As amazing as it may seem today, there was a time when Russia was considered a possible member of the hallowed European club, writes Justin Stares.
You have to go back around ten years, but the conversation was at that time quite serious. Opinion polls showed Russians very much wanted the economic benefits they thought European Union membership would bring (how times have changed). European leaders such as former Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi said it was his “dream” see Moscow take a seat around the table of the European Council.
There was optimism that Russia’s democratic credentials would improve with the right coaching. And legally speaking, there was no reason the country couldn’t join. Its landmass, after all, lies partly in Europe, as does Turkey’s – officially an EU accession country.
Debate was serious enough to warrant an official response from the European Commission. The answer, articulated by Commission president Romano Prodi, was no – Russia was simply too big, he said. If Russia joined the European Parliament its members would be so numerous they would form a dominant faction, Prodi explained. He invented this previously unheard of membership criterion – population size – because there was no other way of turning Russia down.
It was a poor excuse; the European Parliament already reduces the number of members from big states and increases the number from small states to create a balanced system that is acceptable to all. Negotiators could surely have found a workable solution, satisfactory to both Russia and the rest of the EU.
Was rejecting Russia a mistake? If Moscow had been given the carrot of EU membership, would more than 3,000 have met violent deaths this year in Ukraine?
Once a member is within the Brussels fold, all kinds of diplomatic pressure can be brought to bear to make it mend its ways. The prospect of two EU member states going to war is inconceivable. What is more, the EU has a good track record when it comes to stablising wobbly democracies, a reputation dating back to Spanish accession. Could this magic not have worked in Russia too?
And are we now making the same mistake with Turkey? Given the EU’s descent into permanent stagnation, it would come as no surprise if Turkey cancels its membership application or puts it on hold forever, much like Iceland.
There was a time when the EU was a force for good. But somewhere along the road, Brussels lost its ambition.
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