The 19th-century English historian J.R. Seeley famously said Britain acquired its empire in a ‘fit of absence of mind’. The same could be said of the post–Cold War European Union. In some ways, the EU’s enlargement beyond its Western European core happened in a fit of distraction after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Now, it is growing weary.
Europe’s boundaries have always been flexible in the minds of its leaders. To Charles de Gaulle, Europe included Russia as far as the Ural Mountains. In 2018, France’s current president, Emmanuel Macron, proposed a more nuanced, if controversial, definition: a Europe of ‘concentric circles’, with each circle signifying a different level of identity. It is a vision of a two-tier Europe in which Eastern and Southeastern European countries are put in their place.