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Europe's enlargement problem

About the author
John Palmer was formerly European editor of the Guardian and then Political Director of the European Policy Centre. He is a visiting practitioner fellow at the Sussex European Institute, and a member of the advisory council of the Federal Trust

There is little doubt that the dynamic which drove the enlargement of the European Union in the decade after the fall of the Berlin wall is weakening. The decision on 16 May 2006 by the European Commission to delay until the autumn a final judgment on whether Bulgaria and Romania will be ready to join the EU in May 2007 is another sign that the union's enthusiasm for adding new member-states to the existing twenty-five has largely disappeared.

The commission cannot be accused of inventing reasons to slow the accession of Bulgaria and Romania. It is an open secret that both countries (but particularly Bulgaria) fall well below the standards expected of EU member-states across the field of justice, policing and state corruption. The commission is right not to facilitate early entry by simply shutting its eyes to the serious problems which exist in the governance of both countries. Lower standards of justice, human rights and the rule of law have an infectious character which would not leave existing EU states untouched.

John Palmer is a member of the governing board of the European Policy Centre

Also by John Palmer in openDemocracy:

"After France: Europe's route from wreckage" (May 2005)

"The 'nation'-state is not enough"
(December 2005)

"The levels of democracy"
(January 2006)

In fact that commitment to both Sofia and Bucharest about membership is so solid that – at worst – one or both countries might have to wait no more than an extra twelve months to be allowed in. In reality the legal, policing and other reforms demanded of the two states are going to have to continue well after they eventually join.

There is, however, a more serious malaise affecting the entire EU enlargement project. It is not too much to describe it as "enlargement exhaustion". It is the product of a number of quite different problems some of which are real and some of which are widely held but unfounded fears among the peoples of the "old" European Union. There is – for instance – no doubt that anxieties about immigration (which in the political discourse of many EU countries is seen as directly linked to EU enlargement) soured the debate about the European Union constitution and helped defeat its ratification in the French and Dutch referenda in May-June 2005.

The actual evidence about the impact of migration within the enlarged EU shows it to be a clearly positive development for the economies of the host countries although it has created problems for the countries of origin which are now starting to face serious skills shortages to sustain the remarkable economic boom which has followed enlargement. The eventual accession of Bulgaria and Romania – in either 2007 or 2008 – and that of Croatia (probably around 2010) will be followed by a transitional period of several years before they take a full part in the EU labour market.

Negotiations with Turkey are most unlikely to reach a conclusion before 2015 at the earliest. It is not in the interests of either side to accelerate the process much faster. No dates for the start of membership negotiations have been fixed for the other countries of the former Yugoslavia (plus Albania) though all have been promised eventual accession when they are judged ready. In spite of all the problems of managing a still enlarging EU, I expect these promises to be honoured some time into the decade. But in the meantime the thorny issues of Kosovo, Montenegro and (above all) the transfer of indicted Serb war criminals to The Hague are hurdles which must be cleared.

That said, the simple fact is that the European Union does not have the governance capacity to effectively run a union of twenty-five – let alone thirty or thirty-five member-states. With its planned constitution in suspension it certainly lacks the minimum degree of integration needed for effective decision-making. And the essential development of a transnational European democracy is still lagging behind the limited progress made in strengthening the EU's executive powers.

The timeline for the most urgent decisions is probably 2009 – after the enlargement of Bulgaria and Romania but before the accession negotiations with the rest of the western Balkans which starts in June 2007 and Turkey reach their climax. That will also be the moment when the fundamental reforms of the EU budget – which is far too small and unbalanced at present to be the effective instrument for the growth, cohesion and sustainability of the EU economy which is needed – must be finalised. Hopefully by then an amended and strengthened version of the constitutional treaty will have been agreed – on the basis of proposals which are now expected to come from the German presidency of the EU which starts in January 2007.

There seems little doubt that at that point "classical" EU enlargement will have reached its end. Of course major questions about the relationship to the EU of countries further east – Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus (in a democratic, post-Lukashenko era) and the countries of the Caucasus (Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan) remain. But they will have to be solved through a different process involving more limited sovereignty-sharing with the EU.

Indeed, this could become a more attractive model for Turkey in the next decade. It would be disastrous for peace stability and the spread of democracy in the wider European neighbourhood if enlargement shuddered to a halt now. But we need a definition of a wider European Commonwealth that does not bind both sides into the detailed legal structures drawn up fifty years ago for European countries facing quite different challenges.