European Identity in a Transforming Political Space: Eastern Enlargement and its Challenges

By Mila Moshelova | 15 February 2014

To quote this document: Mila Moshelova, “European Identity in a Transforming Political Space: Eastern Enlargement and its Challenges”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Saturday 15 February 2014,, displayed on 06 June 2023

This article aims to glance beyond the legal and administrative dimensions of EU enlargement and integration and examine conceptions and expressions of identity, suggesting the possibility that, although it is always difficult to judge success and failure in foreign policy making, the notion of identity, if approached with caution, can provide with useful hints for understanding challenges in external and internal EU politics. In this light, a few years down the line, what challenges has enlargement posed to the EU in terms of identity?

The Eastern Enlargement of the EU is most often discussed with regard to processes of Europeanization of Central and Eastern European Member States, cooperation and integration, or effects of enlargement on the functioning and development of the EU as a political system – its decision-making, voting procedures, direction of policy. Although enlargement and integration are generally referred to as the 'success stories' of the European project, and indeed, their progress is unprecedented, enlargement has also posed challenges in terms of diversity, symbolic importance of changing borders and the provision of security. These three elements of the EU – diversity, borders and security - interconnected play a role in identity formation which in turn shapes EU policies on protecting and reinforcing EU values, its security architecture and foreign policy vision.

The diversity of enlargement

In the context of a post-Cold War reality, the EU realized its crucial position in determining the future of the continent. A process of re-conceptualization of the political rationale of the EU began, emphasizing the importance of identity. Overcoming deep historically imprinted political boundaries through the rationale of enlargement and integration, the EU emerged after the demise of the Soviet Union as a regional pioneer in democratization, cooperation and advancement of liberal economic principles.                                                   Although corruption, lack of transparency in the use of EU structural funds and dubious financing of political parties, the CEE countries are now accepted as a fundamental component of the present image and future development of the EU project. Framed as a 'return to Europe', the process of Eastern enlargement, implied the re-production of an already existing identity – the return of CEEs to where they belong. However, it also set a pattern of challenging developments. The expansion of the EU has meant that the Union reached unprecedented levels of cultural and social diversity, with a number of obstacles to norm diffusion stemming from the legacy of communist rule.  Yet, socio-economic and socio-political diversity, along with culturally versatile regions, has meant that EU identity is not to simply arise from administrative and legal changes. Instead, differences in perception, along with continuing emphasis on national interest by Member States, has meant that the EU's legacy is often challenged.

Setting the borders

Furthermore, in the context of enlargement, the transformative nature of territorial parameters has induced a transformation of the meaning of borders. Eastern expansion has meant that the EU now stretches to regions much less economically quipped to handle its borders. Bulgaria’s extemporaneous state in the wake of a Syrian refugee crisis and the appalling conditions in refugee camps across the country, along with its yet considerable corruption rate, all serve as a perfect example of how unevenly equipped states are within the EU in the face of contemporary challenges. The role played by Border States is not only of local significance, but is also crucial in terms of external regional EU relations and the image the EU is to build to its neighbours and allies. With the ultimate goal of removing all internal barriers to the free movement of goods and people, and protecting its territory from organized criminality, the EU's external borders become the most sensitive element in terms of European identity and foreign policy-making. External border dynamics have a crucial impact on the formation and reformulation of EU policies, something that has become evident in the expansion of FRONTEX, and the calls for a common policy on asylum – rationales directly influenced by weaknesses revealed in the management of external borders.

New spaces, new values – new security?

Eastern enlargement has certainly transformed the political space of both the continent, and the European Union. Such major change is undoubtedly influencing policies of the EU in terms of border controls, relations with new direct neighbours and the provision of its security policy. As Wolfers (1952) suggested some sixty years ago, security is the protection of previously acquired values and thus, security policy measures the absence of fear of attack on such values. The uniqueness of the EU entails the preservation of national sovereignty underlined by cooperation in political, economic and social policies. With regard to providing security for European values of integrity, entailed in the protection of borders, a paradox emerges. On the one hand, notions of European security are to replace national identities with pan-European identity, a guiding principle in EU's aspiration to play a determining role in global developments like democratization, humanitarian aid and disaster management. On the other hand, to a large extent, individual national interests remain crucial in Member States' conduct. This interplay of such approaches and identity reveal a paradox in contemporary European policy-making as the EU appears to have, internally, a difficulty articulating external challenges to its security. In the context of both Yugoslav and Syrian refugee flows, member states have been addressing refugee dynamics in a self-centred manner. Whether this is due to the lack of relevant EU legislative framework, or the inability of states to disregard their national interest when presented with an external threat, may be subject to debate.


Acceptance and diffusion of European institutional and political norms through integration, identity re-conceptualization in an expanded territory, and security provision for EU values and physical integrity, all these factors reveal a “puzzle” when contrasted to what occurs in reality. Although fully committed to human rights and international development, the EU has largely failed in protecting Syrian refugees reaching its border states. Furthermore, actions like the building of a wall along the Greek-Turkish border, reported acts of violence and refusing refugees entry on the Bulgarian-Turkish border present contradictions with regard to EU's dedication to human security. In addition, such actions send extremely exclusionary messages to EU neighbours and reveal a weakness in the coordination of actions. This leads to the conclusion that although identity matters are hardly susceptible to measurement, policy formulation and policy conduct on European and member states levels can reveal paradoxes. The EU is seemingly having difficulties identifying and integrating common interests in its foreign policy, and understandably, this further impedes the emergence of a European identity.

To go further

On Nouvelle Europe :

On the internet :

In books :

  • Ciuta, F. (2007) ‘Narratives of Security: Strategy and Identity in the European Context’ in ed. Richard Mole ‘Discursive Constructions of Identity in European Politics, p.190-207
  • Wolfers, A. (1952) '"National Security" as an Ambiguous Symbol' Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 67, No. 4. (Dec., 1952), pp. 481-502

Source photo : Celebrations in Brussels as ten former Eastern Bloc countries in Eastern Europe (Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia) acceeded the European Union on Wikimedia commons