A few weeks ago, I made in passing a comment that I believed that the next phase of European expansion would be in a southerly rather than an easterly direction. One of my correspondents asked me to expand on this, so I am. If we review the development of the European Union over the last fifty years, we see a pattern of expansion that is both geographic and functional.
The original geographical heart of the EU was France, Germany, Italy and the three Benelux countries. Expansions in the 1970s and 1980s were primarily westwards to the Atlantic Ocean, to include the UK, Ireland, Spain, and Portugal (as well as Denmark and Greece). For the following two decades the EU has expanded northwards to include the Nordic countries (except Norway) and eastwards to include many of the former Warsaw Pact nations, along with a number of former Soviet Republics. In recent years the locus has been towards the south east corner of Europe to include some of the former Yugoslav Republics and to consider the question of the thorniest of all problems – the membership of Turkey.
Turkey may or may not eventually join the EU. The point is that some form of limit to the eastern expansion of the EU has been met. In many respects, this reflects a set of geopolitical circumstances today which are very different to those of the 1990s. The biggest difference is that the world is currently seeing a resurgence of Russia, which is very aggressively mapping out its interests in its ‘near abroad’. A more assertive Russia is unlikely to acquiesce quietly to Ukraine and the nations of the Caucasus joining the EU, which suggests a natural eastern boundary to the the EU. Ukraine is likely to be a key arena in the struggle for influence between the EU and Russia in the years to come.
That a natural boundary to the EU has been reached (the Atlantic Ocean in the 1980s, a resurgent Russia in the 2000s) does not necessarily mean that the EU has reached the limits to its future expansion. To understand this, we need to look at the functional expansion of Europe. The six founding members originally came together to form a coal and steel community. This purpose was then expanded to include wider trade matters. A pivotal moment came in 1991 with the Maastricht Treaty, which led to the creation of the EU as we now know it and a significant increase in the functions undertaken by the EU. This process was further accelerated by the recent adoption of the Lisbon Treaty.
As we move to a new phase in the development of Europe, the locus of attention is likely to swing away from the east and towards the south. Europe faces two structural problems at present – an ageing population and energy dependence upon Russia. To the south lies the potential solution to both of these problems. North Africa has a large and growing young population. Many of these youngsters aspire to European lifestyles and take enormous personal risks to enter the EU illegally across the Mediterranean. One natural solution to the ageing population in Europe would be to harness the youth of North Africa to enhance the productive capacity of Europe. Indeed, this process has taken its first steps with the ‘Blue Card’ system within Europe.
North Africa also has large oil and natural gas reserves, upon which Europe could draw more than it presently does. However, the key advantage of North Africa is not its fossil fuel reserves but its potential for photovoltaic electricity generation. The technology that is currently being developed in the south of Europe could be used to harness far greater sunlight resources in North Africa, to be relayed into Europe in a future that is looking energy poor.
This suggests a future relationship between Europe and North Africa that has the potential to be of great benefit to both parties. This is not to play down the immense difficulties of the legacy of colonialism between the North African countries and their former European colonists, but it does suggest that, if the focus is on the future rather than the past, then there is no reason why Europe and North Africa could not become more closely integrated. If that were to happen, it would follow a ‘European’ path where joint economic development eventually gave way to joint political development.
If that were to happen, then Europe would truly have marched southwards.
© The European Futures Observatory 2009