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The Price of Europe’s Expansion Fatigue

The European Union has long orbited around its founding core, especially France and Germany. As the bloc deals with Russia’s war on Ukraine and confronts creeping authoritarianism among member states, it sees no reason to let the Western Balkans into the club.

PRISTINA – The nineteenth-century English historian J.R. Seeley famously said Britain acquired its empire in a “fit of absence of mind.” The same could be said of the post-Cold War European Union. In some ways, the EU’s enlargement beyond its Western European core happened in a fit of distraction after the collapse of the USSR. Now, it is growing weary.

Europe’s boundaries have always been flexible in the minds of its leaders. To Charles de Gaulle, Europe included Russia as far as the Ural Mountains. In 2018, France’s current president, Emmanuel Macron, proposed a more nuanced, if controversial, definition: a Europe of “concentric circles,” with each circle signifying a different level of identity. It is a vision of a two-tier Europe in which Eastern and Southeastern European countries are put in their place.

While Macron’s idea never became official EU policy, it reflects an entrenched mental map that devalues Europe’s periphery. According to the worldview currently prevailing in the EU, the fringes are only important when the core needs them, or when they become a threat to its security.