The EU Must Start Thinking Enlarged

Janis A. Emmanouilidis, Martin Brusis, Heather Grabbe

in: European Voice, 6-12 December 2001, p. 14


The European Union is about to begin a fundamental reform of its structures and policies. After the Laeken summit in December, the EU will start deciding the rules for 25-plus member-states. The candidates should be fully involved in setting the agenda for the next Intergovernmental Conference. That means they should participate in the 'Convention' of representatives of the member-states and institutions, which is supposed to commence work on constitutional issues in 2002. The Convention will consider questions like the division of powers between EU institutions and nation-states, and the role of national parliaments in EU decision-making. These are fundamental issues for both current and future members.

The current member-states are talking about inviting the candidate countries to participate in the Convention merely as observers. But the new institutional rules will affect the new members as much as the current 15, so the members-to-be must be involved on equal terms.

The EU's justification for this decision is that a new Treaty can only be adopted by governments of member-states. But this is merely a legal nicety, as ten of the candidates will probably be members by the time the treaty enters into force. The current 15 members must not be allowed to pre-cook a deal that discriminates against later entrants. French President Jacques Chirac claimed that there should be a 'premium' for countries that joined the EU early. But the east Europeans were kept out of the community by Soviet menaces and communist regimes, not the will of their peoples. This argument is irrelevant after the revolutions of 1989, which showed the strong desire of central Europeans to integrate into the Union.

People in central and eastern Europe have a rich diversity of views on the future of Europe. Indeed, it is this very diversity of views that makes many EU leaders fearful of involving the candidates; they think it will be harder to reach compromises as a result. But this unwillingness to engage in a wide debate on institutional questions is one of the EU's major flaws, contributing to its 'democratic deficit'. How ironic for the EU to be telling the candidates to open up their political debates to the public, while simultaneously trying to restrict the debate on its own future to a narrow group. This is not a good example to set. Moreover, the candidates have a lot to offer to the debate, having spent the past 12 years rebuilding democratic institutions in their own countries. Their experience could be very instructive for the EU in its search for new methods to make itself more transparent and accountable.

The Bertelsmann Foundation and the Munich-based Centre for Applied Policy Research have just published a report which aims to reflect candidate-country views on the future of Europe. These German foundations brought together a group of 18 experts from current and future EU countries. The 'Villa Faber' group of representatives - who are from think-tanks, NGOs and applicant country governments - spent the past year debating the items on the future of Europe agenda in detail. There was heated discussion, and often conflicting views, but the experts all agreed on three points: the need for the EU to develop a comprehensive security policy, to reinforce solidarity, and to ensure democratic accountability.

First, security is a priority for the new member as much as the old. All the central Europeans strongly support the development of a policy for the 'near abroad'. The immediate neighbourhood of the enlarged EU will present new security challenges, most of which cannot be tackled by military means or border controls alone. The EU needs to make its internal and external security policies less contradictory and more coherent, and not allow internal security policies to cut off commercial and cultural ties with its new neighbours in the Balkans and Ukraine. The EU needs strong bridges with its new eastern neighbours, not Fortress Europe controls. To prevent borders becoming permanent barriers, the Union should undertake a 'neighbourhood impact assessment' for its border and visa policies. It should establish a common European border guard to reassure citizens that the new borders are secure, and also to spread the cost of the new controls. Everyone will benefit, so the financial burden should not fall just on the countries in the front line.

The current member-states should commit themselves to lifting internal border controls with new members as soon as the central Europeans have met specified criteria for full operation of the Schengen frontier controls. Otherwise the new members will pay all the costs of Schengen upfront without receiving the benefits. The Union must avoid at all costs erecting new barriers between earlier and later entrants. There is no point dividing countries with barbed-wire and look-out posts, only to remove them a few years later. In addition to the financial expense, building such barriers would have a huge psychological effect on the excluded populations.

Within the EU's institutions, the Commission and European Parliament should have a bigger say in developing security policies, and the Council of Ministers should use majority voting in non-military matters. More police and judicial cooperation is needed on criminal matters, and that cooperation should be less secretive and intergovernmental.

After enlargement, the Union will cover a third more territory, and it will have much greater external responsibilities. It will have to keep the peace in Balkans as the US withdraws, and it will need to engage more intensively with important but difficult neighbours like Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. The candidate countries have long experience in dealing with these countries, and much expertise to offer in developing an eastern policy for the EU.

Secondly, 'solidarity' has a different meaning in central Europe. It does not just mean regional subsidies or financial transfers, but shared values. Those values include a commitment to developing the whole Union, including its poorest areas. But solidarity does not mean the unilateral pursuit of national interests, either. The Union should re-order its spending priorities to focus on the least developed parts of the enlarged Union, because poverty breeds instability for all. The EU's institutions should operate a more rational and objective set of criteria for distributing funds, and avoid using regional aid as a political bribe to reach agreement in the Council.

Thirdly, the EU has to increase the direct participation of citizens in deciding its priorities. National parliaments should be actively involved in policy-making, including a two-way link between deputies and their counterparts in the European Parliament. European citizens also deserve a more coherent set of treaties, so they can see who does what in the Union. A clearly written and readily understandable constitutional document should bring together all the essential provisions of the current treaties, including a clear division of competences. The Charter of Fundamental Rights should be included in it, and made legally binding. As it embarks on the historical challenge of enlargement, the EU must move beyond a narrow debate about editorial simplification of its laws and minor changes to its architecture. Redecorating a house is not enough when major structural repair is needed to accommodate a third more residents.

The unprecedented nature of this enlargement should be matched by the widest possible debate about how to organise the Union and what its tasks should be. That debate has to involve the citizens of Europe, right across the continent.

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