This year's Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) has so far been free of the wrangling and gnashing of teeth that usually accompanies an IGC, but then as yet no one has said anything worthy of a political punch-up. Some commentators maintain that EU member state governments are keeping their powder dry until the French presidency commences in the second half of this year, whilst pessimists fear that an intellectual vacuum has opened up on the continent since the demise of the Franco-German partnership.
The wheels on the EU project have not stopped turning, but the impetus for change increasingly comes from outside the Union. While politicians gaze into their navels and Commission officials pour over the minutia of the accession criteria, EU partners in Central and Eastern Europe and in the Baltic States are forging political identities and offering intellectual and practical solutions to the Union's current dilemma of where it goes from here.
Waves and timetables
When the European Council announced at last year's Helsinki Summit that it would open negotiations with the second batch of accession states it also decided to abandon the "wave" system of accession, adopting a rolling timetable and allowing states to join as and when they are ready. This has opened the possibility for Poland's accession to be overtaken by some of the new arrivals and for Estonia to be bounced back into bed with its Baltic neighbours, Latvia and Lithuania. Combined with the declining interest in enlargement among existing member states and their growing preoccupation with the state of the euro, one can see why candidate countries are getting a little jumpy about their prospects for membership; but this is not necessarily a bad thing.
The shift in the enlargement procedure has added a competitive edge to negotiations, which is sharpening the evolving identities of future member states. It is no longer enough to base domestic and foreign policy on the aim of joining the EU; accession countries are now looking at what functions they will play once they are inside the EU and how these functions might be converted into political capital to facilitate early membership.
Few countries have done more to reinvent themselves in this way than Estonia. Having emerged from the Communist era firmly identified as a Baltic state, Estonia now strives to recast itself as Nordic. Apart from the shared tragedies of Nazi occupation and Russian colonisation, Estonia, claims Foreign Minister Toomas Ilves, has little in common with the other Baltic States. Instead, Mr Ilves sights the burning of the "Yule-log" in wintertime as clear evidence that Estonia is a part of "Yule-land," an area including Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Iceland and even Great Britain.
There are less spurious reasons for linking Estonia to the Nordic area. Estonian society is more akin to societies in the northern states such as Sweden and Finland than to the Catholic persuasions of Lithuania. Its economy is more liberal and technologically advanced than that of any other Baltic State, and corruption in Estonia is lower than in some existing member states. It is worth remembering that Finland was also once considered to be a Baltic State until it underwent "Nordicisation" in the 1930s. The Nordic identity tag carries with it the characteristics of a modern society: technologically advanced, multi-lingual and politically astute. Association with these attributes would ensure Estonia's competitive edge over its Baltic bedfellows and could contribute to early accession.
Estonia is not the only candidate country to place itself within this category. Slovenia, despite being situated on the other side of the continent, also aspires to the Nordic model. Influenced by its negative geographical and historical ties with the Balkan Region, Slovenia has worked hard to portray itself as the quiet and, some would say, boring backwater of Central and Eastern Europe. Slovenia's ethnic homogeneity has allowed it to distance itself from its troubled neighbours. Its politicians take pride in their lethargic and uncontroversial political system and focus on issues such as environmental protection and the ageing population, concerns more readily associated with northern countries. A recent survey found Slovenia to possess one of the most tolerant and libertarian societies in the world, a reflection of the acceptance of rapid economic transformation. Such an inoffensive agenda is extremely useful in drawing a visible line between Slovenia and the Balkan Region and makes accession to the EU slighlty more attainable.
While Slovenia and Estonia try to free themselves of their neighbours, Lithuania perceives its geographical location to be a key asset in its accession to the EU. Lithuania does not exhibit the technological and social advances of the Nordic countries, but it has retained good relations with the Russian Federation. This relationship has enabled Lithuania to portray itself as a potential negotiating partner for the West in dealings with Russia. Lithuanian diplomats are working hard to find solutions for the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad and are actively promoting democracy in Belarus. If Lithuania can practice astute politics and serve to smooth relations with Russia, its strategic value may overshadow poor economic performance in the eyes of the EU and Nato.
Smaller states are able to identify role models among the existing member states and remodel themselves to suit the changing environment. In contrast, Poland is finding it difficult to reposition itself in the run-up to accession. Poland has the potential to assume a leading role in an enlarged Europe, but if it attempts to emulate France or Great Britain before being accepted as an equal member, it risks antagonising its future partners. The difficulties faced by Poland in developing a distinct identity have already created practical problems in its relationship with Nato. The Polish military must be updated and rearmed to suit its new role, but it is difficult to do this before that role has been identified. Poland should assume a stabilising influence on the Union's eastern border. However, the EU's rigid accession criteria in the area of border controls and trade risks are undercutting Poland's relationships with Ukraine, Belarus and Russia.
Poland's inability to develop an identity and project it into the post-accession environment is putting considerable strain on accession negotiations and threatens domestic support for membership. But there are wider and more worrying implications than a troublesome accession. All the main political parties in Poland support accession to the EU, and most of the painful legislative measures undertaken in recent years are directly linked to EU membership. If Poland is denied its leading role and allowed to drift without clear objectives, it risks undermining the state's institutions, which are, to some extent, dependent on a successful EU accession.
Problems and benefits
The current IGC, and what passes for debate on the periphery of the negotiations, can only talk about the need to solve the EU's problems before enlargement occurs, implying that enlargement will present a whole new bag of troubles. The possibility that enlargement could actually solve some of the existing problems has not even registered on the IGC's radar screen. A successful enlargement will bring to the Union a set of countries with unique solutions to the continent's economic disparities and political instabilities.
The development of an EU security and defence identity will depend on its ability to stabilise the Balkans and secure democracy in Ukraine and Belarus, whilst dealings with Kaliningrad will prove to be the litmus test for the EU's relationship with Russia. Without Lithuania's diplomacy in the Baltics, Poland's influence on the EU's eastern frontier or Slovenia's knowledge of the Balkans, the EU could easily fail to achieve these objectives.
The biggest problem facing the EU, and the only real issue at the IGC, is how to deepen European integration while maintaining some kind of national identity. Here again it could be the accession states that offer a way forward. EU membership is perceived by the accession states as a mechanism to realise and protect national identity, but this does not appear to lessen
But if the strategic benefits in recognising these developing identities are not enough to persuade the EU, the economic arguments should be overwhelming. Free market capitalism is still stumbling in its infancy in the states of Central and Eastern Europe. The accession criteria only measure the development of the free market, and the promise of membership can only assist its development so far. It is clear that free market capitalism relies on trust and confidence in order to function without too much bureaucracy and corruption. One of the main reasons that capitalism has flourished in Western Europe is that it has developed within the integrity of secure borders and national purpose. No matter how far capitalism has come or wherever it is now heading, it emerged from the confidence engendered by national identity and purpose rather than from the distrust generated by ethnic affiliations.
It is essential that the EU accepts its part in encouraging and developing the identities now emerging in the Baltic Region and in Central and Eastern Europe. This will require EU leaders to break free from the mindset that accession states are joining the existing Union and accept that they will be building a new Union with the candidate countries. This may prove to be a difficult pill to swallow, but it could remedy a number of existing problems and may even give credibility to the Union's new motto of "Unity in Diversity." The alternative would be for the EU to exhibit the same disrespect for national identity experienced by accession states under Communism.
Andrew Cave, 22 May 2000