Enlargement of the European Union - Challenge and Opportunity

Issue 3, Volume 49, 2000

G√ľnter Verheugen, Member of the European Commission responsible for Enlargement underlines the importance of public opinion as new members enter the EU.

The enlargement of the European Union, the reform of its institutions and the definition of new political objectives leading to greater internal and external security, greater capacity for action and more dynamic economic and social development are the three key topics for Europe at the start of the 21st century. They are inseparable from one another and mutually influential.

Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, the course of european politics has been guided by the principle of enlargement. This principle has filled the vacuum which followed the demise of the post-war order and created a new structure of security and cooperation embracing large stretches of the European continent.

Through enlargement the Union is taking a pro-active approach to the potential risks and uncertainties attendant on the collapse of a whole empire, opening borders, and the process of transformation taking place in Central and Eastern Europe. In this sense, enlargement is historically inevitable. At the same time, the democratic rebirth of Central and Eastern Europe created the opportunity to guide the transformation process in a specific direction, overcome the limitations of the Community market and build a greater platform for economic, scientific and technological and social development in a context of global competition. In this sense too there is no reasonable alternative to enlargement.

It is less than 10 years since the 1993 summit of Heads of State and Government in Copenhagen provided the political impetus for the process of preparation for enlargement. The balance sheet already shows that the road chosen was the right one and one that benefits both sides. Furthermore, the positive effects of enlargement are already to be seen.

Those Central and Eastern European countries with prospects of accession to the EU have now developed into stable democracies, where reactionaries and extremists have so far stood no chance of election. There is a clear obligation to uphold human rights and protect minorities everywhere even if in one or another case there are still many practical problems to be solved. Almost all those countries which just a few years ago were the scene of chaotically planned economies have successfully made the leap to a market economy even if various aspects of structural reform are not yet complete. In so doing, the candidate countries have allowed themselves to be guided by the image of a durable social market economy. Moreover, most of them are approaching the situation where they will be able to fully withstand the competition and pressure of the EU's single market. In most of the countries the focus of attention has long since shifted from the adoption of the acquis communautaire to its correct incorporation and application. However, the positive effects of the movement towards enlargement are not confined to the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. The increase in stability, which, if one looks at the Balkans, is by no means self-evident, is an indisputable gain for all Europeans and is not to be underestimated. Economic and trade relations have grown vigorously thanks to the prospect of enlargement. In just a few years the candidate countries have succeeded in freeing themselves from the old trading patterns inherited from Comecon and set their sights strictly on the markets of the EU, which has become their most important trading partner. The EU states too have discovered the most attractive markets in the candidate countries.

The enlargement prospect has also prompted initial steps in other important fields, including joint efforts by the EU and the candidate countries to combat cross-border crime or the improvement of border security in the candidate countries. Just how seriously the candidate countries take the task of cleaning up the environmental iniquities of the past is also increasingly striking.

However, at the same time it is also true that all the accession countries still have a fair amount of work to do to ensure that they can be accepted into the European Union as quickly as possible. A number of very sensitive areas have come to the fore over the last few years. This firstly concerns the need to improve the public administration and judicial systems in the candidate countries. The fledgling administrative systems of the candidate countries, burdened by poor wage levels, staff fluctuations and a comparatively poor level of technological equipment, are having to learn modern administrative practices. This is a difficult and arduous task but one that has to be carried through if the process of economic and social transformation and enlargement are to succeed. No less important is the persistent need to combat corruption, which can totally erode societies and defeat every effort at economic revival. Moreover, in each of the candidate countries the process of economic reform has to be taken further, which implies a certain number of socially difficult decisions. There are also a number of problems still to be solved as regards the upholding of human rights and the protection of minorities.

Public opinion in these countries is very important and reacts with almost seismographic precision to the slightest change of mood in the individual member states of the European Union. There are also populists in the candidate countries who play on people's fears that they may not be welcome in the "rich Europe". This is another reason why these countries need to see the famous light at the end of the tunnel. And not only as a necessary breathing space in the reform process but also as a public demonstration that the effort is worthwhile.

The decisions taken by the EU Heads of State and Government over the last three years designed to speed up enlargement without abandoning the tough accession criteria were therefore only logical. Firm advocacy of the fastest possible enlargement has paid off and released further reserves of energy in the candidate countries.

The European Councils of Nice in December 2000 and Gothenburg in June 2001 made it clear that enlargement is now irrevocable and imminent. According to the political timetables, the negotiations could be completed by the end of 2003 with up to 10 of the 13 accession candidates. This would mean that the first new member states would be able to take part in the elections to the European Parliament as early as 2004. In their internal preparations, these 10 countries are reckoning on the negotiations being completed in 2002. Assuming that they can keep to their internal timetables and the negotiations can be concluded on time, up to 10 new members could enter the Union in the first enlargement round. However, it is also true that so far, no country is totally ready for accession, with a ticket to the European Union already safely in its pocket. Any forecast as to how many of the countries concerned will actually belong to the Union in 2004 would therefore be premature.

The state of public opinion in both the member states and the candidate countries is a decisive factor for the success of enlargement. In most of the candidate countries there is a relatively stable majority in favour even if the initial enthusiasm of the early years has obviously evaporated. Neither are there any real warning signals that the clear political consensus in favour of accession, which, alongside accession to NATO, is in most cases the chief priority of foreign policy in these countries, might disintegrate. And yet, these countries have their fears and concerns. Not only are they concerned to safeguard their only recently acquired sovereignty and preserve their identity and culture in the European Union but they also have very real economic and social concerns. Information and communication but also practical negotiated solutions can and must be used to ensure solid public support for enlargement. However, the situation in the existing member states appears considerably more complicated. Whereas in some states enlargement enjoys broad public support as a project of a primarily humanitarian and social nature, public opinion in other member states is overwhelmingly negative or at least sceptical. The vague fears about jobs, limitless financial commitments or an uncontrolled crime wave from Central and Eastern Europe can be countered with sound arguments. However, the state of public opinion is part of a greater problem that cannot be solved in the course of enlargement in that it raises the fundamental question of the attractiveness of the European Union to the present-day generation. The enthusiasm of the past appears to have died out even if the reasons which led to European integration still hold true today. The values of peace, security and stability and reconciliation between the EU states seem to have become self-evident. The present European Union, which many reduce simply to "Brussels", is associated with such terms as "bureaucratic", "opaque", "remote" and "undemocratic". Simplistic and one-sided though these terms most certainly are, they do at the same time illustrate the work that the Union and its member states have to do in the so-called "post-Nice process". All these things need to be discussed openly, not only among the "experts" but as part of the broadest possible public debate in every single member state and at European level. This discussion does not have to end before enlargement. It is important that the candidate countries take part and bring their point of view to bear in this debate. Experience so far shows that they can provide very worthwhile impetus for reform. On the one hand, they tend to favour "Community-friendly" solutions while on the other they are very sensitive about possible overregulation.

The enlarging Union can only gain by such a broad public debate, allowing a sober look at what has been achieved and a discussion of where we go next. It will serve to lend greater visibility to the successes of integration accomplishments during the last decade, which are far greater than people are given to believe. The enlargement is with no doubt a very demanding task. But its successful completion will strengthen the Union both inwardly and outwardly and create the necessary freedom of action that the public, the economic and society rightly expects.