Can today’s EU stand a new wave of Enlargement?

, by Pietro De Matteis

Can today's EU stand a new wave of Enlargement?

Following the ICJ ruling about the legality of Kosovo independence on July 22nd, Italy, Austria and Slovakia have argued that Serbia’s accession process should be accelerated to support pro European Serbian President Boris Tadic. On July 27th Iceland initiated its official negotiations, despite the erosion in the pro-EU camp in the aftermath of the Icesave case. Among the other candidate countries, Croatia is set to join in 2011, while Macedonia has not yet started the negotiations. Turkey, having several negotiating chapters blocked or vetoed, has still no accession date, but the UK seems to strongly back its candidature, as PM David Cameron claimed in its visit to Ankara on July 27th..

With potentially five new member states to join the EU in the next few years, a question arises: Is today’s EU ready for a further enlargement?

Following those in 2004 and 2007, EU’s membership has nearly doubled, and the probability of forming blocking minorities has also increased, or of vetoing decision requiring unanimity in the Council. Despite the advancements brought about by the Lisbon Treaty, the EU is punching below its weight.

However, an overall analysis is hard to be made without first having clear in mind what we desire as European nations: what is the EU for? Where are we going? In short, we are once again (or still) in front of EU’s endemic problem: its lack of a common vision.

Quo vadis EU?

It is time to recognize that not all EU member states share the same vision, and that we should open this issue for debate. Some Member States have been constantly keen to enlarge the EU. However, the hope that the Union can continue its enlargement ad infinitum while maintaining the same degree of effectiveness is misplaced, especially if this is expected to be done under the same institutional framework. It is thus clear that the problem of further EU enlargements is primarily a domestic one. Apart from the well know Copenhagen criteria applied to candidate countries, the EU should also evaluate how its own institutions need to be strengthened in order to allow to maintain their effectiveness. As such, the informal ‘absorption capacity’ criteria, should not be a brake for further enlargement, rather it should be an incentive for further integration.

However, considering that not all Member States share the same vision for the EU, noting the ‘institutional reform fatigue’ following the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty, and lacking an open debate over the future of Europe, some might be tempted towards another temporary solution.

Enhanced cooperation as a solution?

Under the provisions of Art. 20 of the Treaty on the EU, and Art. 326 to 334 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU, a minimum of nine Member States can develop an ‘enhanced cooperation’. It should be noted, however, that the latter is limited to the competences listed in the treaties, which cannot be expanded without a treaty change. The debates on a ‘multi speed’ Europe or on a ‘Europe à la carte’ are not new. Clearly, excessive fragmentation would have detrimental effects on both the representativeness and governance of the EU, and of its institutions. It is for this reason, that a more coherent framework need to be set up without further ado.

The time has come to openly debate Europe’s future, and to not shy away (again) from realising that a ‘core-Europe’ de facto exists. The Euro, Schengen and those areas in which the enhanced cooperation is being tested (e.g. Divorce Law) are its backbone. Its institutionalisation, on the one hand would shelter it from the potential inefficiencies deriving from further enlargements, and, on the other, it would not foreclose EU members to join, should they wish to share the higher political goals and slimmer majorities in the decision making.

Asking candidate countries to develop a looser coordination rather than giving them EU membership, is simply the ‘outsourcing’ of a primarily EU domestic problem.

The way forward

Asking candidate countries, as it has been done with Turkey by the current French and German administrations, to develop a looser coordination rather than giving them EU membership, is simply the ‘outsourcing’ of a primarily EU domestic problem.

Europe needs both to strengthen its governance and to enlarge its membership due to its demographics and geopolitical interests. As such, all the EU candidate countries are strategic. Turkey is a key regional player, and it registers economic growth rates second only to China. Its future as an energy hub, its diverse cultural background and its large population, would turn the EU into a truly global actor. Iceland, due to its geographical position, would allow the EU to have another foot in the Arctic and its potential energy resources, which could become accessible thanks to climate change.

Finally, Croatia, Macedonia and Serbia, by joining the EU would certainly contribute to stabilize a region that has been the main source of tensions in Europe since the end of World War II.

To conclude, those countries that want to join the EU, and that fulfil the Copenhagen criteria, should not find the door shut. However, it must be clear that the higher the number of members is, the greater are the difficulties for the EU to act effectively, especially in areas where unanimity is required. It is thus urgent to clarify our vision for the future of Europe and to secure that the new enlargements will further EU’s strengths and not merely highlight its weaknesses.

Image: flags of Turkey and the European Union, source: European Commission.

Your comments
  • On 7 October 2010 at 21:41, by Caroline Bauwens & Edith Salminen Replying to: Can today’s EU stand a new wave of Enlargement?

    We agree on the fact that Europe definitely needs a united vision. Let’s see what we have first, and work with that, before sharing a half-baked vision with any new member states. We wouldn’t go as far as to say that the past enlargements weren’t successful, but maybe the EU has been a bit too optimistic when it comes to adding new members, especially considering the united identity that the EU tries to create will be more difficult to achieve when the pieces of the European puzzle are so divers. The ’European feeling’ is not even shared by the current member states, let alone that we are able to convey a message of unity to new members.

    However, we disagree on the fact that further enlargement will not affect the effectiveness of the EU. This, from our point of view, is very implausible. When you add new ingredients to a meal, the flavour will change. Having the new members follow ’our’ vision and expecting them not to have a say in it, is nothing short of naive. We’re not saying that this will lead to irreconcilable differences, but a tension-free, harmonious enlargement just seems too good to be true. A simple example is the need of new treaty, for we believe that the current Treaty of Lisbon will not fully cover the consequences of further enlargement. The more elements one has to take into account when making a new treaty, the more challenging this will be.

    Than there is the willingness of the candidate states to join the EU. The ’core’ EU supposedly has a shared understanding of what European values are – or at least should be. But we cannot close our eyes to the obvious differences just to act like one big happy family. We say no to enlargement, not because of xenophobic or conservative reasons, but because we believe that unlimited enlargement, according to us, would strip the EU of its meaning. And because we first need to work with what we have. If the EU was a solid construction, it would be a whole and other story, but we need to fix the foundations before building a new wing.

    Caroline Bauwens & Edith Salminen

  • On 9 October 2010 at 12:34, by Pietro De Matteis Replying to: Can today’s EU stand a new wave of Enlargement?

    Dear Caroline and Edith,

    thank you for your comment. Certainly, as it is the case for any project, we need to have clear in mind what it is, before being able to sharing it successfully.

    On your second point, you might have overlooked the paragraph “Quo vadis EU?” where I say: “the hope that the Union can continue its enlargement ad infinitum while maintaining the same degree of effectiveness is misplaced, especially if this is expected to be done under the same institutional framework.”

    As for the “values” issue that you raise towards the end, the membership of any country to the EU is conditional to their respect of the Copenhagen criteria. These embody what we consider the “European values”. So if a country respect those criteria, it means that it shares our values.

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