The EU’s rolling programme of enlargement makes the issue of maintaining EU standards a top priority. Enlargement is no longer a question of whether this or that Scandinavia country wants to join, but whether countries such as Croatia and Turkey are up to EU standards. It is also a question of keeping up the pressure on new member states to deliver on their promises to raise their performance once they have been admitted.
The historic meaning of a "standard" is a rallying point, like a battle flag in the midst of a mêlée. The EU’s forerunner, the European Coal and Steel Community, provided a rallying point in post-war Europe and in the battle against further conflict in Europe. The launch in 1957 of the European Economic Community then created a rallying point for countries wanting to promote economic development.
Over the past half a century, what was once a loose association of six states has quadrupled in membership and greatly expanded its powers. The achievement of its original purposes has also led to a shift in goals, so that maintaining and completing the Single Market is now a common rallying point. But enforcement of market standards is not so easy, when member governments still champion national enterprises and disagree about whether a market should be “social” or “free”. However, to make economics the sole reason for EU membership is to ignore political realities.
The standards applied to answer the question “What is Europe?” have frequently shifted, for geographical boundaries depend on politics. At the outset of the 20th century Europe was largely made-up of undemocratic multinational empires. Then, after World War II, the Iron Curtain divided Europe into democratic and totalitarian states until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. To invoke common traditions and culture is therefore either meaningless or contentious, while to stress Christianity ignores the Reformation, the Age of Enlightenment and the spread of secular values. The plurality of languages and histories among the EU’s 25 member states justifies describing the Union as multi-cultural, but instead of establishing clear criteria for membership, multi-culturalism can be used to diversify standards. In other words, multi-culturalism could lead us to tolerate the admission of countries whose governments want to make derogations from EU standards on the grounds that they violate their national culture.
At its 1993 Copenhagen summit, the European Council anticipated the likely wave of membership applications from central and eastern Europe and adopted clear cut criteria to determine eligibility for membership: democracy; rule of law; protection of human rights and minorities; a functioning market economy and adherence to the acquis communautaire. These standards were broad enough to give politicians "wiggle room" for bargaining. But they are also far from vacuous; for example, the Russian Federation today does not come up to EU standards as measured by the Copenhagen criteria, and it is not the only country on the perimeter of the Union that appears not to do so.
Each successive round of enlargement increases the difficulties of maintaining EU standards, because the countries applying are more diverse and have more serious problems. When Sweden and Finland applied for EU membership, there was no doubt that they met European standards. The same cannot be said of some Balkan countries, which at best still bear the scars of civil war. Likewise, the prospect of applications from successor states of the Soviet Union raises questions about the extent to which the legacy of communism may continue to cripple their national institutions.
The worst way to evaluate an applicant country is to make a decision first and then start negotiations. To signal to an applicant country that it can be confident of admission before its performance is assessed sacrifices much of the influence that the EU can exert on that country to raise its performance as a condition of entry. Similarly, signalling that membership discussions are a charade and are doomed to end in rejection removes the incentive for a country to improve its human rights or anti-corruption performance so as to gain entry to the EU.
Snap judgments, whether for or against admission, are likely to refer to such undeniable facts as the existence of a national minority within a country, or simply be based on anecdotes or recollections from old textbooks. The most insidious judgments are forecasts of the future benefits or dire consequences that will ensue if an applicant country is admitted, since the upshot will not be known until long after the EU’s decision on admission is made.
Systematic evaluation of an applicant country’s standard of governance tends to focus on the acquis communautaire, the multitude of rules and regulations accepted by member states. From Brussels’ perspective membership discussions can never be about negotiating whether the acquis is to be accepted in whole or part; this can come as an unpleasant surprise to some applicant governments. They are expected to adopt the acquis wholesale as a rigid condition of admission. The lengthy entry discussions between senior EU officials and their national counterparts are about how existing EU rules will be implemented in the applicant country.
Dealing with the technicalities of the acquis is both necessary and important, for the EU’s Single Europe Market depends on enforcing very detailed regulations of commerce and trade. Moreover, it would be very reckless to accept in good faith that the commercial codes and other laws of applicant countries are consistent with EU requirements. But the acquis process concentrates on ticking boxes and checking the minutiae of regulations, and this risks distracting attention from the evidence required to decide whether an applicant country has achieved a democratic, rule of law system of government with a functioning market economy. Moreover, applicant countries have every incentive to paint a bright picture of their achievements to date and offer a rosy scenario of the future, while Brussels-based officials have only a limited capacity to check such assertions.
Asking EU officials in Brussels about the strengths and weaknesses of a distant government is not the only way to judge how a country is governed. You can also ask the people who live there, and the New Europe Barometer (NEB) does just that. I and my colleagues at the Centre for the Study of Public Policy in Aberdeen, Scotland, have since 1991 been conducting NEB surveys of public opinion in 20 post-communist countries. Our work has been carried out in conjunction with the Paul Lazarsfeld Gesellschaft in Vienna, and these independent surveys are financed by academic bodies such as the Economic & Social Research Council in the UK.
The NEB questionnaire offers a dozen different indicators evaluating how well applicant countries are meeting the Copenhagen criteria. Whereas the Eurobarometer opinion polls ask citizens in applicant countries what they think of the European Union, the NEB asks people what they think of their own government. The most recent round of surveys in 2004/5 not only covered applicant countries but also eight of the countries that had just joined the EU. In addition, NEB surveys cover potential applicant countries and two countries that are outside the pale, Russia and Belarus.
The Copenhagen criteria set a pass/fail test: either a country is good enough to be an EU member or it is not. But how much is enough? It is counterproductive to hold applicant countries to the level of the EU's highest achievers. By definition, half the EU's current members fall below the median, so the appropriate level is a threshold. In other words, an applicant government should be no worse than the lowest-rated country that the EU admitted in 2004.
The post “big bang” NEB findings were that no single newcomer country was consistently at the bottom in comparative rankings on the Copenhagen criteria. For example, Slovaks were least inclined to see democracy as an ideal, while Latvians were least inclined to see their country's current political system as highly democratic. The Czech Republic has the most citizens worried about threats from immigrants, and Hungary has the largest minority that believes the government treats citizens unfairly. Lithuania has the fewest prosperous households, while Poland has the lowest proportion of citizens who endorse free trade.
The patchwork of opinions in countries that are either destined to join the EU before long, or aspire to, is equally diverse. Croatians tend to see their country at or above the threshold, but are divided about the Hague Tribunal's jurisdiction over war criminals. In the Ukraine, people see their government as more corrupt and more likely to lapse into dictatorship than do citizens in any of the newcomer states. Negative views are widespread among both ethnic Ukrainians and ethnic Russians. Romanians usually see their government at or above the threshold of the 2004 enlargement countries, but below it in corruption and with regard to human rights. Most Bulgarians see their government below or near the threshold on both democratic and market criteria, so on this basis the admission of Bulgaria into the EU will lower the threshold for accepting future EU applicants.
In the troubled successor states of Yugoslavia and Albania, citizens often evaluate their governments in even less favourable terms than do Bulgarians. Serbs see corruption as more widespread, and a majority think it better to save money in foreign currencies than in their national currency. A majority also believes that their national courts should try war criminals, not the Hague Tribunal. The Bosnian population is more inclined to see a serious risk of parliament being suspended, together with a severe risk of further ethnic conflict. In Macedonia, concern about a resumption of severe ethnic conflict is the highest, and there is also a high level of bribery and a preference for foreign as against national currency. Albanians believe they are more likely to have to pay bribes than people in any other Balkan country, and the risk of parliament being suspended is also seen as relatively high.
These bottom-up evaluations that citizens make of their governments are much more nuanced than the "all or nothing" decision that EU member states make about whether or not to admit an applicant. In each country, citizens see their national government as doing better on some criteria (or, at least, less bad), and worse on others. In Croatia, for example, the economy is doing well but the legacy of war remains a problem. Ukrainians are committed to democracy as an ideal, but are worried that existing democratic institutions could be replaced by a dictatorship.
The NEB surveys also identify weaknesses in the governance of some of the countries that were admitted to the EU in 2004. Among the ex-communist countries, citizens in Slovakia, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic rate their own government lower than Croatia at least once on the Copenhagen criteria, and in some cases lower than Ukraine. Only Slovenes and people in Estonia consistently rate their national government above the minimum standard.
Some longstanding EU member states have their own governance weaknesses too. Italy has, at various times, been convulsed by armed insurrection, mafia corruption and its chronic budget deficit. The UK and Ireland had to deal with political violence in Northern Ireland long before their 1973 admission to the EU - and the problem is still there. Spain, too, has its terrorist problems, and it’s fair to say that political violence by resident minorities continues to pose a threat to public order from the Netherlands to Madrid.
A pass/fail standard means that a country does not have to meet the Copenhagen criteria in their entirety to qualify for EU admission. It could meet many of them, and then promise to meet the remainder after joining. One argument for the early admission of applicant countries is that membership will create a momentum leading to a rapid improvement in a country's democracy and rule of law as well as to its economy.
But could such statements of good intention be relied upon? The short answer must be no, for the European Union lacks the means and the political will to enforce sanctions against new members that fail to deliver on their commitments. Suspending a country from EU membership might well fail to produce the result sought, and trying to expel a member state would be an unprecedented admission of failure. The large public deficits of some eurozone countries show that the bigger the problem a country presents, and countries such as France and Germany have big deficits, the less likely the rules are to be enforced.
To some degree, the fact that all EU member states could be doing better in one domain or another creates grounds for a consensus in favour of better government. But it would also be false to imply that the imperfections of Scandinavian governments are the same in shape or scope as the shortcomings of Balkan countries. The enlargement of the EU has already increased the number of member countries with more serious problems of governance, and further enlargement will surely add to these problems. Enlargement has also increased the likelihood of a backlash in longstanding member states that would widen the rift between the expansive view of Europe held in Brussels and the much more conservative and restrictive opinions held by many citizens across the European Union.
The way to avoid further enlargement creating more problems is to be stricter in applying standards of democracy and markets before admitting applicant countries. To do so does not rule out a country becoming a member in future; it is simply a statement, for which evidence can be cited, that a country is not yet up to the standard needed for EU membership. Offering "tough love" to applicant countries is more than a means of preventing the spread of bad political and economic practices within the European Union. It can also put pressure on aspirant governments to raise their standards, pressure that is in the interest of citizens who live in the Balkans and beyond.