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 increased has also the probability of forming blocking minorities, or of vetoing decision requiring unanimity in the Council. Despite the advancements brought about by the Lisbon Treaty, the EU is still 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 we are going? In short, we are once again (or still) in front of EU’s endemic problem: its lack of a common vision.
It is time to recognize that not all EU member states share the same idea of how Europe should look like, 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’.
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 not to 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, 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 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 is the number of members, 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.