EU Enlargement: Present and Future Perspectives

By Annamária Tóth | 7 October 2012

To quote this document: Annamária Tóth, “EU Enlargement: Present and Future Perspectives”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Sunday 7 October 2012,, displayed on 02 April 2023

Is EU enlargement a successful foreign policy instrument? What are the effects of enlargement on specific countries? Where does the EU stand now and what is the future of enlargement? These are just some of the questions asked on 29 April 2011, at the conference “Candidate Countries: With or Without You?”

“Enlargement policy is at a turning point,” Gaëtane Ricard-Nihoul, Political Analyst at the European Commission Representation in Paris, explained in her opening remarks. Inside the EU, there is growing enlargement fatigue and there are other topics on the top of the EU agenda, such as the economic and financial crisis. In addition, Member States that have traditionally supported enlargement have changed their position, she explained in accordance with the later contribution of Jean-Dominique Giuliani, President of the Robert Schuman Foundation. Outside the EU, there is rising scepticism on part of the candidates and potential candidates, while inside the EU the very core of enlargement is increasingly questioned: “We have created categories like candidates, potential candidates, and so on. But we have not solved the question of EU borders,” Allain Barrau, Director of the Information Bureau of the European Parliament in France, mentioned another challenge. For example, “do we want Turkey? Does Turkey want us? Enlargement is blocked until these questions are solved.”

What does Iceland want?

“Iceland is already very European,” Berglind Asgeirsdottir, Ambassador of Iceland to France, said in her presentation. A member of EFTA, Iceland has two-thirds of its trade with the EU, and three quarters of the EU directives have already been put in place, except for regional policies, agriculture and fisheries, which remain “a touchy issue”. What poses Iceland “a kind of democratic deficit,” is its membership in the European Economic Area (EEA): “We participate in the Union without any voting rights.” Explaining the benefits of Iceland's accession on both sides, the ambassador pointed to the difficult financial situation of the country: “We are the smallest nation with its own currency and this brings about many fluctuations.” Thus, joining EMU was a priority. The ambassador also referred to the importance of a social Europe: Iceland's labour unions have seen some success because of EEA membership; in some fields, they have advanced more than in national negotiations. As for the EU, Iceland could serve as a positive example, especially in the framework of the 2020 strategy: “All houses in Iceland are heated by renewable energy.”

“We will win the referendum” in Croatia

In Croatia, the biggest challenge after the accession negotiations will be the referendum among the citizens. [Author's note: The outcome of the referendum in January 2012 was positive.] Goran Stefanić, First Counsellor at the Croatian Embassy in Paris, pointed out that three-quarters of Croats indicated that they would participate in the referendum in a recent public opinion survey. Of these, slightly less than two thirds (59%) would be for Croatia's accession: they see the EU as a guarantee for stability, peace, and the rule of law and want to be part of the greatest economy of the world. However, a third of Croatia's citizens are against EU membership: they fear a loss of sovereignty, national identity and the Croatian language, as well as the loss of traditional structures such as small artisanship. They do not want the EU to dictate the rules, and fear it will be similar to the former Yugoslavia. Finally, they are often uninformed about how the EU works. “This is why the Croatian government is starting a promotion campaign,” Stefanić concluded enthusiastically. As for the results, he added, “I am sure that we will win the referendum.” Stefanić was equally optimistic concerning the last stage of negotiations and pointed out that Croatia would be a net contributor to the EU: “We do not join because of money but because of the euro: it is because we want to ensure stability that we want to join.”

Turkey and the EU: What relations for the future?

For the Director of the Bosphorus Institute Serap Atan, “the enlargement process and especially enlargement towards Turkey should not be seen as a question of today.” Despite the enlargement fatigue of today “the EU is to expand in order to count economically and politically on the world stage.” As for the new forms of relationships with candidates, she believed that “the way it is developed after the accession of the Eastern European countries, the process of enlargement is open ended by nature”. Therefore, “the privileged partnership does not offer a genuine perspective. It is not well defined and its feasibility in terms of the decision-making mechanisms in the EU is questionable. Moreover, the way it is presented to Turkey serves only to deteriorate confidence between the two parties.”

Accession Criteria: Out of Sync with Public Opinion and in Need of Reform?

Jean-Dominique Giuliani set a focus on why the enlargement fatigue has come so far. First, Giuliani pointed out that the EU had to become a strong political actor: “The EU is not diplomacy, it is politics.” This is why he agreed with ALDE group MEP Sylvie Goulard that the European External Action Service (EEAS) has not so far provided a clear stance on EU foreign policy. Second, within the EU, enlargement is seen as beneficial for the new, but not the older members. For Giuliani, this becomes clear when looking at Council and Commission decisions: they demonstrate a reluctance on part of the Union to accept new countries. Given this reluctance, Giuliani concluded, “one should question the relevance of the accession criteria.” More than that, Giuliani urged to “revise the enlargement policy”. For the time being, “the way the issue is addressed, there is a lack of firmness and of political will. Even if there is disagreement within the Council, the Commission has to act.”

Structural deficiencies are blocking the EU's success

"The important question now is stabilising North Africa and showing what is at the centre of European values," Sylvie Goulard defined new priorities. Goulard also criticised the lack of a clear stance towards enlargement. Against Turkish enlargement in 2004, her position has not changed ever since: the EU was not ready to admit a country like Turkey and therefore, opening negotiations had been a mistake. "There are no good and bad, old and new Member States," Goulard said about the success of the last enlargement round. Rather, there were deficiencies inside the Union, both on the institutional and the civic level (rising populism), which were hindering a good advancement. Thus, Goulard urged for the adoption of a rotating college of Commissioners and criticised the EEAS' structure: "We have to stop creating 27 posts every time there is something new. We have to clearly define the jobs we offer and occupy them with people who understand what they are doing." Finally, Goulard also criticised "the cartel of nationalisms" that the Council was in her eyes, pointing for instance to the "absurd" debate about the budget.

“Fuzzy” membership

So, if there is an enlargement fatigue both in and outside of the EU, what is the future of enlargement? Are there any alternatives other than a standstill? For Heather Grabbe, Director of the Open Socety Institute in Brussels, enlargement has always gone hand in hand with integration: “deepening and widening are allies.” There are, however, other issues blocking enlargement, such as the political context: “It is bad luck for the Balkans and Turkey to negotiate at a time when European economy has just been in a crisis.” It is difficult to come up with real alternatives to membership, even though examples such as the neighbourhood policy were designed with these goals. “The EU was made for membership and a close relationship without the membership perspective is hard to establish,” Grabbe summed up. Nevertheless, Grabbe outlined some asymmetries in which current developments seem to be going. For example, together with Serbia, Turkey could be included in Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) positions. Grabbe concluded that these options, together with current asymmetries in Schengen, EMU, or the EEA, “are making boundaries between a member and a non-member more and more fuzzy.”

“A broad vision” of enlargement and its future

Gerald Knaus, Chairman of the European Stability Initiative (ESI) currently based in Istanbul, shed light on recent changes in the EU's enlargement strategy: after the Balkan wars, it was at the 1999 Helsinki summit that the European leaders adopted “an extremely broad vision of enlargement.” This is the strategy that is still in force today. For Knaus, this policy has shown some success: “If we look at Turkey, human rights are no longer a big issue, while they were a core problem in the 1990s.” In the Balkans, successive trials have charged political leaders and methods like those use during the wars have been outlawed. “Now, Serbia is completely demilitarised, and Montenegro is in the same process,” Knaus added. However, there are still challenges for the future: “The time of a grand vision is over and our core task is now to find different openings.” More concretely, Knaus referred to the similar situation between Turkey some years ago and Tunisia at present: many new perspectives would be open, an issue that Knaus' co-panelists took up.

Democracy, dialogue, development

“The recent Arab revolutions have been a call on Europe to intervene and take future developments into her hands,” Mongi Bousnina, former Tunisian Ambassador to France, described the new options for the EU in North Africa. “A more direct cooperation is envisageable,” Bousnina went on to explain, “for instance in the form of a kind of Marshall Plan for Tunisia: stabilising the region is absolutely necessary.” Bousnina summarised the adequate strategy as moving “towards the 3Ds: democracy, dialogue, development.” Development in the region thus has to focus on the effects of the revolutions on the economic situation: “urgent measures including improved access to poor areas, an active policy in job creation, and major investment projects in roads and communications.”

Tunesia's EU membership?

“I cannot see how your proposal would be different from the present situation, with the Mediterranean Union and an Association Agreement,” Sylvain Kahn, Professor of European integration history at Sciences Po, countered. For him, a real alternative would be proposing membership to Tunisia. This would have idealistic reasons as well as justifications in the geopolitical interest of the Union. “If we proposed membership to Tunisia, and they were interested, we could talk about the details of such an option,” Kahn specified his project. As an illustration of why this would be a plausible alternative, Kahn quoted the example of Portugal: before opening accession negotiations, the country had just departed from an authoritarian regime, and had a GDP almost identical to that of Tunisia today: “The issue of refugees was different, but apart from that, the two countries are quite similar,” Kahn rounded up his argument.

Conclusion: With or Without You?

In sum, then, public support, and the place of enlargement on the political agenda are just some of the challenges the enlargement policy is facing. Other issues, such as the status of the enlargement policy and the EU's general foreign policy, remain equally controversial. All in all, two days of conference on 28 and 29 April 2011 showed that the answer to the above question seems to be: with you. Despite many obstacles, scepticism and disengagement of public opinion, maybe even fears and some disillusion on the part of the candidates, EU enlargement is a continuous process. In conclusion, Gerald Knaus mentioned in the debate with the audience that “the thing about European integration is that it surprises you. It has a subversive impact on parties” by creating incentives and sometimes unforeseen changes. So, maybe at some point Tunisian membership will not sound so far-fetched?


[This article is re-published as part of a series of articles around the project "Candidate Countries: With or Without You?", first published in May 2011. The other articles can be found at the section "To go further - On Nouvelle Europe".]

To go further

On Nouvelle Europe

Photo source: Logo "Candidate Countries: With or Without You?", Annamária Tóth for Nouvelle Europe; "Sarcasm?" on Flickr.