Of crises and carrots: reflections on enlargement

By Marta Palombo | 4 February 2013

To quote this document: Marta Palombo, “Of crises and carrots: reflections on enlargement”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Monday 4 February 2013, http://www.nouvelle-europe.eu/node/1635, displayed on 22 March 2023

The most common expression to describe the status of the European Union enlargement in the times of the Eurozone crisis is “enlargement fatigue”. But besides being more or less willing to accept new members, is the EU still as attractive, in a moment when it seems shaken by centrifugal forces?

Last year, an Italian website published an article titled “Who is in the EU wants to get away, but outside there is a queue to get in”. Indeed, the European Union has traditionally been a pole of attraction, not only for the ideological reasons of the realisation of the European project of a unified, peaceful and prosperous Europe; but also (and many say most importantly) for the economic gains of being part of the EU club, from the single market to structural funds. Enlargement (or rather the promise of enlargement) has always been the most effective incentive that the EU could give in order to obtain compliance from third countries to European norms. In other words, enlargement is the EU’s biggest carrot, and we all seem to agree on that. But how has the difficult period the European Union is going through influenced this policy?

Enlargement from inside: a too expensive carrot?

Behind the nice and colourful webpage of the European Commission on enlargement, new member states could be not very welcome. With twelve new member states in the 20th century, thirteen with Croatia this year, the EU has according to many reached its limits, at least for the moment. Arguments against enlargement include institutional overload, as well as the danger that “widening” might be an alternative to “deepening”. Moreover, the last enlargement to Romania and Bulgaria has really raised the question of the respect of the EU accession criteria, as these countries clearly arguably didn’t meet the requirements at the time they became EU member states, especially in terms of corruption and quality of democracy.

In times of crisis, more than ever, money matters. Enlargement certainly brings stability and security, but the bill to pay, in terms of transfer to new and less rich Member States, is too high for the moment. Without even mentioning the strengthened fear in public opinion of immigration of cheap labour from poorer countries. In the current economic reality, political leaders find it difficult to uphold these arguments, and the narrative is centred on the “lack of energy” of the EU to continue enlargement. The advantages of enlargement for exporters and investors in older member states, or the strategic benefit of admitting new member states, are put aside.

Enlargement from outside: a rotten carrot?

The reluctance of EU member states to enlarge the Union is not a particularly surprising or new issue. What has changed more with the Euro area crisis is perhaps the position of potential Member States. In fact, if we assume that the main reasons for third countries to enter the Union are economic, the current instability and problems in the Euro area certainly diminish the European appeal. And this seems true from the Mediterranean to the Artic Sea.

The next member state, Croatia, held a referendum in January last year, asking its population if they wanted to join the EU. And yes, 66% of voters backed the membership. But the turnout at the elections was of merely 44%. This does not prevent the referendum from being valid, but can raise the question of the real support of the Croatian population for the EU.

Iceland is another case where euroscepticism is slowing down negotiations. In August last year, the coalition governments had some tensions on the issue whether EU accession is in the interest of the nation. It is interesting that Iceland applied for the full EU membership in July 2009, at a time when it was badly hit by the crisis. But now that it has recovered, it is taking more seriously the uncertainty and political and economic problems of Europe.

Serbia, a candidate since March last year, also looks more aware of the limits of the European economic model, and is increasingly reluctant to open its economy to European integration. The dream of convergence seems to be fading away, also due to the many conditions that the EU requires it to meet: accession conditions for membership; pre-accession condition for accession, it all seems a strategy to delay the entrance of the country in the Union, and this makes resentment grow.

Even Turkey, who has been asking to join the EU since 1987, for more than twenty-five years, seems now to be less motivated to comply to the demands of the European Union, in particular as its economy is doing well, better than in Europe.

From enlarging to shrinking Europe?

The fact that candidate countries are less prone to join the EU should be taken seriously. Perhaps European member states do not want more members in their club; but for sure they want the European foreign policy to be effective, and they don’t want to lose their normative and bargaining power over third countries. And enlargement remains the EU’s biggest carrot, also in times of crisis.

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