European Affairs

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Reginald Dale

EU Enlargement is for Real

There should no longer be much doubt that the European Union is to be enlarged to take in 12 new members - nearly all in Central and Eastern Europe - in an unprecedented step that will radically change its character. But there is still a big question mark over when.

As Günter Verheugen, the European Commissioner responsible for enlargement, writes in this issue of European Affairs, "the process is already irreversible. There is no going back."

But it seems equally clear that the general public in Western Europe has not really taken this prospect fully on board. The same is true of many Americans, some of whom still seem to doubt that it will actually happen.

Even some of enlargement's supporters have not fully thought through what almost doubling the number of EU members will mean in practice - particularly as many of the new Eastern members have different historical, economic, and cultural backgrounds from the EU's current West European members.

One reason for skepticism is simply the time that the process has taken. It is now nearly 11 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, and negotiations to admit the Central and East European countries - along with Cyprus and Malta - show no sign of bearing immediate fruit. The earliest date for entry of the front-runners is probably 2004 to 2005.

Many Western Europeans who have thought about the prospect are not enthusiastic about it, fearing an influx of immigrants from the East and intensified competition for jobs from low-wage workers and low-cost industries in the new member countries.

In the East, there is mounting frustration that the process is taking so long, and each new pronouncement by EU leaders is carefully scrutinized to see if it bears out fears that Western governments are deliberately dragging their feet. On both sides of the former Iron Curtain, support for enlargement is dipping below 50 percent.

There are good reasons why the enlargement negotiations should take a long time. This is by far the most complex and difficult expansion in the EU's history. The candidate countries have to convert a mountain of EU regulations into domestic law. And it would not be in the candidates' own interest to be subjected to potentially devastating competition in the EU's single market before they are ready.

That is why the Commission has consistently rejected calls for a fixed target date to be set for the entry of the new members, who are due to be followed by Turkey at some point in the future.

That said, it seems clear that many West European governments have not treated the issue with great urgency, partly because it is unpopular with their voters, and partly because it means difficult and possibly painful changes inside the EU itself.

Smaller EU members, especially, risk seeing their influence diluted in a much larger EU. Some of the bigger members fear that the Common Agricultural Policy, which protects their farmers, and the EU's regional development system will be disrupted.

Although the 15 current EU members know full well that they must adapt their institutions to prepare for enlargement, they have been extremely slow to do so. Institutional reforms were meant to be agreed to at the EU's Amsterdam summit meeting in 1997. Now, the aim is to do so at a summit meeting in Nice this December, although there are still many difficulties.

Michel Barnier, the Commissioner responsible for regional policy and the Intergovernmental Conference, explains his views of how the institutions should be reformed and strengthened in this issue of the magazine.

But perhaps the most telling criticism of the EU's current leaders is that they have failed to show the leadership necessary to convince West Europeans that this is a truly historic moment for Europe (and the world) that merits some sacrifices in the Continent's infinitely more prosperous Western half.

It was with that in mind that Mr. Verheugen, in September, raised the question of how West European public opinion could become more involved in the enlargement process. He got into trouble, at home in his native Germany, with his Commission colleagues, and in Eastern Europe, too, by suggesting that a referendum in Germany might help to make people more aware of the issues at stake.

It was quickly pointed out to him that there is no provision for referendums in the German Constitution and that the Commission is not meant to take such views on the domestic political systems of member states. Some Eastern Europeans wondered whether he was trying to put even further obstacles in the way of their entry.

Of course he wasn't. Mr. Verheugen wants enlargement to come as soon as possible, a position clearly stated in his article. He denied that he was actually proposing a referendum in Germany, and said he was fully aware of the German constitution.

Now that the immediate hostile reactions have died down, however, some Europeans are beginning to commend Mr. Verheugen for having raised an important issue. It is absolutely right to point out that political leaders should take the responsibility for motivating their electorates.

Perhaps because it has taken so long, the historic nature of enlargement has been lost from sight, as the nitty gritty of negotiations proceeds and people in the West care more about the possible impact on their daily lives than about Europe's destiny.

But Europeans should never lose sight of the fact that this will be the first time in history that their continent will be united peacefully, not by force of arms. Enlargement presents Europeans with an extraordinary opportunity to heal the wounds of their history and extend their influence around the world.

Americans, for their part, should understand that this is something that is really - finally - going to happen.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number I, Issue number IV in the Fall of 2000.

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