Throughout the last decades, EU enlargement has been the most successful tool of European foreign policy. We as EPP always supported this, because the European perspective has been the most powerful driver behind democratic reforms in our neighbour countries. Enlargement used to be the guarantee for peace and stability in Europe, reaching its climax in 2004, when 10 new Member States from Middle and Eastern Europe joined the Union. However, with this round of enlargement the EU also reached the limits of its absorption capacity.
By Elmar Brok
Nevertheless, the next stages for enlargement have been already fixed: Bulgaria and Romania could join the EU already next year; Turkey and Croatia have been granted candidate status. The alarming thing about this development is that at present, the EU neither possesses the institutional nor the financial capacity to shoulder the integration of additional countries. As a matter of fact, the Union is on the verge of being overstretched. Consequently, the two most important challenges for the EU in the next months will be to introduce the long overdue institutional reforms and to find a different enlargement strategy. These facts have been recognised by the EPP a long time ago and will be among the central subjects to be discussed during the Rome EPP congress.
Concerning the institutional structure of the EU, we are still working with the outdated rules of the Treaty of Nice that go back to a Community of six members. The necessary institutional reforms for 25 Member States have not been implemented yet due to the uncertain outcome of the ratification process of the Constitution for Europe. However, only the Constitution will introduce the changes to ensure the EU’s capacity to act with 25 or more members in the long term. Moreover, without the Constitution there would be no strengthening of civil rights, no binding values through a charter of basic rights, no strengthening of democratic legitimacy and subsidiarity – by strengthening national parliaments -, as well as no transparency, no better procedure for decision-making, no strengthening of the role of the EU world-wide, and no connection to price stability and social market economy. In short, we need the Constitution to bring the Union back on track.
But even if there was a prompt implementation of institutional reforms we still need to revise our enlargement policy. The example of Turkey illustrates quite well why. After starting the negotiations on accession, the Council now unanimously has to open and to close each of the 35 chapters to be negotiated. If only one of these votes fails there will be a problem. With the current binary option of “everything or nothing”, we can only reject candidate countries not fulfilling all of the accession criteria or accept compromises that are neither in the EU’s nor in the candidates’ interest. The referenda on enlargement, which e.g. have been announced in France and Austria, will create the same dilemma.
Consequently, based on my report, the European Parliament adopted in March a resolution on a new enlargement strategy. The crucial point of this new approach is the Copenhagen accession criterion of absorption capacity. In the future, the EU cannot allow any further accessions as long as it is not capable of fulfilling the accession promise itself. Hence, the European Parliament’s decision calls upon the Commission to submit a report by the end of this year setting out the principles which underpin the concept of EU’s absorption capacity. Only then this criterion will become operational. Further, the new strategy introduces an “intermediary step” between the European Neighbourhood and full membership. With this third option we could provide our neighbours with a European perspective without exposing ourselves to the pressure of a promise for accession that we cannot keep. This voluntary option would be open to all countries who currently are not EU members, including among others those that have been promised an EU perspective in Thessaloniki, like the Ukraine and Belarus which still today is suffering under a kind of dictatorship. They all must have such a European perspective in order to keep their way directed towards Europe and to keep up the internal pressure for reforms.
This additional step in integration could take the shape of a “European Economic Area plus” (EEA+). In the style of the EEA, partner countries could adopt step by step approximately 40-60 % of EU legislation. Closer co-operation on a multilateral basis would then be possible, e.g. in the fields of the Internal Market, environmental issues and security of borders. At the end of this intermediary step full membership would be a much easier possibility, provided that on both sides the necessary criteria are fulfilled and that there is still the wish to take this final step. For instance, in 1995 the EEA-members Austria, Finland and Sweden joined the EU while Norway decided to abstain from full membership. Nevertheless, Norway today is a very close partner of the EU, e.g. in the framework of the Schengen agreement. In the future, such an approach would provide the EU with more room to manoeuvre in view of the different levels of development of the candidate countries. The dilemma of conducting negotiations over years and then facing a binary “yes or no” decision could thus be overcome.
This will be a crucial subject matter during the EPP congress. We must see how European integration can be given new momentum – without undermining decisions that have already been taken, like those of Thessaloniki. During the process we have to be careful not to risk the project of a strong political union which is capable to act at all times. The new enlargement strategy could help making EU enlargement what it used to be: A catalyst for democracy, rule of law and peace in Europe.
Elmar Brok is chairman of the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee.