European Affairs

Until now, however, there has been something unreal about the process of EU enlargement. The unification of Europe has been more a matter of high-§own political rhetoric than of the detailed, practical arrangements needed to ensure that it actually happens. Only in the past few months have the negotiations between the European Union and the current 12 applicant states arrived at the critical core issues that will determine the success or failure of the entire project.

No one can legitimately claim that the Union lacks ambition. At their Nice summit meeting last December, EU leaders set June, 2004 as the target date for the next wave of new entrants to join the Union. If the target is met, millions of Europeans from the Baltic to the Balkans will be able to cast their votes - alongside citizens of the existing 15 member states - for the directly elected European Parliament in the summer of that year.

Nor will this be the end of the story. Other countries - notably in Southeastern Europe, where recovery from the Balkan wars has barely begun - have made no secret of their aspirations to join the Union.

Croatia, which has made significant progress in its transition to a pluralist democracy, may be the next candidate to seek membership. It is not difficult to see Macedonia, Bosnia, Albania and a post-Yugoslavian Serbia, Kosovo and Montenegro following suit over the rest of this decade.

Turkey does not yet meet the essential political conditions laid down in the "Copenhagen criteria" ten years ago, but has been officially recognized as a candidate.

In Western Europe, there are even signs that Norway and Switzerland, which have previously turned their backs on EU membership, may be having second (or third) thoughts.

All in all, it is not fanciful to foresee a European Union of more than 30 member states at or shortly after the end of this decade. And that leaves aside the future of EU relations with Ukraine, Russia and Belarus, which may involve the creation of an even wider, but looser, confederal European community, with limited areas of sovereignty-sharing, between the EU and its immediate neighbors.

The responsibilities that candidate countries undertake as EU members are daunting. Both sides have an essential interest in ensuring that the newcomers have the political, administrative and judicial capacity to meet those obligations.

That is why there is so much emphasis on the candidates taking the necessary structural decisions now, so as to maximize the benefits and minimize the costs of accession. Whatever the formidable problems still to be tackled, there is no denying the impressive progress which most, though not yet all, of the candidates have made in starting to close the gap with the existing EU member states.

Already in some of the key accession states, economic growth is faster than the EU average. Countries such as Hungary, Slovenia, Estonia and Poland show impressive potential to become a key force in the economic development of the European Union as a whole in the years ahead.

More people are returning to work in these countries than are emigrating, thus putting into perspective the nightmares of mass migration peddled by populist and xenophobic politicians in some EU states. Of course, a sensible timetable must be worked out for admitting the aspirant members, with the latest indications suggesting that as many as 10 of the 12 candidates may join by 2004 or 2005.

Such a first wave would comprise five Central European countries: the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovenia and Slovakia; the three Baltic states: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania; and Cyprus and Malta. That would leave Bulgaria and Romania, among the present applicants, with more time to prepare to follow (possibly with others) later in the decade.

But how realistic is this perspective? If the first wave is to join before the end of 2004, Treaties of Accession will have to be agreed at the end of next year and then ratified in all EU and candidate countries.

There are some major hurdles to be overcome. The candidate countries still have to make further painful reforms to meet the legal requirements of EU membership, and some countries will have to take major steps to strengthen their systems of governance and law.

On the EU side, some governments - notably Austria and Germany - want to delay the newcomers' rights of free movement for their workers, even though present evidence suggests that more workers will move back to the candidate states than will leave them.

Some of the candidate states want to delay the right of foreigners to buy land in their countries.

Meanwhile, Spain is holding out against changes that will have to be made to the system of regional and structural economic aid to the poorer Southern EU states in order to finance a massive aid program for the new members in the East. Madrid fears this would reduce the §ow of EU aid to the poorest Spanish regions.

The biggest problem of all, agriculture, has not yet even begun to be resolved. Next year, the EU states will begin a radical overhaul of the Common Agricultural Policy, moving subsidies away from financing farm output to encouraging more environmentally sustainable forms of agriculture and rural development.

All of these sensitive political time bombs will have to be defused during the Danish Presidency of the EU in the second half of next year. If not, there is a serious risk that the entire timetable for enlargement could slip.

Any delay beyond 2004, however, risks generating a popular backlash against the whole project in at least some of the new democracies in Central and Eastern Europe. That could in turn undermine the reform and democratization gains those countries made during the past decade as they pursued the goal of membership.

All this talk of timetables, however, makes one enormous and highly questionable assumption: that the European Union itself will be in a position to absorb a possible doubling of its members successfully. If it is not, the very objective of European unification - the security, democratic stability and economic prosperity of its peoples - may be lost in the process.

It is conceivable that enlargement might proceed apace with the European Union in no institutional shape to cater for expectations of some 400 million people in 30 or more member states with their rich diversity of cultural, linguistic, social, regional and other identities and interests.

This could prove a recipe for decision-making paralysis. With the EU unable to meet the expectations of either its existing or its new citizens, a massive crisis in the whole process of European unification and integration would then become inevitable sooner or later.

That is why the current debate on EU institutional reform is so important - and yet so dispiriting. The Treaty of Nice was intended to prepare the European Union to function democratically and efficiently as it expands to 25 and eventually to 30 or more members in the years ahead. But the Treaty falls well short of what is needed to achieve this aim.

Instead of making it easier for an expanding European Union to take decisions by majority vote, the Treaty makes it more difficult. It fails to tackle at root the paralyzing grip of the national veto on key areas of decision-making. It adds yet another complicated treaty to those that have preceded it and postpones a long overdue move to a voter-friendly democratic constitution.

For all this, a rejection of the Treaty in the ratification process now under way in all 15 EU states would be a massive and unjustified blow to the aspirations of the tens of millions of Europeans demanding their rights to EU membership.

Ratification of the Treaty by itself will not be enough. In order to admit as many of the candidate countries as possible into the EU by 2004, negotiations must be completed by the end of next year. The enlarged EU must then agree a comprehensive constitutional reform of the Union and its institutions.

This is not a technocratic, but a highly political question. The reform should help European Union citizens to understand the different responsibilities of decision makers at the EU, member state and sub-national levels and to whom they are accountable.

Belgian, German and Finnish political leaders have already made some constructive if ambitious proposals for the 2004 Inter-Governmental Conference that will try to define the political character of the Union and its institutions.

The proposals include calls for the unreadable and mind-bogglingly complex legal treaties to be replaced with a simplified constitution that, as President Havel of the Czech Republic has said, should be "capable of being read and understood by every secondary school child in Europe."

The reformers want a clearer delimitation of the authority of the different levels of governance in the EU - regional, national and Union. A closer partnership of regional, national and EU governance would help to bring decision-making closer to the citizen.

Many believe that the Charter of Fundamental Rights adopted at Nice should be given legal teeth so that it can be used by citizens in the courts, although this is far from unanimously accepted.

Europhobes have often denounced "rule by unelected Brussels' bureaucrats" - a grotesque caricature of the European Commission. So why not elect future Presidents of the Commission, as some have proposed?

This would give the embryonic European political parties a real role in helping to shape the Union's executive branch, and give voters meaningful choices in European Parliament elections.

Some would argue that there is also a case for transferring the law-making role of the Council of Ministers to a new second chamber, or senate, of the European Parliament, representing national governments. This would make for greater openness and democratic accountability.

It would still leave the European Council - the regular meetings of EU heads of government - playing an essential role, along with the Commission, in shaping the strategic development of the Union.

Under such a scenario, the European Parliament would be given more responsibility as well as more power. It would have a major say not only in how EU taxpayers' money is spent, but also in how revenue is raised. In the event of deadlock between the MEPs and the European executive it should be possible to dissolve the European Parliament and call early elections.

None of this is about transferring major new powers to the EU. The "post-Nice" agenda is about constitutionalizing and democratizing the Union and its institutions.

It is one aspect of an even wider process of creating institutions of global governance that many argue are needed to protect the environment and human rights, to enhance social standards and to promote economic development and justice.

Jean Monnet, the "founding father" of the European Union, once said that European integration "is not an end in itselfƒbut only a stage on the way to the organized world of tomorrow." He said the European Community, as it then was, would mark the transition from "the law of forceƒto the force of law." This is what the post-Nice debate should be about. For far too long, the people of the European Union have been denied that debate.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number II, Issue number III in the Summer of 2001.