The European Commission unveiled its "2000 Regular Reports from the Commission on Progress towards Accession" for EU candidate countries on 8 November (see this week's issue of CER for commentary on each of the country Progress Reports). But what did the British press make of them the next day?
The main substance of the coverage was fairly consistent: the Reports were generally encouraging; Poland had improved and the Czechs had slipped a bit; yes, there were some criticisms, especially about Turkey and Romania; and there was now a sort-of-timetable, which was ambitious but was still going to be too slow and too vague for some applicants' liking. But the interpretative spin put on the Reports was quite varied.
Ian Black in The Guardian remarked that the Commission "showed marked caution about extending EU boundaries eastwards... Its failure to advance the target date reflected concern that the Union's existing citizens show scant enthusiasm for bringing in the former communist countries."
For Stephen Castle in The Independent, the keynote was one of chastisement: in an article entitled "Clean up your act, EU tells aspiring members," he began: "Brussels told the ex-Communist countries of Eastern Europe yesterday that they must root out corruption and improve their treatment of minorities before they can achieve their ambitions of joining the European Union."
A more positive interpretation was offered by Ambrose Evans-Pritchard in The Daily Telegraph (9 November): "The European Commission sought to revive the stalled process of European Union enlargement yesterday. It urged a swift end to the interminable negotiations," and assured applicants that, "they will not be kept waiting forever in a permanent ante-chamber."
The Financial Times asserted that the Commission has "promised to do all it could to ensure the European Union enlarged by mid-2004" and "has thrown down the gauntlet to the present member states to sort out their own differences... by mid-2002... It would be inexcusable to delay the process because of internal wrangling."
The case of Poland
There is much support for the view that Poland, with the biggest population and one of the more advanced economies, yet blessed with unique problems, is the key. "The problem of Poland... still casts a shadow over the process," was the verdict of Evans-Pritchard in the Telegraph. "There are more farmers in Poland than in the rest of the EU combined. If the common agricultural policy were extended in its current form to Eastern Europe it would bankrupt the EU."
The Financial Times declared that Poland should definitely be in the first wave of countries joining even though "it might mean extending the negotiations by a few months. That would be a small price to pay for getting it right." The Economist came to this conclusion back in April. Certainly, losing Poland may mean losing the whole impetus of enlargement, which could be disastrous. As The Times's Berlin correspondent, Roger Boyes, wrote back on 20 June: "It may be that the EU needs Poland a little more than Warsaw needs Brussels."
It's worth noting that Warsaw, no doubt anticipating the Report's tone, vowed this week to speed up its preparations with the aim of closing all chapters by the end of 2001, which would remove the EU's excuse of Polish unpreparedness. But will Brussels be able to match such a deadline for negotiations?
With the Commission's Reports envisaging that the negotiations with leading applicants will finish in 2002, the earlier announced accession date of 1 January 2003 for the first wave looks impossible; the Commission statement that it would be willing to accept members from then on is disingenuous. The ratification process will be lengthy: the UK press anticipate it will take between nine and 24 months, based on precedent. Depending on one's interpretation and maths, this means an earliest actual accession date of 1 January 2004 (according to the Financial Times) or 1 January 2005 (The Daily Telegraph).
Splitting the difference, The Independent felt the Reports' "road map" was still consistent with new members joining in time for the European Parliamentary elections in mid-2004, the target date favoured by British Prime Minister Tony Blair in Warsaw last month.
But at this distance, such dates are still mere predictions rather than real timetables (a major complaint of the applicant states). And they depend largely on successful ratification, no doubt involving at least one or two referendums: every single member state must approve each new member, with 15 states required to ratify this time—up from 12 last time. What price a bilateral problem getting in the way, such as Austria demanding that the Temelín nuclear power plant be closed down before it ratifies the Czechs' accession?
And the longer this process takes, the more popular support EU membership will lose in applicant countries—and it is possible that there may be referendums in applicant countries too. After all, Norwegians turned down EU entry.
Britain's new allies in Scandinavia and CEE
This British government has been encouraging eastward enlargement of late. "With the backing of Britain and Scandinavia, the Commission has championed the accession countries, prodding the EU's reluctant core to step up its 'historic responsibility' towards Eastern Europe," noted Evans-Pritchard in the Telegraph.
Note that on enlargement and other EU issues Blair has recently gone out of his way to build an alliance with Scandinavian and other smaller EU countries, which mirror the British position far more closely than do Paris or Berlin. Denmark has possibly overtaken Britain in Euro-scepticism, while Sweden is the British government's closest ally; it was noteable that British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, in his official reaction to the Reports, recalled Blair's appeal in Warsaw recently for "a breakthrough on enlargement under the Swedish presidency." France's declared plan to sort enlargement out at Nice in December always looked unlikely, and thus hopes have quickly shifted onto the coming Swedish half-year.
Germany and especially France are seen as relatively hostile to enlargement, more interested in forming the vanguard of a two-speed Europe. Admittedly, there is more political will in Germany than in France. According to Toby Helm in The Daily Telegraph (9 November), "guilt over crimes inflicted on Poland will ensure that whatever the political and economic obstacles, eastward expansion of the EU will be pushed forward." But the German public's attitude, following the problems with the fledgling euro, which was also imposed on them by their political masters, is now extremely wary.
Britain has also spied current and future allies in the form of the applicant countries themselves: it's no accident that Blair made his recent big EU speech in Warsaw. As a two-speed Europe develops, with Denmark, Britain and Sweden outside the eurozone, it is likely that most new members will find themselves initially in the B-stream alongside Britain.
Enlargement: a means as well as an end
Britain and its fellow B-stream members seem more keen on enlargement than all the euro stuff. So, supporting enlargement is both convenient and "the right thing to do," which enabled Robin Cook to declare with moral rectitude this week: "EU enlargement will re-unite Europe after the divisions of the Cold War."
However sincere these words, and one should not doubt that they are sincere, one must not forget that in Britain, Europe as a political issue is discussed almost entirely in terms of the single currency and federalism. The press and the opposition Conservative Party are obsessed with this.
For instance, on 9 November the Daily Mail, the most Euro-hostile of British newspapers, found no space to cover the Progress Reports at all. Yes, it was a busy day: there were the US elections and there was British Chancellor Gordon Brown's long-anticipated pre-Budget report. A choice was made and the Progress Reports were left out.
But the next day, the Mail spied a couple of Euro-stories which it could suddenly find space for: "France demands tax powers for EU" and "Blair to step up the euro charm offensive." That speaks volumes about priorities.
What follows from this media obsession with the single currency over enlargement? Principally that when British ministers, mindful of public opinion, which isn't too bothered about Central and Eastern Europe, make statements in support of enlargement, they generally have the subtext: "better to widen the union than to deepen it."
"In Britain," wrote Professor Vernon Bogdanor in The Guardian (8 November), "the hope now is that enlargement of the European Union will lead to dilution, a slowing-down of the pace of integration."
There is genuine enthusiasm among many ministers for enlargement, but, remember, enlargement is a means as much as an end. This affects the public attitude: a sizeable minority of the population supports enlargement, but it's certainly a minority. No one has really tried to sell the idea to the people.
There is a danger that the public in candidate states is also becoming
To that end the Financial Times set a good example by declaring that "the post-Cold War unification of Europe, which is what the enlargement of the European Union is all about... is much the most important item on the EU agenda because it will extend the political stability and economic prosperity of western Europe to the east and the south."
Oliver Craske, 10 November 2000
Also of interest:
- The 2000 Progress Reports in full
- CER update on accession candidates, May 2000
- CER commentary on the 1999 Progress Reports
- The 1999 Progress Reports in full
- Archived CER articles on EU affairs
- Archive of Oliver Craske's UK press reviews in CER
- Browse through the CER eBookstore for electronic books
- Buy English-language books on Central and Eastern Europe through CER
- Return to CER front page
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