Charles Bridge and the Vltava River in Prague. Photo: Alan Grant
Charles Bridge and the Vltava River in Prague. Photo: Alan Grant

A soft power revolution

A revolution has taken place in Europe over the past decade - the transformation of ten post-communist states into full-fledged members of the European Union. While the outcome of that revolution was celebrated with fireworks and speeches on 1 May 2004 (and on 1 January 2007 in Romania and Bulgaria), the details of the transformation process have gone largely unexamined by the broader policy and development community. Indeed, the root-and-branch reconstruction of these ten new EU member states occurred away from the public eye, following a set of institutional mechanisms powerful enough to bring a diverse group of states, each undergoing highly destabilizing changes, to a single destination: European-style market-based democracy. It was neither natural nor inevitable that all of these states would meet the rigorous political and economic criteria for EU accession — rather, it was the outcome of a very deliberate set of state-building processes.

Today, the EU is poised to take on the even more ambitious project of expanding its sphere of stability and prosperity toward the southeast, from Croatia all the way to Turkey. This region presents dramatic challenges: post-conflict issues in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo (both still under international protectorates); unresolved questions of sovereignty and of borders involving Serbia, Montenegro, and Kosovo; Albania's chronically weak state; and of course Turkey, which is only just emerging from decades of illiberal rule and internal conflict.

As if these political difficulties were not enough, the European Union will also be venturing into very different social and economic territory: In Bosnia and Kosovo, it will confront the legacies of population displacements resulting from armed conflict; in Serbia, it will face the consequences of a quarter-century of industrial decline; and in rural Albania, Kosovo, and Turkey, it will have to deal with the plight of subsistence farmers living in early 20th century conditions. These political, social, and economic challenges are of historic proportions.

To address them, the EU has appointed a Commissioner for Enlargement responsible for the whole region. It is allocating money. It has also adopted outreach and communication strategies to convince European citizens of the wisdom of pursuing a continued policy of enlargement in the face of public skepticism.

Stabilizing the EU's southeastern neighborhood constitutes an important milestone in European history. It would mark a major victory in the spreading of peace and democracy to the Balkans and the Eastern Mediterranean. But does the EU really have the tools to accomplish this task? And will public debates on enlargement in different European societies constitute insurmountable obstacles? It is to address these questions that we have decided to develop this section and a substantive ESI research program.

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Erhard Busek (Institute for the Danube and Central Europe, Vienna) on enlargement at the "Talking Balkans" Symposium in Vienna on 3-4 April 2008 © 2008 ERSTE Foundation/Igor Bararon. All rights reserved.

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Gerald Knaus (ESI Chairman) on enlargement at the "Talking Balkans" Symposium in Vienna on 3-4 April 2008 © 2008 ERSTE Foundation/Igor Bararon. All rights reserved.