with their EEA/EFTA membership. A full EU membership would cost them more.

And that is the reason why the UK wants out too. Because according to them their membership is becoming more expensive than they originally thought, or are happy to contribute into. Like the Swiss or the Norwegians they are pleased to receive the benefits from the Single Market, but they do not want to pay the expensive bill.

That is simply disappointing. Firstly because it shows that the true motives of EU membership are financial, then political and because the real interests of the people, together with democracy itself are compromised for the financial interests of the elites in each country.

The European project must have a vision together with political, cultural and social dimensions added to it. By simply being an economic pet project of our elites, it is doomed to be always incomplete and indifferent to the citizens of Europe.

What good is to me if I can travel, shop, work or study in every European country if I do not have the same rights or living standards in each one of them. Why should I be happy about the cap of roaming charges across the EU, while there is great inequality on salary, pensions, work conditions, education and development opportunities among the Union's member states? 

The Single Market monopolizes the bulk or EU regulations and debates, while Europe must start investing funds, time and effort in many other spheres like its military, foreign policy, education and coordinating its social policies.

And of course we should all stop seeing the EU as an economic block, rather a political, social and cultural project too that we all contribute equally and benefit from. Either rich or poor, all European nations must become members and work together for the development and reformation of our continent collectively.

The notion that one state is rich and does not need to become a member is rubbish. Even the rich nations need to have access to the Single Market and the markets of the poorer nations. We all benefit from it and we all must have a say in formatting it.

At last I would love to see all European nations sit around the same parliament seats and debate, contribute and forming a better continent for tomorrow. An equal partnership and real solidarity among our continent's states, not the opportunistic, technocratic and elitist sort that we have at the moment.

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