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Dr Janez Drnovšek: On EU Enlargement

Quo vadis Europa?


Recently Joschka Fisher discussed the state of the European federation. Even though he spoke as a private citizen, of course there was no hiding the fact that he's the foreign minister of Germany. Reactions triggered by his performance ranged from enthusiastic approval, through somewhat reserved stances, to completely negative responses. In Fischer's vision a type of federal structure appears which (at least to us Slovenes) is distinctly reminiscent of the design of the former Yugoslav federation. And even though all evidence points to the fact that the overwhelming majority of the Slovenian population are convinced Europeans, Fischer's vision is still capable of making us feel a little uncomfortable. The Yugoslav federation failed because it united so many differences that it could actually only be held together by a basically undemocratic, even authoritarian, regime. Will the Slovenes, who succeeded in avoiding the worst chapters of Yugoslavia's bloody dissolution, really be ready to jump into a new federal adventure - even if this time it will be a European one?

Clearly the European Union's association of national states has a double goal. It is all about economic success (specifically as a European response to globalization), but it's also profoundly concerned with politico-security issues (a response to centuries of European wars). As a result of a lot of hard work, Europe is seemingly well on its way to overcoming the tragic and bloody historical experience that culminated in the two disastrous world wars that defined the 20th century. The method that has been used to overcome this legacy is to form an institutional union so solid that it would be capable of making wars within Europe impossible, even unthinkable. Centuries of war and confrontation, then, are supposed to be replaced by mutual cooperation and peaceful coexistence.

This is the crux of the ancient, previously unrealized dream of European thinkers and visionaries. But Fischer's speech raises the stakes, in a way: it opens the question of whether today's Europe is mature enough to proceed to the point where an unambiguously solid political integration, in the form of a federal system, is now possible. In this design, a European parliament and a real European government with a directly-elected president would decide matters now still in the hands of individual member states. Apart from its common internal market and common currency, such a federalized Europe would also have a common tax and social policy. The common foreign and defense policy which is already being outlined today would actually come to life within the European federation.

It goes without saying that until now the European Union has developed gradually. Sometimes it seemed that its development was conducted in a kind of fumbling way, as though European politicians were feeling their way, and testing the limits of how far they could go. They were probing the border of the acceptable: how much authority, they tacitly asked, can the European states transfer to the EU without triggering severe reactions among traditionalists and in public opinion? Clearly, politicians are generally not eager to lose elections over the idea of a united Europe. However, the shattering experience of WW II and the resource-draining military and political race with the Soviet Union during the cold war both gave plenty of motivation for decisive efforts to unite the western half of Europe. After the fall of the Berlin wall, the Soviet threat was replaced by another drive: an economic race with the United States.

And of course, the fall of the wall led to another big priority: the enlargement of the EU to the East. Acceptance, in other words, of those socialist countries which had become a kind of war booty for the Soviet Union after the Second World War. With Germany reunified, the European democracies said that they wanted to repair the historic injustice of the division of Europe, as soon as possible.

However, as just about anyone to the east of the old Iron Curtain can tell you, ten years after German reunification the process of EU enlargement is actually proceeding quite slowly. On the one hand, the Eastern candidate countries have to harmonize their political and economic systems with the so-called acquis communautaire, while on the other current EU members have to ensure their own ability to adapt EU structures and absorb new members. It can often be heard that the current number of members already places the EU at the limit of efficient functioning - and that it's virtually impossible to imagine an enlargement from 15 to 27 members in which prior changes in the EU's decision-making mechanisms haven't been carried out. For his part Fischer seems to be of the opinion that strengthening the political integration of the EU could actually lead to a more efficiently functioning system.

However, the changes currently being discussed are actually a long way from being capable of achieving a true federal system. Rather, they are about the so-called "Amsterdam remnants" - relatively minimal changes in the decision-making process that are supposed to be preconditions to the acceptance of new members. (In practice, the number of commissioners would change, as would the proportion voting in the Council of Ministers, and there is supposed to be a new formulation of votes with consensus and with a qualified majority.) It's interesting that after the presidents couldn't reach an agreement about these changes at the 1997 Amsterdam Summit, the interpretation prevailed that further EU enlargement is possible without a new inter-governmental conference. It was widely accepted that an agreement could be reached rapidly in which those members which currently have two commissioners would give one up in favor of the new members.

This is all well and good, and seems a simple enough solution, but very soon after Amsterdam, EU members started to alter this agreeable standpoint, and it became clear that this "minimalist" approach wasn't - and isn't - so welcome anymore. Member states aren't as willing as they once seemed to give up their positions. Clearly the first round of enlargement will bring a lot of discomfort and painful adjustments with it.

Meanwhile a big, EU-wide discussion is underway about possible changes intended to enhance the efficiency of the decision-making process. In practice it appears that the bigger member states are trying to reduce the influence of the smaller ones, and of course the opposite is happening as well: the smaller ones are struggling, almost convulsively, not to be marginalised. Given all that, many wince at the thought of 12 new members joining anytime soon. Won't this render an already cumbersome decision-making process entirely nontransparent and ineffective? Concurrently, the fear of many countries that they will be outvoted in important matters that influence the lives of their citizens is completely understandable and justified.

And of course there is an additional discomfort on the candidate countries' side. Despite occasionally being invited to consultations, they are de facto excluded from making decisions about the future EU structure - even though it will directly affect them when they will become members. Meanwhile they're justifiably afraid that problems in changing the EU's decision-making process will influence the tempo of enlargement. In spite of the declared decision to enlarge the EU, in practice the member states have numerous instruments at their disposal though which they can slow enlargement down - all the while blaming the candidate countries for "inadequate" or "slow" adaptation to their demanding strictures. Such a paradoxical, double-edged feeling was also brought about by a decision, accepted at the Helsinki Summit of late 1999, to raise the number of candidate countries from 6 to 12. While on one level this may have been an important and praiseworthy decision, offering as it does the prospect of joining the EU to the more remote candidates, it also creates a sense that the already torpid pace of enlargement has only been further reduced, delaying still further the accession of the first group. Such fears were confirmed in the first months of this year, when the European Commission in fact slowed down the pace of negotiations with the first group. All of this of course adds a new dimension to the perception that institutional changes are necessary to enable the accession of new countries. Clearly, more thorough changes are necessary, even though it's clear that some candidate countries will not be qualified for membership for at least another decade. In the end it might well happen that some countries from the first group that will be ready to join the EU very soon will be curbed by the actual unpreparedness of the EU.

The EU is now seeking a way out of this quandary, but the problem is that that members have different views on European integration. With some faced by a strong eurosceptic strain, talk about expanding the association puts some governments into a difficult domestic political situation. Great Britain and Denmark, for example, haven't even accepted the Euro yet, and are trying to prepare public opinion for a referendum on the subject. Understandably enough, Fischer's talk about a federation has had the effect of making them particularly nervous. (For the British in particular, the Euro and a common European tax policy sometimes seem light years away.) It's hard to put all 15 members on common denominator, let alone add to the equation that line of candidates waiting to enter.

Consequently, the very serious possibility enters the game that different speeds will be employed. Countries that are capable and ready to go on, in this vision, can; others will join when they are able. In this scheme, the slower ones aren't supposed to be able to curb the faster ones. Such a model actually already started with Schengen and the Euro, even if more as the exception than the rule. But in today's Europe, flexibility seems necessary to ensure the deepening and widening of integration, even if it also contains dangers. (For example, a multi-speed Europe can establish some long-term differences capable of doing harm to the spirit of joint functioning, and perhaps become a disturbing factor in further integration. Another danger perhaps more noticeable among the candidate countries is the perception that two categories of members will be accepted - essentially a first and second class. To some it seems as if the core of the current membership is trying to escape the potential changes brought to European integration by new members, essentially by leaping ahead into some higher form of membership.)

As all of this makes clear, Europe is facing some truly difficult challenges. Apart from the demanding project of introducing the common European currency, it set itself a task in Helsinki of establishing a common European foreign and defense policy. Just as the introduction of a common internal market and common currency was a necessary response to global economic competition, so a common European foreign and defense policy is a reflection of the European experience in seeking a solution to the Yugoslav crises. That decision needed time to mature in order to be accepted by EU member states without any particular domestic political problems. A decade of Yugoslav wars served to illustrate the fact that the EU isn't capable of solving crisis situations in its own region without the US (something true in both diplomatic and military affairs). Helsinki represents only a beginning, and Europe is still not able to speak with one foreign-policy voice, but the foundations have been laid. Still, it will take a long time before Europe is independent from the US in the military sense, and in fact there is a widespread perception that such independence isn't really desirable, even if EU countries are already taking on a more independent role (for example, in peace-keeping operations in Kosovo).

So while Europe may be making promises to deepen and widen its association, it's actually still only gathering experiences. While at times it seems to make unexpectedly bold strides, its other mode appears to be more hesitant, a kind of fumbling progress. As Romano Prodi recently stated, for the first time Europe is uniting peacefully and democratically - truly a first in history. Until this period, European history knew only attempts at unification achieved by military force. And that's why a big responsibility rests on the current generation of European leaders, who have to finish this work successfully and without missteps capable of jeopardizing what has already been achieved. Europe has to find the right enlargement pace. While it can't afford to stagnate, going too fast could also be counterproductive. Decisions, in other words, need a chance to mature, and more as a result of concrete experience then due to some rigidly preset plans and visions. The vision of a European federation as outlined by Fischer is useful as the starting point of a discussion, but we shouldn't necessarily ascribe too much weight to it, lest it produce exactly the opposite effect of what it intends to achieve. To put it another way, too big a dose of the European cure runs the risk of killing the horse. European politicians will have to do some hard thinking before they offer their citizens a European federation that they would not necessarily accept with conviction as theirs. There is real danger here: an overly ambitious pace could open too much ground to national populists who could act, probably quite effectively, against the proffered European superstate. While the direction may be right, the size of each stride now has to be set correctly.

Six months of French EU presidency lie ahead. As one of the EU's cornerstone states, France will no doubt attempt to achieve a consensus backing the most pressing changes in the EU decision-making system by the end of 2000. Some expect that the time-table for enlargement could be set with the first candidate states during this period, but I doubt it. As outlined above, the enlargement process is more likely to become a victim of contemporary European fears. Probably it will only be politically palatable to set relatively short deadlines for accepting new members at the meeting in Nice at the end of 2000. This year was supposed to be the one where a breakthrough occurred - one when negotiations with the first group of candidate countries was to be completed. Such a time frame was implicitly envisaged in the last year's report of the European Commission, and ratification by the member states was to have followed. However, as I have outlined, the events that followed simply don't justify much optimism. If the general mood isn't in favor of fast enlargement, we can expect that after Nice the EU will remain stuck in the haze of some general formulations, without a concrete definition of the time frame. If such a situation develops, we can expect to find some new critical emphases in the evaluation of the most advanced candidate countries in the next yearly report of the European Commission. These nominally problematic evaluations will be designed to justify an even slower pace.

I'm not arguing, of course, that the pace of expansion should be unendurable, or that it should get ahead of the ability of the EU countries to adapt to and absorb new countries. And clearly this will depend a great deal on the negotiations on institutional reforms to take place in the forthcoming months. In spite of all these delays, there is a quite lot of awareness that enlargement of the Union is necessary. It's true that the EU member states have already used the instrument of the accession agreements to ensure substantial access to the markets of the candidates countries. In fact, they're achieving big surpluses in trade with them. But one resulting attitude seems to be: we already have the markets, why should we put our effort into further integration? Unfulfilled promises about integrating the part of Europe that spent four and a half decades under the Soviet yoke would not only represent a problem of conscience. It also runs the risk of leading directly to a new divisions of Europe. This in turn could lead to everything the EU is trying to avoid: instability, crises, perhaps even wars.

It's true that the possible consequences of not integrating the Central and Eastern countries were felt much more vividly by European citizens and politicians right after the fall of the Berlin wall. This was when promises were made, a process was started, and a dynamic put into motion. It's very hard to imagine that today somebody would act explicitly against EU enlargement, even if they would like to. Instead, they can set additional conditions and try to delay the inevitable. If one is too direct with such blocking techniques, however, the kind of reaction Jorg Haider recently received is always a possibility.

In conclusion, France is now faced with a truly important mission. The development of the EU in the next few years will to a great extent depend on its success in the next months. Recently the French have tried to reestablish the kind of close cooperation with Germany that was so successful, during the last decades, in generating momentum towards greater European integration. The Franco-German proposals for changes to the EU's decision-making system perhaps benefits the bigger European states the most, and anyway a constructive compromise is by now means assured yet. Still, many times in history, when important European reforms were at stake, agreement was somehow reached at the very last moment.
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