EU history and future Ian Waldie/Getty Images

The Flip Side of Euro-Atlantic Integration

In recent decades, the EU has been powered by two fundamental forces: integration and expansion. But, with Britain's vote to leave the Union and illiberalism on the rise in countries like Poland and Hungary, those forces are now in doubt.

MADRID – Many people equate the European Union with Europe, overlooking a few nuances along the way. From a historical point of view, of course, it is clear that the EU, having contributed to ending centuries of war and violent conflict among its member states, nowadays embodies the antithesis of pre-1945 Europe. And in geographical terms, the EU’s successive enlargements have allowed it to reflect, far more closely than ever before, the full expanse of the European continent.

But the looming British exit from the EU has reminded us of something fundamental that had been hidden until now: the EU’s tendency to expand is not irreversible, and the EU’s continued existence as a political entity cannot, and should not, be taken for granted.

Two key dynamics have marked the EU’s trajectory over the years, and that of the European Communities before it. On the one hand, European integration has become deeper and, on the other, the benefits of integration have extended to a growing number of states. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 gave rise to more opportunities – and major challenges. With communism’s collapse, the divided Europe created at Yalta disappeared, and EU expansion was no longer confined to states belonging to the Western orbit.

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