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Ben Pickering: We’re a long way from Copenhagen

Ben_pick_1 Ben is currently researching his PhD on EU eastward enlargement

The developing schism across the enlarged EU over further expansion is a unique opportunity to reshape it from within.

Enlargement has expanded the EU deep into the former Soviet bloc.  It has 25 diverse Member States (and with Bulgaria and Romania joining in January, 27), ranging from Germany (population 80 million) to Malta (population just 400,000) and everything in between.

Each has its own history, its own agenda, and its own priorities.  This became clear with the Constitution fiasco and the negotiations over the EU’s 2007-2013 Budget.  While 2004’s enlargement was a success, it has brought the EU to a fork in the road.

Many believe that the EU has reached (even surpassed) its capacity to integrate new Members.  Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso added his voice to those calling for a halt on Monday, saying that “it would be unwise to bring in other member states…before we have sorted out the institutional question”.

In other words, once Bulgaria and Romania are in, we should shut the door – for now.

The Chancelleries of Germany and Austria and the present occupier of the Elysee Palace blame “enlargement fatigue” for the failure of the Constitution, and for bringing the process of widening and deepening – a constant feature of previous enlargements – to a standstill.

The position the EU finds itself in is of its own making.  After the Cold War, eastern Europeans tore down their walls, embracing market economies and democracy.  The EU responded to the impending clamour for EU membership by developing the “Copenhagen Criteria”.

These conditions – a pre-requisite of membership – were designed to provide a stop-tap for demands for membership.  In reality, it gave potentially false hope to countries like Turkey and in the Balkans.

The most crucial condition was that candidates had to be able to adopt the “acquis communautaire”, the ever-growing list of laws, rules, regulations and directives that make up EU law, prior to accession.

The irony of the “acquis” is that to join the EU today, a candidate has to be more like the EU than the EU is itself.  A supranational, undemocratic body that has failed to have its own accounts passed for 11 years requires a functioning market economy with strict controls to tackle corruption – this from a body that allows its Commissioners to employ their dentists as Special Scientific Advisers!

The result of the Copenhagen Criteria was the 2004 enlargement – an ambitious project incorporating 10 new Members immediately into the EU’s structures (with some temporary safeguard clauses on agriculture subsidies and freedom of movement).

While it may have been better to “drip feed” new Members into the Union, the difficulties of letting one in over another would have stored up veto problems for the future.  The inclusion of the Greek sector of Cyprus has already had a significant impact on Turkey’s long-standing membership application.

For years, the concept of Turkey joining was dismissed as hypothetical at best.  It first applied in 1959, becoming an Associate Member in 1965, but allowed no further until the reforming Ergödan government swept to power in 2002.

Turkey’s rapid development into a country that meets the “Copenhagen Criteria” caught the EU on the hop.  It has also focused minds on its “absorption capacity” – code for how far the core Members are prepared to let enlargement dilute their integration plans.

With President Chirac declaring that France will hold a referendum on Turkey accession, and similar attitudes in the German and Austrian Chancelleries, the fault lines are set for a showdown between Turkey’s supporters in the EU, broadly the intergovernmentalists, and their opponents, the federalists.

However, Turkey’s application has ramifications beyond the Bosphorus, particularly for the UK.   

If Turkish membership is vetoed, then the EU will have missed a rare opportunity to bridge the gap between the Judeo-Christian and Islamic worlds.  But if Turkish membership is granted, then the integration dream of Spinelli and Spaak will truly be over.

Turkey has a population twice that of Britain and France, and 40 million greater than Germany.  It would dwarf the remainder of the EU’s Member States.  Even if permanent restrictions on labour movement are placed on Turkey (which is against one of the founding principles of the Union), Turkey will still have the largest voting bloc.

There’s no way that Germany is going to demote itself to second fiddle from the front row of the European orchestra.  The EU’s structures, already creaking, will grind to a halt.

If full Turkish membership isn’t offered, replaced by what Merkel has described as a “privileged partnership”, the Turks will be disappointed.  However, it will be a wonderful opportunity for Britain, the sceptical Scandinavian countries (including current non-Member Norway), the more sceptical NMS (like Poland and the Czech Republic) and even little old Switzerland to step back to a more arms-length relationship, like that being offered to Turkey.

This battle for the heart and soul of Europe should be music to the ears of British Conservatives, long sceptical of the drive towards further integration but hitherto a lonely voice at European summits. While the Chinese may have regarded it as a curse, there are indeed interesting times ahead.


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