Europe is in danger of turning its back on its most effective soft power tool, enlargement. It facilitated the peaceful transformation of half the European continent, overcame tensions over minorities and borders in central Europe, and supplied a blueprint for political, judicial and economic reforms. Today, the prospect of moving towards EU membership has provided the incentive for Serbia and Kosovo to edge towards a modus vivendi, and it had earlier nudged Croatia and Slovenia towards accepting mediation in their border demarcation dispute. The accession process remains the most effective antidote to instability on the EU’s doorstep. Yet support for the EU’s enlargement agenda, which at present covers the Balkans, Turkey and Iceland, is lukewarm at best.
Long before economic crisis gripped Europe, the 2004 and 2007 enlargements took place with little understanding or support among large sections of public opinion. Very few political leaders saw electoral advantage in explaining why they thought enlargement to be in their country’s and the EU’s best interest. The impression left was that enlargement was a reward for overthrowing communism or even an act of charity on the part of the EU. The expansion from 15 to 27 member states was largely a top-down process, decided by political elites and without a sense of ownership or consent by the wider public.
When its major 2004 enlargement was in the offing, the EU embraced a narrative based on false assumptions that turned out to be enormously costly in terms of political capital and democratic legitimacy. This narrative was that the EU could not function at 27 unless there was a “deepening” of the integration process. This meant a significant step towards political union and a streamlining of the decision-making process. In reality EU institutions functioned perfectly normally from May 2004, when 10 new members joined the EU, to December 2009 when the Lisbon treaty entered into force. And the Lisbon treaty’s main innovations –the creation of the European External Action Service and a stronger legislative role for the European Parliament – did little to bring the EU closer to political union, streamline decision-making or overcome the “democratic deficit”.
Decision-making at 27 is inevitably more cumbersome, and table rounds in the Council take longer. But the enlarged EU has continued to address its major challenges and take new initiatives. Within the eurozone, the lines of division are mainly between the heavily indebted countries that face the risk of default, on the one side, and the dwindling group of triple-A rated countries, on the other. All new member states, with the exception of the Czech Republic, signed up to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s fiscal compact.
A new member state has of course on occasions blocked an initiative, as with Poland’s refusal to agree to tougher emission targets. But 90% of Poland’s energy comes from coal. The EU has a long tradition of member states blocking initiatives when they consider important national interests to be at stake.
The main opposition to such new initiatives as the liberalisation of services or the single European patent, which would cut costs and boost jobs through economic growth, has come from older member states. Splits on foreign policy, one of the Lisbon treaty’s flagship initiatives, have mostly been between older member states, as was evident in the Franco-British schism with Germany over Libya. Backsliding on governance, though particularly egregious in Hungary, is alas not a monopoly of new member states.
The rise of nationalist, xenophobic and euro-sceptical parties has further distorted public perceptions of enlargement. Immigration is so widely targeted by such parties and their followers that little distinction is drawn between free movement of labour within the enlarged EU and legal or illegal immigration from third countries. Even enlargement-friendly countries like the United Kingdom took full advantage of transition arrangements to delay the free movement of workers from Bulgaria and Romania for seven years after their EU accession. Reluctance to abolish border controls with Bulgaria and Romania, which have met the benchmarks for this, is yet another sign of governments’ susceptibility to nationalist pressures.
Against this background, the economic and financial crisis that began in 2008 and gave rise to the sovereign debt and euro crises, has further dampened the public mood on enlargement. There are fears that the kind of economic problems posed by the peripheral countries in the present EU could be replicated if fragile Balkan states were to be admitted.
The notion that enlargement is somehow responsible for the EU’s current ills is widespread but misguided. Radek Sikorski, the Polish foreign minister, has robustly rebutted this view, pointing out that enlargement has created growth and wealth throughout Europe, and so has actually mitigated the economic crisis. Poland has consistently out-performed eurozone countries in terms of growth. And Latvia uncomplainingly implemented a harsh adjustment programme over the last three years turning in strong growth figures in the fourth quarter last year.
Overall, enlargement has brought 100m consumers with rising incomes into the EU, with considerable benefit to exporters, investors and workers in the older member states. Many of the EU’s best-known brands could not remain globally competitive without outsourcing part of their production to the new member states.
But despite the benefits of enlargement, it is not exactly the flavour of the month in crisis-ridden Europe. This will not necessarily be an obstacle in the future given the likely timing of further accessions. Croatia will join the EU in July 2013 and Iceland possibly a year or two later. After that, no country will be ready to join until around 2020. That leaves time for aspirant countries to sort themselves out, for the EU to shake off its current malaise and for the European public to grasp the advantages of a wider and more differentiated EU. If it is to maintain its leverage for reform, the EU will need to devise new incentives to keep people in future member states engaged during these long years.
The EU faces many challenges in these countries and in adjacent regions that will require the continued use of the enlargement process, its most valuable soft power instrument. The risk of serious instability in the Balkans has diminished but has not disappeared. There are unresolved questions relating to minorities, borders, state building, governance and bilateral disputes. Turkey’s neighbourhood has become increasingly unpredictable as a result of the Arab awakening and there is a risk of clashes linked to demarcation disputes in the eastern Mediterranean sea following the discovery of large offshore gas reserves.
The EU needs Turkey more than ever as a force for stability and moderation. It is in the EU’s interest to keep Turkey engaged in finding a solution to the Cypriot question, eschewing the temptations of partition. In the Arctic region, Iceland, another candidate for membership, stands at a strategic crossroads, with increasing attention focused on maritime transport routes and resources. Competition for these resources will intensify in the years ahead.
Doors should therefore be left open, not slammed shut. The EU is starting to contain the eurozone crisis, even though there are still many uncertainties. The EU of tomorrow will be based on increasingly differentiated forms of integration, with shifting coalitions and alliances across issues. A more differentiated Europe will be particularly well placed to integrate new members in the future.
Although Nicolas Sarkozy proclaimed the birth of two Europes after the December 2011 European Council, the reality is far more complex. Member states that find themselves opposed on some issues collaborate closely on others. The nuclear industries of France and Britain for example, are closely integrated and dynamic, while Germany decided after Japan’s Fukushima disaster to phase out nuclear power by 2022. Britain, Italy and 10 other member states want to stimulate growth and jobs by opening up the EU’s market for services and digital goods, while more protectionist member states are dragging their heels. Defence co-operation between Britain and France has never been closer, but Germany hesitates to use force even for humanitarian purposes.
Despite the possible evolution of the eurozone towards a fiscal union, the EU of 27 remains the decisive setting for most EU activities. The smaller member states attach great importance to this and to Britain’s role in the EU. France and Germany continue to look to Britain for co-operation on key European projects and Poland’s influence is growing in a number of fields. The vision of a “two speed Europe” is unable therefore, to capture the EU’s complex pattern of cross-cutting cleavages on different issues.
European integration is becoming increasingly differentiated, with “coalitions of the willing” forming in different policy areas. These coalitions should remain open to participation by all. A multi-track EU will be better placed to receive new members once they have met the conditions, than an EU based on the fiction that one size fits all. During the decade before a new wave of countries is ready to join the EU, greater efforts must be made to stimulate an informed public debate in the EU about enlargement and to make the prospect of EU membership more credible and tangible in aspirant countries. This will demand strong leadership and ingenuity from those involved in piloting this historic process.
Sir Michael Leigh is a senior advisor to the German Marshall Fund in Brussels and was formerly European Commission Director General for enlargement. firstname.lastname@example.org.
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