No target date - is there a target?
Why are EU member governments so reluctant to consider setting a deadline for the entry of the next wave of new entrants to the EU? Deadlines are useful, after all: even if you don't quite meet one, its existence acts to hurry everyone along towards resolving issues which might otherwise not be attended to with urgency.
As British MEP Christopher Beazley pointed out in a letter published in the Financial Times on 19 June, "Without the target date of 1992, it would have been far harder to establish the single market." One might add that dates were also set for different stages of the transition to the single currency. If the EU cannot set an enlargement deadline, even as it continues to affirm publicly that all the necessary EU reforms specifically designed to facilitate enlargement should be complete within a couple of years, it does suggest that those members are having second thoughts.
Perhaps the source of those second thoughts is, paradoxically, the December 1999 EU summit, when member states adventurously increased the number of candidate countries from six to 13. Outgoing Polish foreign minister Bronislaw Geremek suggested as much last week, after emerging from a meeting in Luxembourg where he'd been trying to move things along:
"The decision at Helsinki to accept not just 12 but 13 countries, including Turkey, was an act of enormous courage. I have the impression that Europe is frightened of its own act of courage," he said - as quoted in the Financial Times by Quentin Peel ("Mapping Europe's future," 19 June).
And so this week, EU states skirted around the deadline question at their summit meeting in Santa Maria da Feira, Portugal. "Nobody wanted to talk about dates for admitting any of the dozen countries now well advanced in their negotiations. There was not even talk about when such dates might be set," observed The Economist, which two weeks ago called for the EU to establish a planned entry date of 2005 for what it saw as the ten leading candidates (Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Cyprus and Malta). "It is time for a deal," the magazine had appealed. The appeal was roundly ignored.
But enlargement will not go away, as Quentin Peel reported: "The prospect is beginning to hang over every aspect of life within the institutions of the EU... It is also an important reason why 14 of the 15 member states are ostracising Austria for having allowed a far-right political party to share power in its ruling coalition. Like the planned charter of rights, punishing Austria... is intended as a signal of the democratic behaviour expected of a future member state."
Far-right but close control
Instead of tackling the enlargement timetable, the EU's main concerns at the Feira summit were the search for a deal over the "withholding tax" issue and the policy to be adopted towards Austria by its 14 fellow member states. With the 14 making no change on the latter issue, Austria chose to withhold its own full consent on the former, illustrating that it can, and probably will, obstruct important EU business until the "bilateral" frostiness thaws or something moves in Vienna.
This does not bode well for eastward enlargement. In The Guardian, Ian Black ("Austria defiant in battle over savings tax," 21 June) noted that, "Austria's stance showed its potential to disrupt EU business if the sanctions stay in effect, with serious worries about a crowded timetable for badly needed institutional reform and enlargement to the east."
The reluctance towards enlargement recently shown by the French - such as expressing concern last month about Poland's eastern border controls (Michael Smith, "France takes tough line on Poland," FT.com, 17 May) - becomes even more important from now on, with France taking over the rotating presidency of the EU at the start of July.
At the Nice summit, an intergovernmental conference on institutional reform will be concluded and a charter of human rights agreed, both essential to current plans for enlargement. The French government will also be responsible for delivering a "road map" for future navigation towards enlargement. Quentin Peel again: "The irony is that France is among the most hesitant of all the EU members on enlargement, and there are growing suspicions that the 'road map' will be another means of delaying the process."
There have been further reports of how the prospect of admission to the EU is causing heartache and head-scratching in formerly-enthusiastic Poland. Roger Boyes reported in The Times this week ("EU policies alienate a once eager Poland," 20 June) how new environmental standards required to meet EU norms are costing jobs in Poland. Poles suspect all the changes the country is undergoing are for the benefit of existing EU members only; according to one Polish expert, the various measures Poland is required to implement are protecting about 400,000 jobs in the existing member states. Boyes has a warning:
"The goalposts for Polish entry are shifting ever more distant, according to whether one is speaking on or off the record to EU politicians: Polish membership could be as far away as 2007. Big sacrifices are being demanded and little seems to be on offer. If Brussels is not careful, it will lose its most promising and most politically significant candidate and the whole enlargement process, the EU's mission to the East, will collapse. It may be that the EU needs Poland a little more than Warsaw needs Brussels."
Immigration - a new approach
Fear of immigrants is tied up closely with so many contemporary European issues: with the Freedom Party's success in Austria, with the accession of new CEE states to the EU. The fear seems greatest in Germany and Austria, which are concerned about a possible tide of immigrants once borders are opened and are therefore pushing for an initial period during which borders controls are retained for the new member states, while economic convergence of some sort is supposed to take place.
Precedents suggest fears are misplaced: similar fears in the 1980s before the accession of Greece, Portugal and Spain proved unfounded, noted Stefan Wagstyl in the Financial Times last week ("Moving targets," 16 June). In fact, there was a net migration south as expatriates went back home. Likewise Poland today: "Fast-growing Poland is today seeing net immigration, with people who left in the 1980s returning home."
Irrespective of this, a new approach to immigration is desperately needed throughout Europe. This week, the British press has dwelled on the horrific incident in which 58 illegal Chinese immigrants locked in an air-tight container lorry were found dead by customs officials on arrival in Dover. The high level of stowaway asylum applicants is caused precisely by the lack of any other available route into the country for poor but ambitious migrants. Unable to enter the country legally, they are persuaded to enter by risking these dangerous conditions.
This policy towards migration is itself the result of muddled thinking. Europe's ageing populations will sooner or later have to confront their need for immigrants to ease the dependency ratio. But, as Stefan Wagstyl writes, "The problems lie not in the economics of migration, but in the political sensitivities. Few economists dispute that in the long-term, migration usually brings a better deployment of human resources which eventually raises overall income."
"Our" jobs and "their" jobs
A principal fear is that enlargement will bring "cheap labour" flooding in from the new members who will take "our" jobs. In this respect, another news story this week regarding CEE workers is relevant: an investigation by BBC TV's Panorama has uncovered the use of illegal immigrants as virtual slave labour on British farms producing food sold by major supermarkets.
There is no suggestion the supermarkets were aware of the practice, which the programme claims is run by "gangmasters" (agricultural agents). Matt Born in the Daily Telegraph ("Supermarkets accused on immigrant 'slave labour'," 19 June):
"Many workers come to Britain from throughout Eastern Europe in response to newspaper advertisements, the programme says. For a fee, which can be in excess of GBP 1000 (USD 1500), the adverts promise transport to Britain and high-paid work. But once they enter the country - many hidden in lorries - they are offered only cheap, casual labour on farms. An undercover reporter who posed as an illegal immigrant was paid GBP 5.80 (USD 8.70) for a day's work on a farm."
In addition to the illegal immigrant workers, every summer Britain also takes large numbers of seasonal workers from CEE countries who gain temporary permits to work on British farms. Wages are generally low for them too, though perhaps not as pitiful as above. So, far from being afraid of "cheap labour" from CEE, Britain is already embracing it and ruthlessly exploiting it, well in advance of enlargement and open borders, should they ever come to pass.
"Immigration does work"
One pleasing development in the press that this column has picked up on previously is the growing willingness in many parts of the print media to contemplate new thinking on migration. This week, even the right-wing Daily Telegraph wrote an editorial entitled "Immigration does work."
Alan Travis, who has written regularly on the subject for The Guardian, cuts to the core of the current confusion: "Asylum problems must be managed with asylum tools and migration problems with migration tools." ("Open the door," 20 June.) Sadly, there seems to be less new thinking on television, perhaps due to the "soundbite" TV culture, and so most politicians get away with discussing only their measures for clamping down on "bogus" asylum-seekers and those who pack them into container lorries.
In refusing to consider the whole picture, these politicians continue to bury their heads in the sand. "Migration across frontiers, in this globalised world, will no more stop at the bidding of politicians than the sea did for Canute," wrote Rosemary Righter in The Times last week ("Immigrants are crucial to our continued economic well-being," 13 June):
"Nor, however unwelcome the thought, would a halt be in the West's interest. Its leaders would, therefore, be better employed devising realistic immigration policies that explain to people what to expect, how strains on education, housing and cultural identity are to be managed - and, unthinkable though this may sound, the benefits that immigration can bring. Just playing the ostrich is no substitute for clear thinking."
Oliver Craske, 26 June 2000