One of the most critical and complex issues in U.S. foreign policy is the expansion of NATO and the European Union into Central and Eastern Europe. Even the terms are controversial - for example, "Central" versus "Eastern" Europe and who and what are encompassed in these categories. The issues are important, not just to the countries involved but to the future of Europe, U.S.-European relations, to say nothing of U.S.-Russian relations. Based upon on-site observations, interviews and research materials gathered during a recent visit to the area, the author offers some predictions on the future course of European integration as it presently looks.

First, for the record it needs to be said that decisions on European expansion and integration seem as often to be based on political considerations as on the "rational" criteria laid out in great detail by NATO, the EU, or their member governments. For NATO admission, the stated criteria often include democracy, military modernization, restructuring, reform, and interoperability; for the EU, the requirements also include democratization, economic reform, balanced budgets, and conformity with the 80,000 pages of EU regulations. But "democracy" is a fuzzy concept: if it is limited to elections, then many countries qualify; if it means rule of law, transparency in the handling of public accounts, and full human and civil rights, then quite a number of countries have problems. In the earlier cases of Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary, the political decision was made to first admit them to NATO, then the criteria were adjusted to fit the countries rather than the countries fully meeting the criteria. In other words, the criteria can be met or renegotiated after the fact rather than as a precondition for admission. Admission is thus a long-term political process rather than a simple matter of "yes" or "no." Much the same "slippage" of the criteria is now occurring with regard to both EU admission and future NATO expansion, although EU admission is proving to be a more difficult and frustrating process for the applicant nations than NATO expansion.

This begs a deeper analysis of what exactly is meant by "Europe" and "European integration?" Does it mean NATO, the EU, or some vague, warm but fuzzy concept like "Western civilization?" In fact, all of these definitions come into play in the discussion of European expansion and integration. Early in the process, many thought that NATO expansion and EU enlargement would proceed in tandem, hand in hand, but in fact NATO is proving more flexible, open-door and accommodative to new members than is the EU - much to the consternation of the new applicants. At the same time, the "warm and fuzzy" criteria also come into play in considering the applications of some, mainly "Western-oriented" and "Christian" countries over others. In some of this author's interviews, for example, the Baltic countries were considered "in" because they "feel Western." Another criteria used was ATM machines: countries that have them are "in," those that don't are "out."

Another preliminary has to do with focus. The focus here is European expansion and integration, but that issue cannot be wholly separated from the present internal difficulties of the EU or NATO, for that matter. The internal difficulties of the EU include controversies over agriculture and immigration policies, the many tensions among and between the member states, the so-called "democratic deficit," and ongoing plans for the restructuring of EU institutions, the drawing up of a new constitution, as well as elaboration of a common foreign and defense policy. These internal EU problems also affect their willingness to admit new members. Can Poland and Slovakia adequately control their own eastern borders and thus prevent further illegal immigration? How can the EU deal with the massive issue of cheaper, Polish agricultural products undermining their own subsidized agriculture? Who will pay to bring Eastern/Central European living standards (currently one-tenth the EU average) up the EU standards? These internal difficulties compound the issue of admission of new members. As one EU official told the author, "We can't even figure out how to bring Sweden in; how do you expect us to admit Eastern Europe?"

Following is a current status outline of the countries of the region and their accession possibilities. For a complete stock-taking, both aspiring and currently non-aspiring countries are included in the discussion.

  • Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary are in. They constitute the likely first tranche. All are more-or-less democratic, depending partially on the criteria used; all three are already NATO members, having been admitted in 1999; all three are busily passing laws to meet the EU requirements; and all three now have the investment, the open markets, and the (warm and fuzzy) "feel," for the most part, of being Western countries. Differences exist among the three and the negotiations over EU membership may still be prolonged, but the sense is strong that they are "on the right track" and will be admitted to the EU sooner rather than later.
  • Slovenia is doing very well both politically and economically; it could come in with the three countries listed above or in a separate expansion. Slovenia has the advantage of having such a small economy that could be absorbed in the EU with barely a hiccup; the United States also wants it in as a positive example to the other nations of the former Yugoslavia.
  • Croatia and the Slovak Republic can be placed in the same category in that, after long periods in the 1990s of retrogressive governments, both are back "on track." Croatia is still considerably behind Slovenia in both democracy and economic reform criteria but is making progress. Croatia also has the advantage of being small and easily absorbable, as well as having its candidacy being favored by some major European powers. Slovakia is a real surprise: a country that was once considered to be a fence-straddler, able to go either way, is now making significant political and economic progress, is being enveloped in a broad range of NATO activities, has an EU office in Bratislava, and, if the present direction of reform continues, seems committed to the West. In the early 1990s, it was expected that the Visegrad Four, (Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia) would all be admitted to NATO at once; then Slovakia slipped and we had the Visegrad Three; now it looks like the fourth member will come in after all.
  • Bulgaria and Romania will likely, over time, come into NATO first and then into the EU. Both are less developed economically, socially, and institutionally than the Visegrad countries, the Baltics, and Slovenia and Croatia, and their democratic transitions have been shakier as well. But both want in, are on the right tracks, and have strong patrons (France in the case of Romania) who want them in. Even without unforeseen setbacks, however, their accession will take somewhat longer than those discussed above.
  • The Baltic Republics. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania may represent the reverse of the process heretofore observed. As small, dynamic, democratic, open-market economies they may well be admitted to the EU before any consideration for NATO due to their geographic proximity to Russia as well as sizable (up to 40%) Russian populations within their territories. The Balts are lobbying hard, they have sizable blocs of voters in U.S. swing states and they have relatively small, easily absorbable economies. The Scandinavian countries are training their forces in border patrol and, even if they cannot be full NATO members for now because of Russian sensitivities, various cooperative programs and half-way houses (Partnership for Peace, OSCE, WEU) can be fashioned for them.
  • Ukraine. A few years ago Slovakia was thought to be the cultural, political, economic, and strategic battleground beyond which the borders of "Europe" were unlikely to go; now that Slovakia seems in, the border has moved east, and Ukraine is the current battleground. Ukraine (or at least much of the territory and peoples west of the Dnieper River) would love to be in Europe; but Ukraine is part of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), it still has strong ties and pulls to Russia, and it woefully lags behind its more western neighbors in economic development (no ATMs in Uzghorod!) and democratization. In addition, it is a big country of fifty million persons and therefore not easily absorbable. Nevertheless, Ukraine is undergoing reform, there are cooperative programs with NATO and the U.S. military, and there are powerful voices in Washington and elsewhere that would love to see Ukraine as a democratic, free-market, Western-oriented "buffer," between Russia and the rest of East/Central Europe.
  • Belarus, Moldavia, Georgia. All are part of the CIS, yet all are on the borders of Europe and cannot escape its powerful economic, cultural, political (democracy) and strategic influences. Currently all three lag behind the Ukraine as well as East/Central Europe on almost all economic and political indicators, all remain enveloped, even folded, into the Russian "system" and sphere of influence, all have a very long way to go. Yet even here reform is under way, support for old-line communist leaders and parties is in decline, there are many new cooperative programs with the West, and there are strategic issues (resources, buffer zones, ongoing Western strengths and Russian weaknesses) that come into play. Who knows: it is conceivable that twenty or so years from now these areas too might become integrated into the West.
  • Serbia, Bosnia-Herzogovina, Kosovo, Albania, Macedonia. Again a troubled area with no easy or early prospects of admission into the European "clubs" of NATO, the EU, or "the West." The old saying still applies to this area; if asked, where does Europe, in all its dimensions, begin, the answer is, "Somewhere south of Vienna!" Nevertheless Serbia's Milosevic cannot last forever and change will occur. Bosnia is recovering from its earlier devastation, and even in the others some movement toward recovery, democratization, and economic reform is inching forward. After all, this territory, while fractured and disintegrated, lies cheek by jowl with the world's most prosperous region and largest market: Western Europe. Some of Western Europe's accomplishments, both political and material, will rub off - is already - on them. Perhaps we need to think of these as "two-generation projects" as distinct from the "one-generation projects" analyzed above.
  • Finally, moving still further east, there is Russia. Poor, disintegrated, largely Third World but huge and potentially powerful Russia. Much of this eastern NATO, EU, and Western expansion described previously is of course aimed at Russia - at shrinking her, bottling her up, creating buffers, disarming her, preventing any future threats. Presently, Russia is torn between its Westernizing and its Slavophile tendencies; but even here Western influence and attraction are powerful. Russia is also undergoing often snails-pace economic and political reform, and surely the July 2000 statement of some of Russia's leading generals (later sacked but revealing nonetheless) that they, too, wished to join NATO was stunning. If the Balkans and the western CIS members are two-generation projects, then Russia is, in this author's view, a three-generation project.

Thus, in little more than a decade, not only has the Iron Curtain largely disappeared but most of the countries of Eastern and Central Europe are also progressing: both politically, toward democracy, and economically, toward freer, more dynamic markets. The changes are breathtaking and often startling in some countries (Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovenia, Slovakia, the Balts), slower in others. Moreover, most countries of the area still represent complex mixes of old, defunct, communist institutions and behavior, and newer democratic, freer institutions and behavior . Correspondingly, the generational gap in Eastern/Central Europe between old (over 30 - still speaking Russian, still cast in traditional ways) and young (under 30 - open-minded, free, with-it) is perhaps greater than any in the world.

While the old Iron Curtain is gone, a new "Brussels" curtain is descending across Europe, separating those who have joined or are joining the West with all its freedom, democracy, and prosperity, and those who are not only not joining but may, like Russia and Belarus, be falling farther behind. This new curtain is looser, softer, more permeable and transparent, and far more flexible than the old iron one; however, it is not permanently fixed with a wall or barbed wire but seems to be shifting ever farther to the east. And within this context of a movable, flexible curtain, NATO has proved to be more creative than the EU - which, admittedly, has a more difficult task of integration. NATO has succeeded in inventing a series of incentives, partnerships, and half-way houses that enable aspiring members to become partly integrated even while offering encouragement and holding out hope for full membership later on. The EU, preoccupied with internal problems, has been both more reticent to incorporate new countries and less creative in opening up and managing the process. Nevertheless there is forward progress on both the NATO and the EU tracks and considerable reason for optimism about the area.

Ultimately, of course, the eastern expansion of NATO, the EU, and European prosperity and democracy will reach the gates of the Kremlin itself. Russia can then join the West or it can reject it; most bets currently are that it will, with some reservations and special considerations, opt to join. And what a vision that provides: the entire European continent, from the Urals to the Atlantic, now finally, "whole and free."

This report is a summary of Dr. Wiarda's research on the European integration process conducted while in residence at the Center. Meeting Report #214.