Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Why enlargement is in trouble

by Katinka Barysch

It is five years since the EU admitted eight Central and East European countries, followed by another two in 2007. To celebrate this anniversary, Commissioner Olli Rehn has just released a report that explains how these countries have benefited from integrating into the EU. But any jubilant mood was dimmed by the current economic crisis in Central and Eastern Europe; and by the bleak outlook for further accessions.

There are long-standing and well-known reasons why enlargement to Turkey and the Western Balkans is proceeding so slowly: the political instability and economic backwardness of most of the current applicants; the enlargement fatigue of many West Europeans; the specific questions that Austrian, French and other politicians ask about Turkey’s European destiny.

But there is another, more specific reason why enlargement is in trouble just now: various existing EU members are holding enlargement hostage to bilateral issues they have with some applicant or other. EU governments have always thrown their specific worries or pet projects into accession negotiations. But the boldness with which some now hold up the entire process to get what they want is almost unprecedented.

The most blatant example is Slovenia’s spat with Croatia over a stretch of Mediterranean border. Croatia was hoping to wrap up its accession negotiations this year so that it can join in 2010. But while 26 EU countries (and the European Commission) wanted to open ten new ‘chapters’ in the negotiations in 2008, Slovenia vetoed all but one. Since then, the political atmosphere between Ljubljana and Zagreb has become so poisonous that the EU has called in Nobel Prize winning diplomatic Martti Ahtisaari to find a way out.

Cyprus, meanwhile, is blocking several chapters in Turkey’s accession talks, probably in the hope of gaining leverage in the peace talks that are going on in the divided island. France is also holding up the talks, but for more profound reasons: since Nicolas Sarkozy prefers a ‘privileged partnership’, he argues that Turkey need not bother with those chapters of the acquis that are only relevant for full members.

Meanwhile, the Dutch government is vetoing an EU-Serbia ‘stabilisation agreement’ (an important step on the path towards candidate status) because it wants Belgrade to first deliver Ratko Mladic to the war-crimes tribunal in The Hague. Greece is holding Macedonia’s application hostage to its long-running dispute over the country’s proper name. Although Macedonia has had official candidate status since 2005, the Council has not yet asked the Commission for an ‘opinion’ on the country’s readiness. Without this report, the negotiations cannot start. Already, Brussels-watchers speculate which EU nation could impose a veto over a possible application from Iceland, perhaps over fishing rights.

One high-level Commission official warns that bilateral issues could “suffocate the enlargement agenda”. This would be a dangerous development in what is going to be a crucial year for accession. Albania, Bosnia and Serbia are planning to hand in their formal applications for membership this year, as Montenegro already did at the end of 2008. The EU needs to stand ready to respond in an encouraging and constructive way, not with the stony silence that has met recent advances from countries in the Western Balkans.

Turkey’s accession could also be heading for trouble this year. The EU is due to review the implementation of the ‘Ankara protocol’ under which Turkey is obliged to open up its ports and airports for ships and planes from Cyprus. Turkey is unlikely to comply unless there is progress in the peace talks between northern and southern Cyprus – a faint prospect after 40 years of divisions. Some EU governments will insist that Turkey’s accession process will be put on hold. Even if there were no such demands, there are now so many bilateral vetoes on different bits of the Turkish accession talks that the EU would simply run out of chapters to negotiate with Ankara.

Only a big political push can resolve these multiple deadlocks. But most EU members are not keen on moving enlargement along. West Europeans will be even more fearful of cheap competition from eastern newcomers now that their economies are in recession and unemployment is rising everywhere. EU governments will be cautious not to take any unpopular decisions on enlargement ahead of the elections to the European Parliament in June 2009 and the second Irish referendum on the Lisbon treaty in the autumn. By then, however, irreparable damage could already have been done to the credibility of the enlargement process, especially if the accession of Croatia – by far the best prepared of the current aspirants – was foiled or delayed because of a bilateral border spat.

EU governments need some vision here. They should conclude a ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ not to veto accessions because of bilateral grievances. They need to find a way of keeping Turkey’s accession process alive even if no breakthrough is achieved in Cyprus this year. And they should allow the Commission to get going with the opinions on the Western Balkans countries. The debate on whether these countries are ready to join the EU should be conducted on the basis of these reports, not ahead of them.

Katinka Barysch is deputy director of the Centre for European Reform.


Anonymous said...

A 'gentlemen's agreement'?
The most difficult part will be finding a gentleman among the current pitiful selection of EU leaders.

Anonymous said...

Excellent theses... I agree with Anonymous that it will be hard to find gentlemen since the EU allowed some of its member states to demonstrate the position of strength for quite some time in the bilateral issues (based solely on its veto right granted by the Union. Also some of the issues have been raised on national populist level so any present attempt for reaching consensus might mean political suicide for the required gentlemen.

Anonymous said...

Interesting thoughts. But in my opinion the real breakthrough will come when the Germans block somebody's accession (Turkey's? Ukraine's?), saying "this is just too costly". Seems less unthinkable today than just a few years ago, doesn't it?.

Anonymous said...

A key question remains unanswered in this piece – WHY ENLARGE FURTHER