Does the European Union Have a Final Frontier?

Commentary by Louis VIS

Defining the boundaries of a country or nation state is vital to help build a sense of identity, because it helps distinguish between insiders and outsiders; ‘us’ and ‘them’.  A ‘frontier’ can be defined as ‘a line or border separating two countries’, and therefore a ‘final frontier’ implies a static or immovable boundary impervious to expansion and growth.  How then does the European Union (EU) fit with this finite sense of constraint? When the EU was initially created under the name of European Economic Community (EEC), it was built in a time of East-West conflict and the Cold War. Thus, at the time, the EC did have a final frontier – namely the natural coastlines towards the North, West and South of Europe, and Churchill’s ‘Iron Curtain’ to the east. A clear, stable and firm final frontier, where the Eastern and Western side of the European continent were seen as two distinct but internally homogenous entities both in terms of culture, politics and economics. However, after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, Communism and the USSR in 1989, countries in Eastern Europe gained independence and many sought to ‘return to Europe’ by joining their rich and prosperous Western neighbours in the EU.  Over time and through various waves of enlargement, many of these Eastern European countries succeeded in joining the European project, causing the EU’s once ‘final’ frontier to expand. This led Christopher Hill to write that ‘enlargement has neither a single decision-point nor a clear end-point. It is a virtually continuous and long-drawn-out process’. Therefore since the end of the Cold War, whilst the EU has constantly been expanding through various waves of enlargement, its frontiers have become increasingly ‘fuzzy’ and unstable.


The European Flag often seen as a symbol of ‘Europeanness’ – By Kakaru, licensed under CC BY-SA

Although the fall of Communism and the USSR undermined the EU’s final frontier on its Eastern side, some such as Huntington, argue that a clear division can still be found within Europe. In his book ‘The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order’, Huntington explains that a clear cultural division remains in Europe. Indeed, he believes that the Western-Christian population of Western Europe should be seen as clearly divided and distinct from the Muslim and Orthodox population of Eastern Europe. Following such an argument, a clear historical cultural boundary can still be drawn within Europe; namely the ‘Velvet Curtain of Culture’.

Although such a belief would help build a clear final frontier for the EU, it is not a viable one. The EU in its current form cannot have a final frontier based on religious or cultural characteristics alone. Indeed, since the accession of Greece and many other Eastern European countries to the EU, Europe’s population now comes from both sides of the ‘Velvet Curtain of Culture’. If one looks at the impact of globalisation in modern societies, it becomes clear that boundaries have become increasingly unstable and blurry. Research of European cultures have shown that many of the Eastern European countries (which joined in 2004) were culturally closer to the original six Member States of France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Germany and Italy than were the United Kingdom, Ireland, Spain, Greece, Portugal, Denmark, Austria and Sweden when they joined the EU. Furthermore, Orthodox and Muslim populations are widespread across all European Member States, thus suggesting that transnational networks and high levels of diversity in the EU make culture alone an inadequate factor.


One of the most important criteria for joining the EU relates to each country respecting the UN Chart of Human Rights whilst guaranteeing the rule of law and a stable democracy to its citizens. Overall differences in politics between European countries are very small. Therefore, as shown by European politicians at the 1999 EU Summit in Helsinki, if a final border has to be set based on politics alone, it would exclude the Slavic countries of Moldavia, Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Bosnia, Montenegro, and Albania. Although this does not mean that all other EU Member States share a common political culture, it implies that these countries mentioned above are completely incompatible with EU values due to a lack of a solid democratic culture.

Whilst these countries are currently seen as incompatible with the EU, nothing excludes them from joining the EU in the future once they have successfully complied with the EU’s ‘acquis communautaire’. In fact, in some cases, the EU has used the possibility of membership as political leverage to promote and implement its values. This was seen during the EU intervention in Kosovo and by the ways that the EU successfully forced all applicant countries to drop the death penalty and respect human rights. In doing so, the EU aims to help applicant countries ‘catch-up’ with current Member States in terms of governance and democracy. With many applicant countries making the reforms needed to comply with EU values, it therefore becomes clear that setting a final political frontier for the EU is harder than theory suggests. This has led some to state that the EU borders should better be seen as ‘rolling’ rather than ‘fixed’. Indeed, there are no valid reasons why Slavic countries in the Balkans should not be allowed to join the EU, were they to fulfil all Copenhagen Accession Criteria. Furthermore, some even argue that they will end up joining the EU in the long run, simply because of a lack of possible alternative. Based on the political rationale alone, the EU cannot be said to currently have a final frontier.


Whilst no official economic frontier to the EU has formally been established, examples such as the Single Market, the Eurozone and the Schengen Agreement show that when one uses economics as a rationale, one can begin to see the shaping of a EU final frontier through the delimitation of an economic union, which is very different from the frontier suggested by our previous political and cultural rationales.

Map of the Eurozone. Blue: EU Member State with the Euro (€). Red/Green: EU Member States without the Euro. Purple: Non-EU Member States with the Euro – Public domain.

However, even if one was to analyse the economic rationale, the Single Market, the Eurozone and the Schengen Agreement do not actually share the same members. Whilst all EU Member States are members of the Single Market, the Eurozone does not include nine of the twenty-eight EU Member States (although some of them are waiting to join), and the Schengen Agreement includes all the EU Member States with the exception of the United Kingdom and Ireland. Furthermore, the Eurozone formally includes the non-EU territories and principalities of Monaco, Andorra, San Marino and the Vatican, whilst the Schengen Agreement includes non-EU countries such as Switzerland, Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein. This suggests that even within the economic rationale, the situation is very complex. Ultimately it is very unlikely that a final frontier to the EU will ever be able to be set when one uses the economic rationale alone.


If one was to draw the EU’s final frontier from a purely physical geography perspective, one would consider the frontiers to be the coastlines to the North, West and South, and the Ural Mountains and The Bosphorus to the East. Whilst the Urals are deep into Russian territory and with Russia clearly not planning to join the EU, some scholars have even stated that the Eastern frontier of EU should finishing at the Dnieper and Don river, which borders Russian territory whilst including The Baltic countries, Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova and Romania. However, these physical features of the European territory have never officially been recognised as formal boundaries, making the drawing of a final frontier harder than expected.

Ssolbergj CC BY SA 3.0
Blank map of Europe based on physical geography alone – By Ssolbergj, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Although the inclusion of Malta – which is half-way between Sicily and Tunisia – and Cyprus – which is 200 miles from Lebanon and half-Turkish – can be seen as a challenge to the pure physical geography perspective, by deciding to reject Morocco’s application, European politicians clearly showed to the world that if the EU were to have a final frontier it would most certainly be a geographical one. The complexity of Turkey’s application also goes to show that geography is still an important rationale. Indeed, many see The Bosphorus (which separates Istanbul, and to some extent divides Turkey, into two parts: the European one and the Asian one) as the end of the European continent – in which case most of Turkey finds itself outside Europe. Furthermore, although countries such as Israel have at one stage thought of joining the EU, it is quite clear that they would never be allowed to join. All these examples suggest that because ‘spatial proximity between countries and peoples facilitates communication and increases the probability of similar historical experience’, if the EU is to set itself a final frontier based on one single rationale, it is very likely to be the geographical one.


This debates shows that if the EU were to be given a final frontier, it would most probably vary according to the rationale one uses. Drawing a final frontier for the EU thus becomes very difficult or even impossible, as different rationales – ranging from economic, cultural and religious, political, or geographical – may impact the way an EU final frontier would be drawn. Furthermore, all these rationales tend to overlap on some issues but diverge on others. As a result of this complexity, no final EU frontier has ever been drawn up. This being said, it does seem that the biggest determinant to setting a final frontier to the Union is indeed geographical. Furthermore, regardless of the difficulty in drawing a final frontier, it is vital the EU finally sets a limit to its potential expansion if it is to ensure its survival. Thus if one rationale had to be picked out, it ought to be the physical geography one. Therefore, once countries considered to be on the European continent (Ukraine, Albania, Serbia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Moldova, Macedonia, Kosovo, Belarus, Iceland, Norway and Switzerland), fulfil the Copenhagen Accession Criteria, it is very likely that they will eventually be allowed to join the EU. However, the rejection of Morocco’s application proves that ultimately, physical geography does seem to play the most important part in helping European politicians decide how far the EU should expand.


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