EU: Can Smaller Be Better?

by Robert E. Hunter

When the British electorate decided to leave the European Union, one of the first questions posed on the continent was “Who’s next?” The fear was of contagion, a piece-by-piece unravelling of the European project: first Schengen (the free movement of peoples), then the euro, then the rest of the glue, until all that is left, perhaps, is a free trade area modeled on the European Free Trade Association but stopping short of the Treaty of Rome’s Four Freedoms of the movement of capital, goods, services, and people. A less draconian fallback option is also possible, either a “two-speed” Europe or a retreat to the European Economic Community’s original six (France, Germany, Italy, and the Benelux countries.)

But why not consider something else: the lopping off of countries that no longer subscribe to the core principles of the EU, formal or informal, or that through no fault of their own should never have been included in the first place? That last point would quickly dispatch Cyprus, which was brought in as an afterthought to please the Greeks and should never have been invited to join before first resolving its internal problems, Greeks versus Turks. This point would also rule out bringing in Turkey, a long-shot in any event, but which under its president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has been moving away from democracy.

With the EU now at 28 members, “too big” is certainly a key part of the troubles it faces, as it tries to make compatible what to a considerable degree is the incompatibility of a congeries of different economies. Even the euro, a major step toward completion of the union, in retrospect was premature, given that there is no mechanism for harmonizing all the national economic policies that must underpin a single currency.

Still, the EU might have been able gradually to move forward with what is called “deepening,” if it had not suddenly faced a demand for a major “widening.” The big break point came with the end of the Cold War. When European integration was launched in the 1940s, right through to the late 1980s, no one thought that countries not part of the West when the continent was divided during the Cold War would seek entry. Almost overnight, the core Western goals of defeating communism and liberating countries from Soviet domination had been achieved. Naturally, there was pressure on the European Union (as well as on NATO) to include countries from Central Europe that had suddenly become free after the collapse of European communism and the Soviet external and internal empires.

But that posed a problem that had not applied to any of the 15 countries that were already members of what was then the European Community. The states and peoples of Central Europe had missed out on two or more generations of acclimation to Western politics, economics, and values. To be true to their values, the existing EC members accepted the need to honor the aspirations of these countries to be part of the West but also recognized that it would take time to bring them “up to speed” in the principles and practices of democracy, as well as market economics. They would have to become acculturated as entire societies, and the same would be true of their emigrants and expatriate workers who, when their countries joined the European Union, gained unfettered access to the western part of Europe.

The theory of EU enlargement to Central Europe seemed sound. Bringing these countries into Western institutions would help jump-start the process of democratization, as would economic modernization. A successful combination of the two, after all, had helped reconcile enmities among France, Germany, and other western European countries after World War II. This process has also helped with what appears to be an end to conflict in Ireland, given that both parts of the divided island belong to the European Union — or at least will until Brexit, which will take Northern Ireland with it, unless it (and perhaps Scotland) secede from the United Kingdom in order to stay in the EU.

But now the EU faces a problem in addition to the stresses of integrating still-incompatible economies, a single currency that lacks sufficient institutional underpinning, and the sheer problem of “bigness.” Notably, in all of the so-called Visegrad Four countries – Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia – democratic practice is under challenge. This is especially so in Poland (with an anti-democratic movement led by former prime minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski) and in Hungary (where the leading culprit is the actual prime minister, Viktor Orbán.) The latter has also broken EU (and NATO) ranks by continuing to deal with Russia after its seizure of Crimea. The Czech Republic and Slovakia are also on shaky ground regarding full-blown adherence to democratic standards and to the European Union, including reluctance to accept their EU-mandated quota of Middle Eastern refugees. The Financial Times has spelled out these developments in detail.

Maybe these are just political and social growing pains. Maybe they reflect tensions that have arisen in many EU countries, especially with the flood of refugees and the stresses that began with the global financial near-meltdown of 2007 and that have still not been entirely resolved. But maybe not.

The European Union is facing a crisis of unprecedented severity, and rethinking purpose and process must be at the heart of fundamental debates about its future, which is itself far from assured. One necessary element must be the reinforcing of basic principles on which the whole edifice of politics, economics, and cohesion rests. But that process, needed to revitalize and revalidate this historically most-hopeful European experiment, can’t just involve economics or dealing with Russian adventurism or reducing the chance of any future intra-European wars. It must also be about democracy – politically, socially, culturally.

Given these developments, the EU should consider downgrading the membership status of any state that does not meet the basic standards of democracy, in both theory and practice, and it needs to rigorously apply those standards to current and future applications for admission, including those from the former Yugoslavia. Today, that judgment applies to the Visegrad states and notably Hungary and Poland. These countries—especially Orbán’s Hungary—require “tough love.” If that does not work, the laggards in the business of democracy should be “shown the door.”

Photo: Polish powerbroker Jaroslaw Kaczynski shakes hands with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

Robert E. Hunter

Robert E. Hunter served as US ambassador to NATO (1993-98) and on the National Security Council staff throughout the Carter administration, first as Director of West European Affairs and then as Director of Middle East Affairs. In the last-named role, he was the White House representative at the Autonomy Talks for the West Bank and Gaza and developer of the Carter Doctrine for the Persian Gulf. He was Senior Advisor to the RAND Corporation from 1998 to 2011, and Director of the Center for Transatlantic Security Studies at the National Defense University, 2011-2012. He served on the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board and is a member of the American Academy of Diplomacy.



  1. Some interesting thoughts, but, as we in Britain are finding out right now, the EU is like the Hotel California – You can check out any time you like, But you can never leave.

  2. Good points made by Hunter but he would know that Cyprus’s ‘internal’ problem was caused by the British and Americans. Cyprus was doing well economically and only joined the EU as it’s neighbour poses and still poses an existential threat aided and abetted by the West.

    Both Greece and Cyprus would be far better off linking with Russia and offloading the British from Cyprus and NATO from Greece. They share a similar culture and religion. Russia could also assist Turkey in realigning itself away from the west and an economic linkup between Greece Turkey Russia and Cyprus and possibly Israel and Egypt through new found oil and gas reserves could create an economic pact that could service Asia and Europe but on its terms not those dictated to by the West

    Mind sweeper

  3. The problem is NATO and its anti-Eurasia, made-in-Washington policy. Someday, the EU will get fed up with having to operate against its own interests just to keep Washington happy — and that day will probably come sooner rather than later. The future does not lie in Washington’s fantasies of “containment” of Russia and China, and therefore we are in for a very bumpy ride if Hillary the hawkish imperialist takes the White House.

    Anyone who thinks that the virtually unanimous resistance against Obama’s orders with respect to the AIIB was unimportant and easily forgotten should think again. The Eurasian train has left the station, and Washington is not (yet?) on board.

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