European Expansion or Putin Expansion?

WARSAW – One merit of the Berlin Wall was that it made obvious where Europe ended. But now the question of Europe’s borders has become a staple of debate in the European Union. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent threat to aim missiles at Ukraine highlights what is at stake in that debate’s outcome.

The Wall’s collapse in 1989 forced European Commission officials to dust off atlases to find places about which they knew little and cared less. Leon Brittan, then a commissioner and supporter of enlargement, recalls that some officials and countries even hoped that the pre-1989 line could be held. They felt that enlargement even to the Scandinavian and Alpine countries was going too far. Only in 1993 did the EU officially recognize that membership for all the former Soviet bloc countries could be a long-term goal.

Today, the debate about Europe’s frontiers is not confined to officials or think tanks. In mid-2005, voters in France and the Netherlands rejected the EU’s draft constitutional treaty, partly motivated by fear that enlargement was going too fast and too far. “We don’t want the Romanians deciding on how we should order our lives,” a Dutch professor complained.

Many former Soviet Republics with EU aspirations have become victims of this loss of nerve, as have the Western Balkan countries. Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, which were annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940, slipped in under the wire in 2004. But they were small and contiguous to the EU. Ukraine is big, and Georgia is far away in the Caucasus. Then there is Belarus, whose ruler, Alexander Lukashenko, clings to authoritarian rule.