European Affairs

After its "Big Bang" Expansion, the EU Will Grow More Slowly     Print Email

Oana LungescuNow that ten new members have joined the European Union in what has become known as its Big Bang enlargement on May 1, Brussels intends to pause for breath. The European Union has by no means given up plans for further expansion, especially into the Balkans, but enlargement will henceforth be a piecemeal process, spread over a number of years, as each candidate country progressively meets the terms of entry.

First in line are Bulgaria and Romania, which started membership negotiations in 2000 but were not considered ready to join the Union alongside the eight other Central and Eastern European countries that participated in the Big Bang. Nevertheless, when those eight countries, together with Cyprus and Malta, agreed on their entry terms in Copenhagen in 2002, EU leaders reassured Bulgaria and Romania that they were part of the same admission process. Their earliest date for membership, however, is January 1, 2007.

Both countries are keen to stick to the timetable, but they are out of step. While Bulgaria looks well placed to complete its entry negotiations this summer, serious questions have been raised over whether Romania is ready. In early 2004, the European Parliament warned Romania that it was unlikely to join in 2007 unless it did more to fight corruption, strengthen the independence of the judiciary and pursue economic and administrative reforms. Some members of the Parliament even suggested suspending negotiations with Romania.

The warning seems to have been heard in Bucharest, not least because any delay in the country's progress toward EU membership would have dealt a humiliating blow to the center-left government ahead of local elections in June and parliamentary and presidential polls in November. The justice minister, long seen as blocking reforms, was eventually fired, prompting Guenter Verheugen, the European Commissioner for Enlargement, to reassure Romania that EU accession in 2007 remained realistic. Romania and Bulgaria, Mr. Verheugen said, should neither be de-coupled, nor made to wait for the next Big Bang, because there would not be another one.

Behind closed doors, however, the Commission is preparing a "reinforced monitoring" system that could delay the accession of Romania or Bulgaria for a year or more if they do not keep the promises made during membership negotiations. Until now, diplomats say, negotiations have been mainly about promises on paper. The time has come to ensure that commitments are kept in practice. Such a strong monitoring system would also set a precedent for Turkey, providing wary EU governments with a last-minute emergency button if they decided they had to arrest Turkish progress toward membership after negotiations had started.

Plenty more hopeful entrants are lining up. This spring, the European Commission recommended opening membership negotiations with Croatia. In one of its most glowing assessments ever, the Commission praised Croatia's economic achievements as exceeding those of Romania and Bulgaria. It described Croatia as a functioning market economy, a distinction that Romania has yet to earn.

Croatia's biggest stumbling-block was its perceived lack of cooperation with the International War Crimes Tribunal, but the Tribunal's chief prosecutor, Carla del Ponte, has now stated that the new government is doing all it can to send indicted war criminals to The Hague. If that trend continues, Croatia will be on a fast track to EU membership, although few expect it to join before 2009. One EU official said it would take a miracle for Croatia to join in 2007, as Zagreb hopes, simply for technical reasons. Like all the candidates, Croatia has to adopt and implement the European Union's 85,000 pages of rules and regulations, and that is inevitably a long and arduous process.

The encouragement given to Croatia, however, sends a political signal to the entire Balkans that the European Union is serious about admitting the countries of the region, albeit one by one, rather than as a bloc. The pace of progress will be up to the countries themselves. In the words of Chris Patten, the European Commissioner for External Affairs, there can be no question of "their pretending to reform and our pretending to believe them."

The European Union seems to be in no hurry to assess the readiness of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, which formally applied for membership in March, after stepping back from the brink of civil war just three years ago. Serious concerns also remain over the stability of Albania and Bosnia and the viability of Serbia and Montenegro. The unresolved final status of Kosovo complicates the situation further. While described as potential candidates, none of these countries are expected to join by the end of the decade.

The door also remains open to Switzerland, Norway and Iceland, West European countries that would easily qualify for membership, but which have always preferred to stay outside the mainstream of European integration. Although the three countries have given no recent signs of willingness to become EU members, Eurobarometer polls organized by the Commission consistently show that EU citizens would love these prosperous neighbors to join. The country they consistently put at the bottom of their preference list is Turkey.

In December, however, EU leaders are due to decide whether Turkey should be allowed to start accession talks. Their decision could change the face of the European Union even more radically than the admission of the former Communist countries in Central and Eastern Europe. Mr. Verheugen has warned against any further delay, because of increasing opposition to Turkish entry in EU member countries.

If Turkey's hopes of EU membership are dashed, Mr. Verheugen says, the country's process of democratization will effectively be halted, and, in the long run, the European Union's leaders will be responsible for a loss of stability and predictability in a country of huge strategic importance. EU leaders have praised the political reforms introduced by the government of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, even though doubts remain about their implementation. The Yes vote of the Turkish Cypriots in the referendum on the UN peace plan for Cyprus this spring will also strengthen Ankara's case.

But Eastward enlargement has already heightened fears across Europe about massive inflows of immigrants and loss of influence for the founding EU member states within an amorphous 25-nation Union. The prospect of Turkish membership has brought those fears to a head. In the run-up to the European Parliament elections in June, political talk shows on French and German television featured heated debates on two questions:Where should the borders of the European Union end? And is Turkey really in Europe? In France, the governing UMP party has come out against Turkish membership.

In Germany, home to two million immigrants of Turkish origin, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder strongly supports Turkey's aspirations, but the opposition Christian Democrats are arguing for a "privileged partnership" with Ankara, short of membership. In Austria, all the main political parties oppose Turkish membership. The leader of the Austrian Social Democrats, Alfred Gusenbauer, contends that it would be irresponsible and dangerous for the European Union to overstretch itself before it has made the latest enlargement a success. Bishop Kurt Krenn of Vienna has openly alluded to one of the most sensitive, but often unspoken issues in the debate, the fact that Turkey is a Muslim country, by calling Islam a very aggressive kind of religion that would not allow for political unity with the Christian faith.

As it takes only one country to veto a request for membership, many other EU governments may hide behind France and Austria. Their doubts may have less to do with religion than with Turkey's sheer size and the possibility that its membership would dilute European integration. Few can imagine a European Union in which Turkey would be the second largest member state after Germany, or even, in future, the biggest ­ by 2015, Turkey's fast-rising population could actually overtake that of Germany.

How much would it cost to extend the Common Agricultural Policy and funds for structural and regional development to Turkey? How many years would the European Union need before it could offer millions of Turkish workers full freedom of movement, and calm the fears of its own, rapidly aging workforce? What would be the consequences of extending the European Union's frontier to the borders of Iraq, Iran and Syria, if people who crossed from those countries into Turkey could then move freely throughout the Union?

Some of these questions are likely to be answered in the impact study on the economic, political and financial consequences of Turkish accession that the European Commission is preparing for the autumn, together with a report on Turkey's progress in meeting the criteria for EU entry. Even if Turkey does begin accession talks next year, they are expected to take longer than for any other candidate, perhaps as much as ten years. Germany has made clear that it cannot envisage Turkish membership before 2013, when an agreement to maintain hefty EU subsidies to farmers expires. So by the time the country is ready to join, the European Union may be a very different club from now ­ more loosely organized and even less generous with its money. Some analysts speculate that Ankara might even drop its bid for membership, once entry negotiations made clear how difficult it would be for Turkey to adopt and enforce all the European Union's rules and regulations.

The decision on Turkey will also prove an important test for the ten new EU member states. Busy with their own accession negotiations, few have managed to formulate a fully-fledged European policy. The pro-American Baltic countries may back Turkey to reflect support for a NATO ally, especially as Washington has been campaigning so vehemently for Turkish EU entry.

"We know how important preparations for EU membership have been for our own democratization," said Siim Kallas, Estonia's member of the European Commission. "So how could we close the door to Turkey?" Poland has already spoken in favor of Turkey, not least for historical reasons. The Ottoman Empire never recognized Poland's partition in the 18th century. "We have already stopped the Turks from marching into Europe once, at the siege of Vienna in 1683," Poland's Foreign Minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz joked, "and we're not going to do it again." Although Poland is one of the countries requesting a specific reference to Europe's Christian values in the future EU constitution, Polish diplomats insist that this is not directed against Turkey. In fact, Turkey's EU bid is hardly mentioned in the public debate in Central and Eastern Europe, and is certainly much less divisive than in the "old" member states.

Hungary and Slovenia certainly appear more interested in furthering the cause of their immediate neighbors in the Balkans, while Poland is also emphasizing its strategic relationship with neighboring Ukraine and Belarus. Once it joins the Union, Romania may push more energetically for its ethnic brethren in Moldova.

Geographically at least, the three former Soviet republics have a better claim to be part of Europe than does Turkey. Politically and economically, however, their case is shakier. Ukraine and Moldova have repeatedly stated their ambitions of becoming EU members ­ but, at least for now, the European Union is drawing the line at their borders.

Mr. Verheugen has made clear that the accession of these countries is not on the EU agenda, although he says the situation might change in 20 years. For its neighbors to the East and South, the European Union is instead proposing closer political, economic and trade ties, in exchange for stronger commitments to democracy and human rights. Tailormade action plans will be offered to Ukraine and Moldova, to Belarus if it embraces democratic reforms, and to the countries of the Caucasus ­ Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia.

Although nominally included in this new European "Neighborhood Policy," Russia will continue to enjoy special treatment, with regular bilateral summits on a par with the United States and Canada. Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian Prime Minister, has suggested that Russia (and also Israel) might join the European Union, but he has received little support from his colleagues, or indeed from Moscow. In the Mediterranean region, the European Union will prepare separate action plans for Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Syria, Tunisia and the Palestinian Authority.

The policy for all these neighboring countries has been dubbed "everything but institutions." In the vision of Romano Prodi, the President of the European Commission, Europe needs to surround itself with a ring of friends, but they would not become part, for instance, of the European Commission or the European Parliament. After wielding the prospect of membership as its most effective tool in bringing stability and democracy to its neighbors, the European Union risks becoming a victim of its own success. With 25 members, and soon 27 or more, it is gradually devising alternative policies.

Mr. Verheugen, who oversaw the enlargement process for the last five years, says that expanding the Union can no longer be a priority. He believes that from now on the European Union should concentrate on deepening, not on widening. The agenda is already set. It includes streamlining the decision making process through a new European Constitution, boosting economic growth, ensuring that Europe plays a more coherent role on the global scene and, last but not least, reaching out to the increasingly skeptical man and woman in the European street.

The next 12 months will show how fast the European Union can move while digesting its huge expansion, and how successfully it can avoid the pitfalls ahead. Making a success of a Union of 25 nations is not a foregone conclusion. If the European Union fails to agree on the Constitution, or several member states refuse to ratify it, if groups of countries splinter off to proceed with their own integration plans, if the economic situation deteriorates ­ the Big Bang may yet become a whimper.

Oana Lungescu has been based in Brussels since January 1997, reporting on European affairs for BBC World Service radio. She has covered EU and NATO enlargement from Brussels and from Central and Eastern Europe. She started her journalistic career with the BBC World Service in London, after leaving Romania in 1985. A regular contributor to the Brussels-based E!Sharp magazine and to the European Policy Centre on enlargement issues, she won an Onassis bursary in 1998 and was awarded a European Woman of Achievement Award by the European Women's Union in 2002.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number V, Issue number II in the Spring of 2004.

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