What if Russia joined the European Union in 2004

For the video version of the scenario, it's on the YouTube channel Possible History

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Here is the scenario in written form:
The period right after the collapse of the Soviet Union was, on the whole, a period of great optimism for the West. Most of the Eastern Bloc had turned democratic, established a free market and were seeking better cooperation with the west. The great enemy of the west, the Soviet Union had fallen, and there were hopes that this new Russia would be capable of steering a course of democracy and cooperation with the west, and all of Europe would be united under the joint banners of NATO and the EU. Meanwhile with the disappearance of the Soviet Union America now stood as the sole superpower in the world, and the short period I like to call ‘The End of History’ begun.

From 1991 to 2001 it wasn’t an uncommon idea that the path to worldwide democracy and liberalism had been painted with the victory over the Soviet Union. After all, monarchism, fascism and communism had now all been triumphed over by the west. But this was not what happened. While Russia during these years was largely preoccupied with post breakup issues, China began their meteoric rise to prominence. At the same time America alienated many nations in the world by their controversial interventions all over the world, the most significant of which was Iraq. With the invasion of Iraq in 2003, justified by the non-existent weapons of mass destruction Iraq supposedly had, America had implicitly announced to the world that no dictator was now safe, it was very well possible America could invade your nation next if they decide it to be a threat to their liberal world order.

So the period of the single superpower and American world hegemony came to an end after a short period of existence. China had built itself up as a massive economic powerhouse, increasingly capable of replacing the west as a worldwide economic bloc, especially for more authoritarian nations. Around the same time Putin took over as leader in Russia. Helped along by Putin Russia entered into a new period of revival. The economic hardships of the ‘90s were over as Russia’s GDP doubled in the span of a decade. But Russia is a different beast to China altogether for the West to deal with. Where China is first and foremost a threat to economic interests and soft power in the world, Russia has a more assertive stance on their direct surrounding nations.

Russia’s influence within a decade time had declined from having indirect control or influence over half of Europe and significant parts of Asia, to just holding on to Russia proper, while many of Russia’s former satellite states entered into partnership with the West. Under Putin Russia once again found the strength to assert itself on the world stage, and did so with a mix of military force and strengthening political partnerships. The immediate focus was on the post-Soviet states, with supporting pro-Kremlin politicians within these nations, increasing political and economic cooperation between the many nations, and when all else fails assisting or starting seperatist conflicts to keep these nation away from any NATO or EU ties. And this leads us to today, an increasingly desperate Russia launched a full scale invasion of Ukraine to prevent them from moving further and further away from the Kremlin’s influence…

So what if this changed? What if instead of Russia going into the 21st century on their own, the feelings of optimism that came with the end of the Cold War culminated in a radical decision from both Russia and the European Union. As the European Union expanded rapidly eastwards, especially with the 2004 enlargement which included most of the former Soviet satellite states in Eastern EUrope, a radical idea is proposed by Putin. What if the European actually let Russia the European Union at the same time as the other former Eastern Bloc Nations. And to be clear, this is not a fundamentally different Russia to the Russia of our timeline. This is still Putin’s Russia that would be let in.

This would completely throw off any prior negotiations with the Eastern European states. One of the main reasons the former Eastern Bloc was allowed to join so rapidly was because it would provide a kind of informal protection from Russia, as it was feared that explosive NATO expansion would antagonize the Russians too much. Now this 2004 date is the most realistic date for Russia’s membership even being considered. Immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union the European Union didn’t even exist yet, and when they came into existence in 1992 they were largely preoccupied with the new integration of East Germany. Then a couple smaller developed democracies were allowed to join, Sweden, Finland and Austria. But in the ‘90s both the European Union and the democracies and econmies of the Eastern bloc were still in its infancy. Europe didn’t have the willpower nor the institution to let the Eastern bloc in yet. Only in 2004 after a decade of the Eastern European nations constantly asking the European Union for membership, and pretty direct American support for this action, did the European Union reluctantly allow the expansion. So discussing Russian membership into the European Union before 2004 simply wouldn’t work, as if the European Union is not ready to accept a Poland into the Union, they most certainly won’t allow Russia.

But despite this being the most realistic date for Russia to join the Union, realistically there is no chance this would actually happen in 2004. While the new members of 2004 in our own timeline didn’t meet many official EU requirements for membership, Russia would break most of them. Russia was not a full democracy, with many reported and alleged issues with their elections and government. Russia’s economy and government was riddled with corruption as a few oligarchs consolidated the Post-Soviet economy and formed a new upper class holding most industries and important government positions. At the same time Russia was upholding aseperatist regime in Transnistria while they were still fighting a rebellion in their own territory of Chechni. But perhaps most importantly, Russia would easily become the biggest European country if they joined. Not just in terms of land area, although Russia itself is four times the size of the European Union, and as such would account for 80% of the European Union’s landmass, but most importantly in terms of population. Russia by itself would have a larger population than France and Germany, the two giants of the European project combined. Russia would have about a quarter of the population of the European Union, bringing the total to about 600 million people inside the Union. This would undoubtedly make Russia the single most powerful nation within the European parliament.

Now we can do two things here. We can either completely change Russia, turn them into a model democracy and remove their corruption before we let them enter the Union. But I think it would be more interesting if we let Russia as we know it in our 2004 enter the European Union, and see where the scenario goes from there. So we will let the European Union look past all these issues and decide, we can fix Russia if we only let them in. And on the first of May 2004 the world is shocked, as the announcement is made that most of the former Eastern bloc will join the European Union, including Russia itself.

The first years will be a strange mix of worldwide optimism and European skepticism. The cold war now seemed decisively over, and on the surface it seemed that Russia had now chosen democracy over autocracy, and over time Russia’s many issues would be ironed out. Talks would immediately begin in the west about NATO expansion. But at the same time Europe itself would enter a period of internal strife. While the new nations would be excited about the economic growth that came with joining the Union, the Union just increased their population by 50% and Western skepticism for the Union increased as now not just the 40 million Polish have access to the Western European job market, the 140 millions Russians do as well. While economically this would be a big boost for both West and Eastern Europe, in the west new social issues would emerge out of fears of migration by Eastern Europeans.

The new status quo would last for about four years. Russia’s economy booms as European knowledge and companies enter the country. The exploitation and export of Russian raw energy to Europe is massively intensified when compared to our own timeline, giving Russia an even larger share of the European energy market than they have in our own timeline. For both Russia and EU the partnership is incredibly lucrative, as with Russia included the European Union is suddenly a lot more self reliant in terms of raw materials and energy. But internally Russia doesn’t fundamentally change. The same oligarchs reap the majority of the benefits, and Putin’s popularity skyrockets as he brings even more economic prosperity to Russia. Don’t think that just because Russia is allowed into the EU they suddenly get rid of corruption and become a well behaved model-democracy. Over time Russia and the EU would be embroiled in a continual struggle where Russia claims it is plenty democratic enough, while the European Union accuses Russia of backsliding into a dictatorship.

But there is a more radical event that will completely kill western optimism that Russia will fully integrate into the Western world order.. In the haste with which Russia was added to the Union, the West just assumed that Russia would now follow the Western international course. In due time Russia would join NATO as well, and the European Union and NATO would slowly but steadily encompass all of Europe. But Russia doesn’t equate the European Union to NATO, these are two separate institutions. The European Union is a European economic and political partnership, NATO is an American military partnership from the cold war, still seen as an anti-Russian organization.

In the west questions would be raised about the real benefit to NATO, and NATO skepticism would have increased with Russian ascension into the European Union, but the expansion of NATO would remain a goal for mainly America. But within Russia NATO would be seen as a completely obsolete organization, with no real reason to exist or expand anymore. So when it is declared in 2006 and 2008 that NATO wants to include Ukraine and Georgia, Putin would still oppose this just as vividly, calling on the successful European diplomatic partnership as the way forwards for Europe, instead of expending Cold War Era military pacts. Who is NATO even still targeting? Russia is an ally to the west right? Then who do Ukraine and Georgia need protection from? A much larger rift is created between European and Russian populations and America, as many Europeans and Russians feel like America is needlessly antagonizing Russia again. Especially with Russia now in the European Union they would have a lot more success spreading the Russian narrative deeper into Europe.

And here we have the main issue that the West completely forgot when they allowed Russia to join the European Union. Russia is not a Germany. Russia is not content with internal focus, Russia is the largest European nation, has the fastest growing economy in Europe, has the largest army in Europe and more. Yet the West is still treating it as a now unimportant regular member of the west. But Putin wouldn’t play ball, and stand just as firm on future NATO expansion so close to Russia as he did in our own timeline.

And suddenly Russia would send the European Union into complete chaos and crisis. Russia just launched an invasion of Georgia. The European Union doesn’t really have any protocol for this. An attack on a EU member has some protocol, assuming the EU members isn’t also a member of NATO, with the main points being trying to find a diplomatic solution, starting committees and a vague “giving support” to the nation being attacked. But in terms of an EU member going to war against a third party, there really is nothing legally stopping it.

Europe would never fully recover from this alternate 2008, even if Russia doesn’t directly invade Georgia. The European population becomes increasingly divided between the majority opinion that American partnership is more important than the Russian one, and the expansion of NATO is justified under the principle of self-determination. After all, if Russia isn’t planning to invade Georgia or Ukraine there should be no issue with them joining NATO right? But on the other hand we would have an increasingly large section of Europeans, especially in the west, who start to see Russia as the victim. America unjustly invaded Iraq and is antagonizing our ally of Russia for no reason by expanding NATO.

And to add even more fuel to the fire, the 2008 financial crisis had just entered into full swing. European companies, banks and most importantly nations start to collapse economically. The first round of hardships were just the generic economic fallout of the crisis itself, but Europe was hit even harder thanks to the way the European financials worked, with many nations tied together with the single currency of the Euro and a European wide financial institution overseeing the many separate budgets and economy of the Eurozone. Nations in Southern Europe started reporting they were unable to repay their outstanding debt and their budgets deficits were huge. But since they were part of the Eurozone they were extremely limited in how they could respond to any financial difficulty. But at the same time even if the relatively small Greece were to collapse economically this would likely cause devastating ripple effect for every other nations in the Eurozone.

So Europe is now dealing with the economic fallout of the financial collapse at the same time as the political crisis of Russian agression on the world stage. But the worst part for the European Union? Any solution essentially has to be agreed upon by Russia, as Russia would essentially hold much of the European institutions and economy hostage. In the European Parliament Russians would hold about 20% of the total amount of seats. These would not all be Putin’s allies, but many of them would be. Combine these with the many far right voters and even far left voters who would be sympathetic to Russia over America a significant portion of the European parliament would be Russian-sympathic at the very least. Then many other institutions are based on the right of individual states to VETO proposals they don’t like. Any proposal that needs a full majority can get instantly shut down by Russia. But a full majority is not always needed, some decisions and institutions need a qualified majority. But even here Russia has outscaled influence, as with their 25% of Europe’s population they would be the single most important nation in votes where the qualifying majority must have 65% of the population of the nation.

But Russia’s economic influence would be even more devastating for any European action against Russia at this point. European economies are struggling all around, and Russia would probably supply Europe with about 30% of their energy at this point. If Russia were to tamper with this energy supply now, in the middle of an economic and political meltdown, Europe be in big big trouble. At the same time Russia’s economy is recovering much faster than Europe’s, especially as the Eurocrisis starts, since Russia would not have joined the Eurozone yet. This economic influence would be the deathnail for the European Union. There are steps they could take to reduce Russian influence, mainly by invoking article 7 to suspend Russian member rights, but with Russia holding such ideological, political and economical power over the other members, it is quite likely this never gets through the European political framework.

And for everyone who doubts this, look at Hungary today. As a relatively small nation, minor economy and troubled democracy the European Union mostly fails to decisively handle the Hungarian issue. Now place this issue a decade earlier, with a less defined European Union, against the single largest European Union member.

So would Europe be capable of dealing with this? I very much doubt it. In our own timeline the Eurocrisis pushed Europe to it’s limits before they reached a relatively unsatisfying conclusion to the financial issues. Now with Russia inside the Union I only see massive radicalization of the horizon for Europe. In our timeline American intervention was crucial in helping the European Union after 2008, but with Russia in the Union America wouldn’t be capable of providing anymore support than Russia allows it to, and Russia is more than fine with a partially disfunctional Union.

The popularity for the European project would take a nosedive. The European Union is, even more than in our own timeline, completely unable to reach a consensus or solve crisis in a satisfying manner. During the first years of the 2010’s Euroscepticism reaches an all time high in Western Europe, while some Eastern European nations start to fall back into more authoritarian regimes aligning themselves with Putin inside the Union. Expect the United Kingdom to vote to leave the Union with a more decisive majority early in the ‘10s, as the European Union itself is now seen as a shell of it’s former self, just a vehicle for advancing Russian interests in Europe.

How it would happen exactly cannot be predicted, but during the 2010s and 20s the European Union would be eroded and replaced with smaller interstate cooperations. The first domino to fall would be the United Kingdom, but then others follow. Nations like Greece, Czechia, France and Italy have very big anti-European sentiments and political parties, which would only be bolstered in this timeline. Expect anti-European parties to come to power in many of these nations and start to push for these nations to exit the now dysfunctional Union. Russia itself would stay however, and with every nation that leaves the union Russia would become more and more dominant. With Italy, France and the UK likely to leave Russia would come closer and closer to holding 50% of the population of the Union.

Other non-member in Europe feel the effects of the collapse of the European project as well. Many nations in the Balkans and Eastern Europe, despite not being members of the Union yet, are held to much higher account by their population thanks to the economic wealth that will come by joining the Union in the future. Countries like Moldavia, Albania, Macedonia, Ukraine and more are not perfect democracies, but they are mostly trending upwards, as their population is looking forwards to future European membership. This dream is shattered in this alternate timeline, and a democratic backslide in these nations is more than possible, as the ruling parties have now lost their incentive to become more democratic and less corrupt. As autocracies make a comeback in the less stable European nations these nations align themselves more closely with Russia and China.

Meanwhile the Euro as a currency starts to fall. The financial crisis never receives a satisfying European wide response, and Southern Europe comes close to immediate financial collapse. Germany would try what it could to help, but cannot carry the full burden of the Union on it’s back. Meanwhile America would have already lost faith in the European project, and any attempts from America to help the Union as a whole would be rebuffed by Russia. Discussion would soon begin about reintroducing currencies on the national level again, at first perhaps as joint currency with the Euro, but before the end of the decade the Euro will largely have fallen into irrelevancy.

Whatever is left of the European Union in the 2020s cannot be taken seriously. With France, Italy and the United Kingdom leaving much of the backbone of Europe would be gone. Perhaps the Union doesn’t officially disband, but by the start of the 2020s the European Union would have lost all respect and authority within Europe. Meanwhile European economies are devasted by first the economic crash, then the Eurocrisis and then the slow disbanding of the European Union. Eastern Europe would be hit hardest as their economies are less developed, but Western Europe is also reduced to a close to irrelevant status on the world stage.

Many treaties between individual nations would have taken the place of the European Union. Nations like the BeNeLux would work together closely. Ireland and the UK would attempt to sort out their differences, likely with American arbitration. Europe would once again become a battlefields of interest. Germany would be the economic centre of this new Europe, attempting to remain the link between East and West by holding good relations with both America and Russia and their spheres of influence. Much of Western Europe would return to close cooperation with America, as many nations in the East would cautiously return to Russian influence. Nations in Southern Europe would be hit hardest by the economic issues, and would simply support the highest bidder, likely balancing Chinese and American alliances. The United Kingdom would attempt to become a global powerhouse, seeking ties with their former settler colonies, but thanks to the great distance these wouldn’t do much to restore the UK to a position of global prominence. Finally France will try to consolidate their control over West Africa, but with West Africa trying to move away from French influence and the French economy continually declining this doesn’t seem like it will be successful project long term. But in Western continental Europe France would remain a popular nation, striking deals with nations like Germany, the BeNeLux, Spain and Italy.

And all this has insane ramifications all over the globe. Russia has nowhere near the same need to become militarily aggressive like they did in our own timeline. The west had shown it’s weakness and had broken their unity. Democracy would weaken across Eastern Europe, meaning nations like Ukraine and Belarus would remain safely within the Russian sphere of autocracies. Russia would be the secure third power in the world. Not quite on the same level as China or America, but significant in their own way. Meanwhile China would likely eclipse America earlier in this timeline, as many nations in Southern and Eastern Europe drift into the perceived safety of Chinese loans and economic influence. Then finally we have America. Still the dominant military force in the world they would likely still be number one during the 2020’, but their power would be greatly hurt as their economic ties with Europe is reduced, but more importantly the largely America-friendly European Union has now collapsed. The democracy and unity provided by the European Union are now in question in many places. While NATO would remain in place, and at least Western Europe remains in the American sphere, Europe would be nowhere near a similarly powerful ally as they are in our timeline.

How this new status quo would evolve I cannot tell you. Perhaps with Russia’s local interests secured America seeks closer cooperation with Russia against China. Perhaps China and Russia work together to continue to pressure the rapidly weakening west. Maybe America and democracy make a comeback, maybe China manages to overcome their upcoming weakness and become the definitive great power of the Old World as America turns isolationist. At this point we stop talking about Alternate history and go into potential future’s, which is not my area of expertise.

The history books about these period would talk about this as an almost inevitable continuation of the collapse of the Cold War institutions. They would focus on the need for a big enemy for the Western institutions to function and without it there was not enough to bind Europe together through the crisis of the 21st century. The books would say that by allowing Russia to join the European Union the West essentially signed the death warrant for European cooperation, as NATO as a military cooperation no longer had a reason to expand. This would also be seen as the moment of divergence between Europe and America, with the Euroepan Union seeking cooperation with Russia, while America is unable to let go of their paranoid Cold War era view of Russia.

There would be many discussion about the inevitability of Russia’s relapse further and further away from democracy. Many would say it was inevitable and bringing Russia into the European Union was a mistake in itself with no possible chance of success, as Russia’s leadership was not even remotely ready, or more correctly willing, to fully become a uncorrupted democracy. A different line of thinking, however, would propose that it was America that ruined any chance for Russia’s democracy. By continuing to treat Russia as a threat, by expanding NATO further and further east, America kept aggravating and excluding Russia. American arrogance on the world stage, being unable to accept the fact that Russia, with their huge military, biggest nuclear arsenal and growing economy wanted to at least remain a secondary power with influence in their neighboring countries, led to the alienation of Russia and thereby indirectly the fall of the European Union.

Which of these is true? Probably the first one. In 2004 Putin was already well on it’s way to eroding any semblance of democracy Russia had left. The oligarchs had already consolidated control over the economy and politics. Many of the nations which joined the European Union in 2004 were problematic in some way, but Russia had so many red flags that in a realistic scenario no one would even consider their membership seriously.

But this is where I’ll end this doomer scenario. Let me know in the comment how you think the scenario goes from here, or tell me what I’ve gotten wrong. If you liked the video consider leaving a like and subscribing for more. If you want to support me further and receive benefits like suggesting priority subjects consider supporting me by becoming a patron or a member on youtube. Thank you for watching and goodbye.
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