The EU?s ?slow food? enlargement

The EU enlargement debate used to be about expanding freedoms and preventing conflict. But a lot of Europeans now think that whatever lies outside the EU?s borders can stay there.

A European foreign minister recently told me he could not remember when one
of his colleagues last used the word “enlargement”. Not in a perfunctory,
tick-boxing kind-of-way, but as a serious expression of an EU country’s foreign
policy. It is easy to understand the reticence. The implementation of the
Lisbon Treaty has proven more difficult than many assumed and is sucking the
energy out of the EU system. There is no time to think about large projects,
let alone ones of a constitutional order like enlargement.

there is fall-out from the Greek crisis which has made it hard
for most European politicians to argue that the EU should be expanded further.
If after twenty years of EU integration the Greek government cannot be trusted,
who will take the Serbian government at its word, or the Kosovo authorities on
theirs? If the EU expands, does it mean that Germany will have to bail out a new
slew of poor, budget-fiddling states? Questions such as these has now made
enlargement an issue of mass politics not elite foreign policy – votes will be
won or lost in Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and France on whether to
enlarge the EU further or not.  

And this is key. For a future enlargement – the EU’s fifth if it takes place
– has no vote-wining rationale that can overcome the concerns of voters about
migration, and large transfers of revenue. Enlargement used to be about the
expansion of freedom, of reuniting a divided Europe by bringing the recently
freed people of Spain, Portugal and Greece, and later the down-trodden citizens
of Eastern Europe into the European mainstream. A few years after the EU’s
eastward enlargement, the talk turned to expanding the EU into Southeast Europe as a way of staving off further

furtherance of freedom and the prevention of war were two
persuasive arguments for EU enlargement that most politicians were happy to
advance and most voters were content to accept. But neither of these arguments
holds sway today among most Europeans. Watching TV, they see no enslaved people
to free, no Berlin Walls to tear down. When they travel to Croatia on
holiday – as thousands do every year – they do not see poverty, and a people in
need of EU support; they see a beautiful, well-to-do country.

Finally, the governments of Southeast Europe
look less keen to do what it takes to qualify for EU membership. Sure, when
they are offered the prospect of visa-free travel they do what is necessary,
but the EU has few other incentives as attractive as visa-free travel. 
Adopting the rest of the acquis
– the body of law which states have to enact to join the EU –
has proven effective at building potential member-states, i.e. polities that
can comply with EU law, but also key to creating viable and effective states.
However, it is not a process with quick-wins, and early rewards. It is a
long-term effort, the benefits of which only come into view over time.  

As such,
it requires a real desire for EU integration and a willingness
to trade short-term cost for long-term gain – a calculation that politicians in
Southeast Europe are finding harder to make than
their Central European counterparts. But it is not all the fault of local
politicians. Even those who are keen on European integration struggle to craft
a vote-winning, reformist narrative – because Europe
is less attractive than before. Europe’s
economies have looked more vulnerable than those of many applicant countries.
Furthermore, many of the ailments that EU membership was thought to cure —
like minority disputes — have returned to haunt even EU states, as witnessed
by the recent Slovak-Hungarian dispute.  

The proponents of enlargement say none of this matter. They point to
Eurobarometer, a Europe-wide poll, which shows there has been no significant
decrease in support for enlargement in recent years. They also argue that
enlargement has not been linear, but has moved in fits and starts. So it may
slow down for a while, but it will pick up again. Finally, they argue that
there is no alternative but to enlarge the EU. How else can the EU hope to deal
with the problems in Southwest Europe – like
crime, conflict, and illegal immigration? Only reforms can build the kind of
states that can deal with these problems – and only the prospect of enlargement
can drive short-sighted politicians to mend their ways.  

pro-enlargement advocates may be right in all these things. But
they may still fail to convince Europe’s
leaders that enlargement should continue in the short or even mid-term –
because EU governments think the price of enlargement is higher than the cost
of stasis. To most Europeans, Europe is
already free and whole. What remains outside the EU could stay outside. Unlike
before, there is no an argument-winning response in favour of enlargement.

This does not mean enlargement is dead. But it means it could be on hold for
at least a decade or so, with the possible exception of Croatia’s entry
into the EU in 2012 or 2013. It also means the EU and the applicant states in Southeast Europe may need to take a ‘slow food’ approach
to integration, benefiting from the process itself, rather than its nutritional
value, i.e. the act of accession. EU leaders, in turn, need to do everything
they can to keep some kind of enlargement process going – accepting the
applications from applicant states, and allowing the so-called screening
process to begin, whereby the EU determines the differences that exist between
the national legislation and the acquis

Everyone reared on fast food will find the change of pace difficult, but a slow
food approach may be more beneficial in the end.

This piece was first published by Global Europe.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Former Senior Policy Fellow

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