Following Croatia's vote (albeit on only 44 percent voter turnout) in January to join the European Union, Serbia has now also been accepted as a candidate for membership. This is its reward for agreeing to a compromise with Kosovo, mediated by the EU, whereby Kosovo will be written with an asterisk at international and regional meetings to highlight the disputed status of the breakaway province.
This leaves Kosovo's future still something of a mess, especially because all the young country was offered by the EU for its agreement with Serbia was a "feasibility study" on integration. But the larger question is why the EU should want to absorb Balkan countries at all, given its troubles over Greece. More to the point, why should any country want to join the European project, which is itself in shambles?
The answer seems to be sheer desperation. The EU wants to prove that it is still attractive to someone, while Balkan countries, viewing EU members as richer and more stable than themselves, hope some of that residual wealth and stability will rub off.
Another curious case of EU membership that may soon arise is Scotland. First Minister Alex Salmond has promised a referendum on Scottish independence within the EU. This, of course, is a contradiction in terms because Scotland would become a separate but minor province of the EU under this plan rather than a truly independent state. Salmond assumes that an independent Scotland would not have to apply for membership because it is already in the EU as a part of the United Kingdom.
True, Salmond now says he wants to retain the pound sterling as the currency for Scotland and not (as until recently) the euro. Whichever he chooses, however, his independent Scotland would still have its interest rates set by a foreign bank (the Bank of England in London or the European Central Bank in Frankfurt) and would depend on Brussels for almost all policy decisions (the EU generates 84 percent of domestic legislation in Germany, according to the country's Federal Ministry of Justice). In the weighted system of EU majority voting, moreover, Scotland's mere handful of votes would count for nothing. Yet Scots will soon be offered this tartan pig in a poke.
Superficially, the EU seems to have made great progress since the 1957 Treaty of Rome. Almost every aspect of policy is now determined by bureaucrats in Brussels in combination with the European Council and the European Parliament. The EU even has its own foreign service and is struggling to create its own intelligence and federal police services. No wonder it impresses Arabs and Africans, whose own struggles for unity have, relatively speaking, gone nowhere.
The trouble, however, is that the EU as a whole is in absolute demographic decline and relative economic and technological decline, and its major policies -- whether the common fisheries and agriculture policies or the euro and monetary union -- have failed. In terms of foreign and security policies, it is an international joke. It spends next to nothing on defense, and even its main contributors in this area, Britain and France, have seen their armed forces so severely cut recently that in the Libyan war, where Europe "took the lead," they were entirely dependent on U.S. logistics and supplies. If the EU boasts of its reliance on "soft power," that is because it has no choice. Its head of foreign affairs, the British baroness Catherine Ashton, has been called "the world's highest-paid female politician," yet she remains anonymous and has no influence on world events whatsoever. Her position sums up everything that is wrong with the EU -- expensive but ineffective.
The fundamental problem with the EU, however, is that the people of Europe have no faith in it and do not identify with it. A 2010 Eurobarometer poll found that only 49 percent of EU citizens think their country's EU membership is a "good thing," while only 42 percent trust EU institutions. Meanwhile, those institutions, like the EU's whole ethos, are positively anti-democratic. Its key decision-making bodies -- the European Council, Court of Justice, and European Commission -- are, for all practical purposes, unelected, unaccountable, and removed from the people (commissioners are usually washed-up has-beens whose political careers in their home states have ended in failure). Their decisions are irreversible in national parliaments, and the European Parliament, while vested with powers of co-decision-making with the European Council, is also remote. The Parliament is a glorified debating society -- not a government with an official opposition -- and its parties cannot promise any fundamental policy changes in their election manifestos; indeed, its election outcomes rarely have an impact on the course of EU politics. Its members are unknown and despised as opportunists who merely seek inflated salaries, perks, expenses, and pensions. Voter turnout in the EU's parliamentary elections is low and falling, reflecting the widely held belief among EU citizens that the EU doesn't protect or represent their interests.