Why Countries Want to Join the European Union, by Philipp Müller

On 1 July, Croatia joined the European Union (EU). The EU has now 28 member states. Less than two decades ago, it had only 12. One of the questions which have interested me for a long time is why almost all European countries have joined or want to join the EU. I think there are three general reasons[1] why countries have wanted to join the EU:

1 Poorer countries want to join to benefit from more and freer trade with the other EU members and to benefit from subsidies and help in order to become as rich as the EU member states in north-western Europe

2 The ex-communist countries of the former Eastern bloc wanted to join to reaffirm their ‘Western’ identity

3 Many countries want(ed) to join to safeguard liberal democracy and the rule of law in their home countries –they believe that EU membership will guarantee and protect their democratic form of government

There is no need to discuss the first reason. It is an obvious goal and everybody can understand and share this wish. (Whether EU membership can fulfil this wish is a completely different question and shall be discussed in a future blog post.)

The second reason is also understandable. The countries, which until 1989 formed the Eastern bloc under the control of the Soviet Union, were keen to reaffirm their ‘Western’ identity. Before the Second World War they were not separated from the countries in Western Europe. Only the Cold War and the Iron Curtain made people think that they were different to countries in Western Europe. For Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, Romania, Bulgaria and the Baltic Republics joining the EU was a highly symbolic step, which affirmed that they were part of the ‘West’ (in a political, not geographical, sense).

The third reason is the most interesting one. It was brought first to my attention during a public lecture given by Gisela Stuart, Labour MP for Birmingham, in May 2008. In this lecture, Ms Stuart argued that European countries wanted to join the EU because their citizens experienced a breakdown of the state and law and order in the first half of the 20th century. The citizens realised how fragile liberal democracy, the rule of law and sovereignty is. Almost all European countries had their established and legitimate governments overthrown by revolutions, military coups or by foreign invaders at some stage. Most European countries were ruled by dictators at some point during the period 1914 to 1989. Some countries experienced a revolution, a civil war or foreign occupation during the World Wars (some very unfortunate ones suffered from all three). These experiences left a deep scar in the minds of the people and they were keen to make sure that such things would never happen again. In some European countries, democratic forms of government and the rule of law are only a few decades old. People still remember how easily liberal democratic governments could be toppled or disappear. They believe they can safeguard liberal democracy and the rule of law by joining the EU.

While Britain escaped this fate during the first half of the 20th century, Ms Stuart argued that the British experienced the breakdown of the state in the 1970s. During this period, the British had to put up with three-day-weeks (because there was not enough electricity generated to work on five days), the famous ‘Winter of Discontent’ and shortages of such staple commodities as bread and sugar. Ms Stuart argued that the last time something similar happened in Britain was during the 1640s when the English civil war took place, the monarchy was overthrown and King Charles I. executed.

However, Ms Stuart’s reasoning – convincing though it looks on first view – is wrong when it is applied to Britain. After all, Britain had applied for membership in the European Community (the predecessor of the EU) in the early 1960s, long before the ‘Winter of Discontent’. Only De Gaulle’s two vetoes had stopped Britain from joining the EC in the 1960s and it finally joined in 1973. Still, for many other European countries, Ms Stuart argument seems to apply.

All in all, these three reasons offer a good explanation as to why so many European countries have joined the EU.

A final note: if these three reasons are indeed the reasons why countries have joined or want to join the EU, then they also provide the explanation why Switzerland has not done so and has no intentions to do so either. Switzerland – while traditionally poor – grew rich in the 20th century without joining the European Community. It was always part of the ‘West’. Switzerland established a liberal democracy in 1848 (while all the revolutions in Europe in that year 1848 failed to achieve that) and has enjoyed democratic government, the rule of law and sovereignty ever since. It did not undergo revolutions, wars, military coups, dictatorships or foreign occupation in the 20th century. Thus, the Swiss people see no reason to become a member of the EU. The completely different histories of Switzerland and most other continental European countries in the 19th and 20th centuries explain their different view of the EU.

[1] There are of course also other reasons, for example the absence of competition for the EU due to the decline and near irrelevance of the European Free Trade Association, and simple peer pressure (‘we have to join because all others have done so’).

To comment on this blog or contact Philipp please write to blogs@elephantminds.co.uk