‘Enlargement fatigue’ and the multiple challenges of maintaining momentum during the accession process

Posted on 08. January 2015

by Marsida Bandilli

marsida-bandilliInitially envisaged as a Member State-driven procedure, enlargement has become a comprehensive policy whereby the Union actively engages with the applicants’ preparation for membership. Despite that, it has become clear that with the arrival of the new President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, enlargement is not the Commission’s top priority. Instead, jobs and growth, the Energy Union, a balanced trade agreement with the USA, reforming the monetary union and the further integration of the Eurozone are placed at the top of the policy agenda for the next Commission.

However, the Commission’s latest Communication concerning the Enlargement Strategy, published in October, promised a stronger focus on addressing fundamental reforms early in the enlargement process. No matter how many the attempts to keep enlargement policy at the centre of the new Commission’s policy agenda, chances are that enlargement will be put on hold for the next few years. When Jean-Claude Juncker presented the Commission Work Programme – a first set of concrete actions based on the Commission’s ten priorities – to the European Parliament, he mentioned that:

“When it comes to enlargement, this has been a historic success. However, Europe now needs to digest the addition of thirteen Member States in the past ten years. Our citizens need a pause from enlargement so we can consolidate what has been achieved among the twenty-eight. This is why, under my Presidency of the Commission, ongoing negotiations will of course continue, and notably the Western Balkans will need to keep a European perspective, but no further enlargement will take place over the five years. As regards Turkey, the country is clearly far away from EU membership. A government that blocks twitter is certainly not ready for accession.”

In May 2004, the largest single expansion of the European Union in terms of territory, number of states and population occurred. The tenth anniversary of the accession happened during the European Parliament’s elections – a crucial moment for the EU. It served as a reminder of the progress achieved and how those countries have benefitted by joining the EU; trade and investment have increased, the quality of life of citizens has been improved and EU standards on environmental, consumer and labour protection are more widely accepted. It also shows that a well prepared accession process, followed by enlargement, does not need to be at the expense of the effectiveness of the Union.

However, enlargement of the EU is more than the territorial expansion of EU membership rights and obligations to other European states and people. Enlargement triggers new policy demands on the Union, alters its institutional functioning and affects its legal corpus. The development of the terms under which the EU admits an additional member, and how the Member States co-opt another peer also results from the specific needs of such an expansion process.

Although the EU’s enlargement policy contributes to the mutual benefits of peace, security and prosperity in Europe, it is a matter of urgent vs. important. Reinforcing the EU’s political and economic strengths is an urgent matter for Europe nowadays. This is the main reason why the Commission’s work will continue to focus on supporting investments, boosting jobs and growth. The EU has been working hard to move decisively beyond the crisis and create the conditions for a more competitive economy with higher employment. “My number one priority will be to get Europe growing again and to get people back to work”, said Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the Commission. The extended economic crisis has damaged EU solidarity so much that it also had a detrimental impact on enlargement by shifting the attention from enlargement to ‘more urgent matters’ for Europe.

The current enlargement agenda covers candidate countries Albania, Montenegro, Serbia, Macedonia (*FYROM), Turkey and Iceland and potential candidate countries Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo. Even though the countries of the Western Balkans see the perspective of EU membership as a key stabilising factor, a ‘big bang’ expansion is less likely to happen in the nearby future. To a certain degree, the accession of Croatia in July 2013 provides a template for other Western Balkan states as they seek to transpose and implement the EU’s acquis communautaire and advance their membership prospects.

At the same time, the enlargement fatigue continues to prevail. It is a concept widely popularised through the media, and it is mostly referred to as the reason for the unwillingness of some of the Union members to admit new countries. It makes Europe reflect again on the prospective of enlargement and the outcome of the three past accession rounds. In any case, enlargement will continue to be one of the most divisive issues in the EU.

To conclude: the accession process is a rigorous one – more so than it used to be in the past – built on strict but fair conditionality, established criteria and own merit. This reflects the evolution of EU policies and the lessons learned from previous enlargements. This is crucial for the credibility of enlargement policy, for providing incentives for applying countries to implement far-reaching reforms and for ensuring the support of EU citizens. In order to keep this policy area alive – and relevant – Member States, together with the EU institutions, should lead an informed debate on the political, economic and social impact of the EU’s enlargement policy.