Welcoming a bigger Europe

A few hours ago – midnight local time, or 8am eastern Australian time – the European Union became a little bigger, with the accession of Croatia as its 28th member.

From its modest beginnings more than 60 years ago as an agreement of six western European countries to pool some of their industrial resources, the EU has come a long way. At times it has looked shaky – not least in the last few years with the effects of the global financial crisis – but it always manages to pull through and to resume its growth in both size and functions.

Of the 22 countries that have joined subsequent to the original six, the largest group is those that have been freed from dictatorship since the 1960s, in the Mediterranean and in eastern Europe (some, including Croatia, were not even independent countries until the 1990s). The biggest single expansion, in 2004, saw ten new members join, eight of them from the former Soviet bloc.

Just as co-operation between the original six was impelled by their common experience of devastation in the Second World War, so the newer members are conscious both of that experience (which for many of them was even more destructive) and of later war and repression. Croatia’s experience of war is the most recent of the lot.

Those changes have shifted the centre of gravity of the EU to the south and south-westeast. Metternich once said that Asia began on the road east out of Vienna, but until the 1980s Europe ended before you even got to Vienna. (Like Finland and Sweden, Austria did not join until the collapse of the Soviet Union meant that its neutralism was not an issue.)

Things are very different now, with such classically European cities as Krakow, Budapest, Sofia and Athens being again integrated in Europe. Zagreb and Dubrovnik now join them.

It usually features in the news as an economic project, but the EU at base has always been much more than that. Making Europeans wealthier is a useful goal (although one it’s currently doing rather badly at), but the important thing is to keep them at peace: to make another great war on the continent unthinkable.

For Croatia, that imperative matters much more than the fate of the Euro. As the BBC’s Allan Little said last year, “the belief that European integration has delivered the nations of the continent from their appalling histories is powerful and tenacious in Central Europe.”

The rest of the Balkan countries are now in the queue. Without doubt there will be more ups and downs to come, but the signs are that the process of both broadening and deepening the EU will continue – although it’s not impossible that it will lose its most recalcitrant member, the United Kingdom, along the way.

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