It was a Frenchman in 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville, who first thought in terms of ‘American exceptionalism.’ Through decades and world wars, this term has endured: The United States, some argue, differs qualitatively from all other nations on earth. Built upon the three Lockean natural rights–life, liberty, and property–the 13 states became an enlightened republic, with an ever-expanding border and strong checks and balances to prevent tyranny. These days, the European Union (EU) is challenging that uniqueness with an even more ambitious expansion program.
The map of Europe is among the most contested in human history, but since the Soviet Union imploded, the EU has redefined their purpose. For a millennium after the fall of Rome, realpolitik ruled European polities, creating small, warring states that competed for preeminence and hegemony. Some even dreamt of empire on the continent, based on race, ideology, glory, or all of the above. They all failed. Political cartography became a popular art: Maps were redrawn endlessly following every war. Those borders were key to separating communities with particular languages, religions, and cultures.
But in this new era of globalization, Europe proposes its small-states empire by choice: union based on worthy ideals, not purely military or economic power. In 1993, the EU came up with the Copenhagen Criteria, a roadmap to membership. The three criteria somewhat resemble America’s founding principles, only updated to present realities. To apply for membership, a country must have a democratic political system with protection for minorities and human rights and a functioning market economy. Further, it must accept the acquis, the collection of regulations from Brussels that aim at ever-closer monetary, economic, and political integration.
The sole promise of membership has brought progress to countries previously doomed to Soviet spheres of influence. Leaders in countries like Poland and Slovakia were able to justify necessary but often-painful state reforms with the promise of a brighter, more prosperous future within Europe. Almost all succeeded. Borders moved east; in its largest round of expansion in 2004, the EU acquired 10 new members. Adam Michnik, the famous chief editor of Poland’s Gazeta Wyborcza, celebrated in 2002 the confirmation of his country’s accession: “…the dream of several generations of Poles, who stubbornly beat their heads against the walls of totalitarian dictatorships, has been fulfilled.”
In clear contrast to their subjection to the Austro-Hungarian hegemony this time last century, the Balkans today are moving forward democratically precisely because of the promise of EU accession. Just yesterday, EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn pointed out the “turning point” in Serbian policy by allowing alleged war criminals from the 90s, Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, to be tried for crimes against humanity in The Hague. The EU’s stance on Kosovo’s independence is as clear as their insistence on prosecuting war criminals.
Similarly, and since 2000, Croatia has been working toward the same goal, and its institutional reform has caused EU representatives to hint at membership before the end of the decade. A progress report brought out on Tuesday pointed out, however, that important issues like judicial reform and bureaucratic corruption need to be addressed before a EU flag flies in Zagreb.
With proper incentives, the EU is bringing reform and values into countries outside its current borders. One day, that can include Macedonia, Montenegro, and even Ukraine. This form of power will succeed at meaningful change where old strategic map-making failed, by choice and not imposition. Mapping ‘Europe’ is still a political rather than geographic matter, and it should remain that way.
Pierpaolo Barbieri ’09, a Crimson associate editorial chair, is a history concentrator in Eliot House.