Where Does Europe End?

26 April 2004

Where Does Europe End?

By Gwynne Dyer

As of the 1st of May, the European Union’s easternmost land border will be with Russia, and its sea frontier will be halfway between Cyprus and Lebanon. The entry of ten new member countries in Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Cyprus and Malta) brings the EU up to 25 countries and 450 million people, but it’s not finished expanding yet.

Romania and Bulgaria, with 30 million more people, are working towards entry in 2007, Croatia has also joined the queue, and Turkey hopes to get a green light for entry negotiations this December. If Turkey eventually joins, the EU’s easternmost land borders will be with Iran and Iraq. Where exactly does Europe end?

The traditional geographer’s answer is that Europe ends at the Ural Mountains, but that is not a national frontier at all, just a not very dramatic mountain chain that divides ‘European Russia’ from western Siberia. The problem with Russia is the same as with Turkey, where Europe technically ends at the Bosphorus Strait that runs through Istanbul, leaving most of Turkey in Asia. Only in Russia’s case, including the whole country in the EU would give ‘Europe’ a short common border with North Korea — and a 2,000-mile (3,000-km) frontier with China and Mongolia.

It sounds preposterous, and yet both Turkey and Russia have been part of the European great-power system for centuries. The expansion of the EU from its original six-member core in the 1950s has been relentless: three more members in the 1970s, three more in the 1980s, three more in the 1990s, and now ten more at once. With each expansion it gets more complicated (EU documents must now be available in Latvian, Maltese and Hungarian, together with over a dozen other languages), but new candidates keep banging on the door, and Europe finds it hard to say no.

It’s hard to say no because the EU’s real purpose is not merely economic (though it spends much of its time squabbling over budgets and subsidies). It grew out of a ‘European Coal and Steel Community’ that was initially created in 1951 not just to produce cheaper coal and steel, but to bring together France and Germany, two countries that had fought each other three times in seventy years. Economic integration was supposed to make wars between the partners impossible.

It worked: nobody today could imagine France and Germany going to war with each other again. The same now applies to Britain, Italy, Spain and all the other European countries that have been at one another’s throats for centuries. The more recent creation of a common European currency, the euro, was likewise driven more by the desire to make the union indissoluble than by strict financial logic (though Britain, Denmark and Sweden remain outside the euro zone). But if the goal is to turn the ‘cockpit of Europe’ into the garden of Europe, how can you freeze any European country out? Which brings us back to the question of where Europe ends.

It will take the EU some time to digest the ten new members (whose 75 million citizens will not enjoy unrestricted freedom to move to any other EU country for another seven years). The business of running such a complex assemblage of still-sovereign states gets ever more cumbersome, and while a new constitution to streamline the workings of the EU will probably be agreed in June, it must then run the gauntlet of as many as half a dozen national referendums, with a single ‘no’ being enough to sink the whole project. And yet, however haltingly, the expansion will continue.

Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia are shoo-ins, and some of the smaller Balkan fragments left over from former Yugoslavia will doubtless join once they establish a stable democratic order. Which leaves three big steps: Turkey (75 million people), Ukraine and Belarus (60 million), and Russia (145 million).

Turkey is the most democratic and probably the most prosperous of these potential candidates: its government has turned itself inside out to meet EU standards, and entry negotiations should be a cinch. They will not be, mainly because almost all Turks are Muslims, and their entry would mean that almost twenty percent of the EU’s total population is Muslim. That should not be an impediment, but in central Europe there is still a folk memory of the time when Turkish armies were beating at the gates of Vienna, and in western Europe there is already prejudice against the large Muslim immigrant populations in most major cities.

Yet Turkey probably will gain entry in the next ten years, and Ukraine and Belarus may not have to wait much longer (although the latter would first have to get rid of its dictator, Alexander Lukashenko). Which leaves Russia, the biggest and most indigestible lump that the EU might ever try to swallow. Given a big democratic deficit in Russia, the war in Cechnya, and half a dozen other major obstacles, that question isn’t on the table yet, or anywhere near it.

But even Russia will probably join in the end. It will join a lot sooner if the Bush administration’s unilateralism wrecks the NATO alliance and ruptures Europe’s transatlantic bonds. One way or another, it will probably be possible by 2020 or 2025 to drive from Portugal to the Pacific Ocean without passing through a single border checkpoint. Who would have believed that in 1945, or even in 1990?


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“It’s hard…ends”)