The EU: Learning from the past to improve the future

What can today’s European Union of 28 Member States learn from its past to help improve its future?

The establishment of the European Union marked one of the biggest turning points in modern history. Once a flashpoint of conflicts and wars, the creation of a new hybrid political and economic structure managed to not only prevent conflict but also set an example of a cooperation and solidarity across Europe and beyond. This new political structure embraced different cultures, national states, diverse political systems and uneven rates of economic developments that were later to represent some of the core challenges for the European Union.

Being aware that the European Union brought a new era of policy making in Europe, there is the question of what can we learn from the past, and how can that knowledge improve our future? Many agree that the European Union we know today is primarily a product of persistence and determination among European elites to prevent future conflicts and to forge closer economic and industrial ties between the two biggest European countries, Germany and France.

Since its foundation, the role of the union has been to promote peace, the importance and value of human rights, equality, democracy, the rule of law, as well as the well being of all citizens living within EU borders. These values represent the core of the union’s work as well as its role in the world. Thus, in theory or practice, there is no other structure quite like the European Union.

Needless to say, the EU’s responsibilities have grown along with its enlargement and new challenges are facing the union. However, the role of promoting democracy, human rights and the rule of law still remain some of the main active roles of all European Union institutions. The past has shown great success in such areas, and the lessons learned from the past should continue to be exercised in order to promote democracy and embrace the new transitional countries within the union. Yet, it must be asked: is the EU truly successful? And if so, how effective or relevant is European Union political conditionality for the promotion of democracy in transitional countries? Being strongly devoted and committed to promoting democracy in other parts of the world for nearly two decades, the EU has developed several political strategies aiming to broaden its influence outside its territory.

Notably, the process of promoting democracy through enlargement is one of the key strategies used by the EU.  Indeed, the democratization process in Central and Eastern Europe showed success by ending with those countries joining the EU. By analyzing the current situation one can simply agree that once the democratization process/political reform is actually conditional for joining the EU, the prospective neighboring countries are willing to express their enthusiasm to embrace democracy. Without this offer or the democratization/political reform-membership perspective, other EU incentives such as cooperation and partnership have not proven to be that successful so far.

What the 28 EU member countries can learn from the past is that the democratization and political reform, as well as the promotion of human rights, is a successful process once it is done in exchange for the membership. The lesson based on the previous experiences, however, should be applied for the former Yugoslav countries. The role of the EU has been quite consistent and active in terms of assisting the democratization process in the Western Balkans. Nonetheless, the process does require more attention to the political context, historical background of conflict and flashpoints as well as the social, cultural and economic background. In such cases the EU shall use the three main pillars to promote democracy in the Balkan region: 1) to promote political dialogue among governments, 2) to promote democratic values by offering assistance in policy making processes and 3) providing assistance programs for civil society and the media, promoting free electoral processes,  and investing in capacity building.

As underlined in the article, the use of conditionality has been proven successful and is one of the key elements of the latest enlargement processes. But, once the region is all integrated, the EU needs to develop a clear strategy to keep its leading role in world politics, especially now with the geopolitical changes in Eastern Europe and the influence and tendency of Russia constantly encroaching on EU borders.


Cover Image “european union colours” by tristam sparks

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