A New Europe Is Born. Will It Survive?

May 1 saw 10 new members join the European Union. That would have been a remarkable event in its own right: the biggest intake of countries in the history of the enterprise, and never to be surpassed, despite the remaining queue of would-be members. When you consider that the newcomers include Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and the Baltic states—the western part of the old Soviet empire—this latest enlargement seems all the more momentous. It draws a line under the history of Soviet tyranny in Europe outside Russia. Looking forward, it signifies an awesome new beginning for the European democratic project.

Looked at that way, of course, the moment is unquestionably one to celebrate. And aside from their historical resonance, the accessions create genuine new opportunities for the transition economies of Eastern Europe to speed development. They need all the help they can get. All are poor, and many are still struggling to discard their post-Communist inheritance. The western part of the E.U. has chances to gain as well. Faster growth to the east will help to invigorate its own beleaguered industries. And the Union's hugely expanded pool of young workers will help to redress the worsening demographic imbalance to the west. All in all, there is plenty to celebrate. And yet.

The problem is that the E.U. is ill-prepared. The prospect of this union of 25, encompassing a much wider spread of levels of development than before, should have started E.U. leaders on a searching rethink of the rules of the organization, and of its very purpose. A rethink of sorts was in fact undertaken—in the form of a new constitution—but the job was bungled. The resulting proposal is a constitutional atrocity.

And the reason the new constitution turned into such a shambles is precisely that the big important questions about what a union of 25 countries is really for were, in effect, ignored. This design, if one may use that term, is so flawed that it may not be an exaggeration to say that the accessions of May 1, which should have been the E.U.'s moment of greatest triumph, carry the seeds of the Union's eventual destruction.

Perhaps because people in Europe sense this possibility, last weekend's celebrations over the enlargement were far more muted that you might have supposed. Some of the accession countries appear to be having second thoughts, even though, in almost all cases, overwhelming majorities directly supported membership. It is as though voters in those countries understood that membership was an economic necessity—but a political risk, nonetheless. The Czech Republic's president, Vaclav Klaus, put the point with customary bluntness when he declared recently that his country was about to cease to exist as a sovereign nation.

Against this fear, of course, voters universally—and rightly—saw the economic advantages of membership as compelling, both in terms of aid (the new members, being poor, will be net recipients of fiscal transfers from the center) and even more in terms of secure unrestricted access to the markets of Western Europe. That mutual, credible commitment to economic integration will bring the new members, in turn, far greater inflows of private foreign investment.

For a clue about the economic boost that the new members can expect, look at countries such as Ireland (which joined the Union in 1973) or Portugal and Spain (members since 1986). On joining the group, these three were economically backward countries, with incomes far below the European average. Ireland is now one of the richest countries in the E.U.—richer than the United Kingdom. Portugal and (especially) Spain have also done well. All three have benefited hugely from generous aid. Even more, they have gained from expanded cross-border private investment and surging business confidence.

On the face of it, there is no reason why these economic miracles should not be repeated in Eastern Europe. Admittedly, the demands posed by the newcomers mean that E.U. aid will be less generous than in the past, but given that the newcomers are starting out even poorer in relation to the European average than did the previous generation of catch-up countries, the spur of E.U. membership ought to be even more powerful.

Why then does the enlargement of the Union pose a threat to its very existence? For two closely connected reasons. First, a union of 15 countries was already difficult to govern; a union of 25 will be far more so—a kind of organizational paralysis in prospect. Second, just when the demands on the governing structures of the E.U. are at their greatest, owing to sheer weight of numbers, the need for clear direction and for smooth mediation of differences of opinion—both of which arise from the political and economic disparities among the member states—is more pressing than ever before.

When the existing members first began to contemplate this expansion of the Union to the east, they faced a choice—as many acknowledged at the time. They could strive for a deeper union or a broader one. Deepening the E.U. meant moving more powers to the center, which would diminish the independence of the individual members, and attempting to accelerate the development of a European identity—all with the aim of moving closer to the ideal of a United States of Europe. That is, toward a European Union that speaks with one voice in the world and that ranks alongside the United States as a global power. Broadening the Union, on the other hand, meant curbing those political ambitions while striving to extend the benefits of closer economic integration as quickly as possible, not only to idiosyncratic newcomers such as Poland and Hungary, but also to countries even more separate, historically and culturally, from the west European mainstream—notably, Turkey.

The two goals, broadening and deepening, are plainly in conflict. The deeper the union, the narrower it must be, so that membership is confined to states whose citizens are like-minded enough for closer political intimacy. Yet the Union, by default, decided to follow both of these diverging tracks at once.

In successive treaty revisions in recent years, members have substantially deepened the European Union—more so, according to recent polls, than even the citizens of countries such as France and Germany, hitherto in the vanguard of "ever-closer union," are comfortable with. Adopting the single European currency did have a specifically economic rationale, which governments have stressed from time to time, but this extraordinary initiative was conceived and pushed through principally as a political undertaking: Unitary states have their own currencies, after all. Europe needed a currency to challenge the dollar, whatever that means. Yet even as all of this was in process, the Union was laying plans to widen its membership to countries with markedly different economic structures, modern histories, and political cultures.

The immediate problem now is one of governance. The rules by which the Union is run were designed for a far smaller entity. What was messy in a union of 15 will be paralyzing in a club of 25. Individual countries retain veto power in many areas of joint policy—the last line of defense for what remains of their sovereignty. But this means, for instance, that Malta, one of the new members, with a population of just a few hundred thousand, could choose to block initiatives (perhaps to extract concessions elsewhere) that governments of the other 24 countries, with populations totaling 455 million, have all agreed to.

Veto powers need to be pruned if the Union is to function at all. But the pruning of those powers presupposes a willingness to pool sovereignty that is more or less exhausted across the E.U., and which in many countries, including Britain, has turned into outright hostility to the European project. Here is the dilemma—Should the union broaden or deepen?—in its starkest form.

The Union had a chance to address this last year, when it began drafting the new constitution. This should have made broadening the priority, recognizing that existing members and newcomers had much to gain from closer economic integration. A broader union must curb veto powers, but the implication of that is a reduction in the scope of joint policy. If the Union was to broaden, it had to become a looser, shallower association. Instead, the drafters of the constitution produced an endless and impenetrably complicated document whose effect, at a guess, will be to speed the transfer of powers to the center even in areas where it does not explicitly provide for that.

The demand in Europe, including among the Union's new members, is for powers to move back to nations. Nowhere, at all, does the proposed constitution make even a gesture in this direction. The E.U. is heading for a constitutional crisis. That may be its only hope.