Juncker’s enlargement standstill threatens the EU’s credibility

Europe's World

Citizens' Europe

Picture of Frank Schimmelfennig
Frank Schimmelfennig

Soon after Jean-Claude Juncker won his bid last year to become the next President of the European Commission, he told the European Parliament, “no further enlargement will take place over the next five years”. He added that “ongoing negotiations will continue”, but said the EU and its citizens needed to take a break from enlargement so that we can consolidate what has been achieved and digest the addition of 13 new member states in just 10 years.

His announcement of a standstill in the EU’s expansion was in some ways unnecessary. The most recent newcomer to the EU, Croatia in 2013, closely resembles the other western Balkan candidates, and it started its accession negotiations back in 2005. Assuming that all the current candidates will need at least as long as Croatia for both the negotiations and for ratifications, Montenegro couldn’t join before 2020, and Serbia 2022. As for Turkey’s accession negotiations, they have been blocked for some time and are unlikely to move ahead soon given the political situation there. In short, no further EU enlargement would have been possible before the Juncker Commission’s term ends in 2019. Juncker must therefore have been deliberately sending an unmistakable signal that enlargement is not a policy priority for his Commission. To reinforce the message, the Directorate-General for Enlargement that had existed in the previous Commission was merged into the newly created DG responsible for both the European neighbourhood policy and for enlargement negotiations.

Juncker’s call for a “break from enlargement” appears to adhere to the mood of European public opinion rather than the institutional needs of the EU

Unfortunately, all this sends the wrong signal. It undermines the credibility of the EU’s accession process and impairs the role the Commission has long played in the stabilisation and political consolidation of its neighbours.

Juncker’s statement also unhelpfully revived an older debate that was at its peak in 2006 when it questioned the EU’s “absorption” or “integration” capacities. This, though, can easily be put to rest. Back in 2006, the EU had just brought in 10 new member states with its “big bang” enlargement, and had also made the controversial decision to admit Bulgaria and Romania in spite of their considerable shortcomings. Meanwhile, it had also lost the fight for the ratification of its ambitious Constitutional Treaty. At that time, it was far from certain that the EU would successfully integrate its new member states. Yet, ten years on, the record clearly shows that even such a major enlargement had few disruptive effects on European integration and EU policymaking.

Enlargements have done no lasting damage to the uniformity of EU law. Accession treaties have always contained transitional arrangements with derogations for the new member states from the full impact of EU rules. But these arrangements have always proven to be just that – transitional. The differentiation effects of enlargement have generally disappeared after 10 years, and the eastern enlargements were no different. “Business as usual” has been the general assessment, as the new member states have by and large inserted themselves into existing inter-governmental groupings and have anyway tended to keep a low profile.

There certainly has been no negative impact on the EU’s legislative output, and in any case the major crises in the EU have not been caused by, or even related to, enlargement. On the indisputably positive side, new member states often beat the older members when it comes to compliance with EU law; on legal and practical implementation, the newcomers systematically perform no worse than the old hands. This may be a legacy of accession processes in which conformity with EU law had such high political priority, forcing candidate governments to invest heavily in administrative capacities related to EU affairs.

Juncker’s call for a “break from enlargement” appears to adhere to the mood of European public opinion rather than the institutional needs of the EU. Opinion polls have been pointing to a considerable degree of “enlargement fatigue” among EU citizens, for although a substantial number of EU citizens are still positive on enlargement, the majority now seem opposed to further enlargements. Support for more enlargement has dwindled in practically all member states, and even in some of the candidate countries. That said, there are huge variations in public support for individual countries – between two-thirds and three-quarters of EU citizens polled have said they would welcome Iceland, Norway or Switzerland, but only a quarter to a third favour Turkish or Albanian membership.

These public attitudes are not abstract; wealthier, more democratic, culturally-closer and better-governed countries win much greater popular support for membership. In other words, declining support for enlargement reflects the fact that the most attractive countries either have already joined the EU, or aren’t interested in doing so. Instead of reacting to opinion polls, the best thing the EU can do is to inspire fresh popular support for enlargement by helping countries consolidate their democracy, strengthen their governance capacities and modernise their economies. This is what EU enlargement to southern and eastern Europe has always been about.

The EU’s enlargement strategy has with good reason long been praised as its most successful foreign policy, but it depends on the successful application of conditionality. The EU has promised neighbouring countries membership as the highest reward it can offer, in return for democratisation, peaceful conflict resolution, adherence to good governance standards and the adoption of all the EU’s rules. This conditionality stabilises the EU’s own neighbourhood and, at the same time, helps transition countries to consolidate their reform programmes.

The biggest effort of all still has to come from a candidate country itself, and the EU needs to regain its consistency in the ways it encourages their progress

But to be successful, conditionality also depends on the credibility and consistency of the EU itself; by announcing a general standstill in accession, Juncker has undermined both. Countries wanting to join the EU need to be certain that if they meet the conditions, they will get in. They also need to be sure that they will be assessed solely on the official accession criteria. The European Commission has traditionally ensured the credibility and consistency of the process because it systematically evaluates the performance of actual and potential candidate countries, and does so on the basis of reliably-sourced data. Its progress reports may sometimes be subjective in their assessments, but by and large the Commission has a reputation for being impartial. It cannot completely prevent member states’ political interests from affecting the enlargement process – for instance, Greece’s blocking of negotiations with Macedonia – but its reports cannot be ignored by member governments when deciding on enlargement.

Setting dates and timelines either for or against a candidate country’s accession would undermine the credibility of the process. In the past, the EU has rightly refused to set the firm dates that candidates generally demand. The cases of Bulgaria, Cyprus and Romania show that the would-be member’s willingness to reform wanes if it takes its accession for granted. The same is true, though, if it gets the impression that whatever it does will not speed up the process, or that their accession prospects depend on public opinion surveys or the domestic politics of member states. EU governments can perhaps not afford to ignore them, but the Commission should.

The biggest effort of all still has to come from a candidate country itself, and the EU needs to regain its consistency in the ways it encourages their progress. These countries often have difficult legacies of ethnic conflict, political instability and transitional arrangements that are bogged down by authoritarian rules and weak governance. The decade that followed the 2003 European Council in Thessaloniki marked a new accession perspective for the western Balkans, and all countries in the region have since improved their governance. Progress has mostly been slow and, except for Croatia and Montenegro, ratings on the World Governance Indicators are still negative. But on the whole, accession conditionality seems to have had a positive impact, with progress on the way to membership mirroring progress in “good governance”. It would be a pity if confusing political signals were to undermine this.

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