Enlargement loses its appeal

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Series Details Vol.12, No.12, 30.3.06
Publication Date 30/03/2006
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The combination of enlargement fatigue and the disarray over the future of the constitutional treaty were on open display last week both in the European Parliament and at the foreign ministers dinner discussion at the EU summit.

These discussions have revealed how little support there is for future enlargement and the confused thinking about possible alternatives. The rambling dinner discussion might have reached a more elevated plane if Olli Rehn, the commissioner for enlargement, had been invited. But the Austrian presidency of the EU did not invite him on the flimsy grounds that the debate also covered the future of Europe. The Austrian move was all the more surprising because, two weeks before, Rehn had attended the Gymnich meeting in Salzburg when ministers endorsed his enlargement strategy paper. At this meeting, ministers invited their counterparts from the western Balkans and reiterated, albeit in lukewarm fashion, their commitment to enlargement.

Just after Salzburg, the Parliament debated the [Elmar] Brok report on enlargement, which highlighted the need for the Union to take into account "absorption capacity" and consider alternative forms to full EU membership. Old chestnuts resurfaced such as a "multilateral framework" for the EU and candidates and a "privileged partnership" based on the European Economic Area (EEA) model. The report noted the importance of maintaining the "European perspective" for candidates but in the actual debate there was remarkably little support for further enlargement.

There are many reasons for this lack of enthusiasm. There remain major political and psychological problems as a result of the failure to sell the 2004 Big Bang enlargement. Politicians are unable or unwilling to counter negative stories about enlargement. After the rejection of the EU constitution in France and the Netherlands the enlargement debate has become linked to the debate on the constitutional treaty. And EU leaders are hopelessly divided on how to proceed with this debate. The hope is that a fresh start may be made after the French presidential elections next year.

No one doubts that Romania and Bulgaria will join in January 2007 or 2008 at the latest. The European Commission reports on both countries' preparedness will be ready in May and the June European Council will make the decision on accession timing. The key question is the ability of the acceding country to take on the obligations of membership. If a country joins that is not fully prepared it damages itself as well as the EU. The countries of the western Balkans, therefore, have an important stake in the successful entry of Romania and Bulgaria.

After that the situation is far from clear. Croatia and Turkey have both started accession negotiations with the former having a much more hopeful perspective than the latter. Macedonia awaits a date to start negotiations. As far as the remaining western Balkan countries are concerned, there has been some progress in every country but the region still has a negative image due to crime, corruption, political and economic problems, unresolved status issues, leading war criminals still at large, or unwillingness to co-operate with each other. An important question is how many states will the EU be dealing with - Serbia plus Montenegro plus Kosovo?

The question of Turkish membership also raises major concerns in France and other member states. A change in the French constitution to provide for referenda on future enlargements is an indication of how far politicians are prepared to bow to popular concerns.

Some of them advocate defining the EU's future borders now but this would be irresponsible and politically impossible to achieve. The treaty states that any European country may apply for membership if they meet the criteria. To rule out any country would thus require a treaty change and this is not feasible in present circumstances. Others advocate a halt to enlargement preparations until the constitutional treaty mess is sorted out. But no one knows how long this will take and what the end result will be. If the EU were to call a halt to widening it would deprive it of its major lever to promote reforms. If candidate countries or potential candidates started to slip backwards the EU would still have to be engaged - probably at a higher cost. And the EEA model is really not relevant as it was designed for highly advanced countries such as Norway, involved fully in the EU's internal market.

There are no magic solutions. Inevitably the Union will have to muddle through the next two or three years until there is a change in leadership in France and the UK. Meanwhile the EU has to do more to demonstrate the benefits of the Union to its citizens and to explain the positive impact of the past enlargement.

  • Fraser Cameron is senior adviser to the European Policy Centre. He writes here in a personal capacity.

Commentary feature in which the author discusses the prospects for enlargement of the European Union beyond Romania and Bulgaria, set to join in 2007 or 2008, and the current debate at EU level.

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European Commission: DG Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations [DG NEAR] https://ec.europa.eu/neighbourhood-enlargement/index_en

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