Saturday, February 17, 2007

EU Expansion: Romania and Bulgaria

The accession of the two new countries means that the European Union now has 27 members and half a billion people in its combined populations. While most articles cover the same ground explaining the benefits and challenges for both EU and Romania & Bulgaria, little less analyzed is the religion aspect of this development. In these countries, the separation of church and state is less than obvious. Let's not forget that orthodox church politics can affect foreign policy just like it did during the Kosovo bombing in the late 90's. Most reactions in this area of Europe fell predictably in line with their religion affiliations. Most Greek, Bulgarians, Romanians, and Russians were against bombing their orthodox brethren in Serbia. Now with the admission of Romania and Bulgaria, while an historical event that gets closer to bringing most East Europeans countries back from the cold into the mainstream Europe, EU will have to deal with 30 million voices that adhere to the Orthodox Church.

Although there has been much talk about about Islam vs Christianity in Europe when examining Turkey's possible accession to the EU, the divide between Christian groups and the close relation between church and state in the orthdox countries have been completely neglected issues. Until recently, Greece has been the main orthodox country in EU, but with the accession of Romania and Bulgaria there will be now a block of more than 40 million people. A worried trend for US foreign policy is the increasing leverage of Russia in the EU. Besides the well-known political and economic issues ( focusing mainly on energy ) there is a religious-cultural element as well. Cyrillic now becomes the third official alphabet of the European Union along with Latin and Greek, while orthodoxy an important religious power block. Bulgaria follows the Russian-style church calendar and there are very strong language ties between the two countries.

It will be interesting to see how the newly acceded countries will decide on crucial issues facing the future of EU, such as the European constitution. So far we had blocks in the EU decision-making processes, such as 'small countries' block vs 'big countries' block, 'north' vs 'south', or the 'anti-American' vs 'pro-American' as the war in Iraq highkighted. It is likely that Romania will have a very distinctive behavior from Bulgaria. Besides the potential higher economic growth and political development, Romania is poised to follow the French model, 'big country' mentality as opposed to Bulgaria, which will most likely align with the 'south/small country' group.

Both in Romania and Bulgaria, where churches were sidelined during Communism and where people could not attend religious services openly, the Orthodox Church is reclaiming its space in the civil and political affairs of the state. Many of the new EU states from Central Europe admitted in 2004 were among the strongest supporters of the effort to add a mention of God or Christianity in the EU constitution. This effort failed along with the ratification of the constitution itself, but it will surely come up again possibly in 2008 or 2009 and with louder voices in support of it from the Romanian and Bulgarian populations. What all means for US foreign policy is a greater presence of religious voices seeking to influence and shape EU's policies and interests in Europe and Middle East, areas of already increased disagreements between Europe and US.

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