Over the past year, the European Union (EU) has showed clear signs of metamorphosis. So far, it looks like it is moving towards an ever-closer economic and political union. Meanwhile, the greatest challenge to the idea of "Le grande Europa" remains that of territorial unity. Without doubt, the passing year will be remembered as the year when enlargement was finally taken seriously.
In February 2000, the first intergovernmental conference, concerned mainly with preparations for enlargement, was launched. The following Nice summit was to be a relay from the Amsterdam conference of 1996, where issues of enlargement were addressed but not resolved. Whether the EU will come out of Nice as (finally) a federalist dream come true or as a two-tier (dis)union will clearly determine much of the fate of the hopeful accession states.
At the same time, this year saw the end of the long criticized division between the Luxembourg and the Helsinki group of candidate countries, at least formally. The accession conference of mid-November implemented, for the first time, the principle of differentiation whereby candidates were approached on the basis of individual progress.
This change of strategy was largely a result of the evidence and recommendations highlighted in the Progress Reports on accession states. Overall, countries have made considerable efforts in meeting the basic economic and in part political criteria; it became obvious. They were, however, encouraged to pay greater attention to the implementation of the acquis communautaire.
Nevertheless, the final word on enlargement remains in the hands of the EU bureaucracy and the few most powerful member states. Thus, other developments within the Union inevitably influenced the dynamic of the enlargement process.
The attitudes towards enlargement within the EU remained as controversial as ever. They indicated yet again that members were ready to go only as far as their immediate interests would allow them. The continuing weakness and instability of the euro is in a way exemplary of the confusion still surrounding visions of enlargement.
To start with, the launch of the new currency in 1999 with a "one size fits all" policy was a recipe for instability. Countries with mature economies, such as France and Germany, required monetarist policies that were in no way suited for the higher levels of economic growth in Ireland and Portugal, for example. The conflict of interest among countries with different patterns of economic development was therefore obvious.
Conflict of interest also emerged within states such as Germany, for which enlargement posed short-term economic challenges but promised long-run benefits. Thus, the economic reform in the Union prior to enlargement did not enjoy much credibility. In this way, it was not surprising that many saw the prospective incorporation of transition economies (with great inefficiencies) into the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) as taking the already unstable euro on the verge of collapse.
Meanwhile, as much as the fear of economic breakdown upon enlargement was a reasonable concern, it was also mobilized to exacerbate already existing reservations among member states. In this respect, the rise of the new right in Austria was indicative of some of the most fundamental fears of eastern enlargement.
Economic migration, especially in states bordering candidate countries, was the issue that most successfully consolidated public opinion against the future of an enlarged union. Apparently, the ideological goodwill to reunite Europe after the Cold War ran once again counter the deeply embedded divide between East and West; a divide that was not based on state ideology but on economic, cultural and religious differences that seemed to split Europe into (at least) two distinct realities.
Thus, as a result of the rising resentment or, at best, apathy towards the EU's project of unprecedented enlargement, the Commission showed its intention to start a public information campaign. After all, this was the most feasible policy decision to be made with respect to engaging the population in a positive way. If the public was convinced of the benefits of eastward enlargement then the Union could retain, rather bolster, its legitimacy of a democratically run organization.
Overall, the project of enlargement endangered the very nature and intent of the idea of United Europe.
Defense and security
The issues of defense and security continued to play a significant role in the enlargement strategy of the Union.
On one hand, the "return" of Yugoslavia to democracy and its long awaited comeback from international isolation opened a new page in the EU's relations with the Western Balkans. Rapid measures were undertaken for the incorporation and integration of the region, which took the form of the already tested methods of trade liberalization and financial aid that naturally came with political strings attached.
The overall objective of the EU, and the international community for that matter, was to ensure the stability of Southeast Europe. Thus, the ultimate EU carrot for the countries in the troubled (and troubling) area was future acceptance in the European family.
Partly as a response to the exhaustive conflict in the former Yugoslavia and to the restructuring of NATO, the EU initiated its Rapid Reaction Force (RRF), which was to take over some of the activities of the North Atlantic alliance in Europe. As it usually happens with good intentions, the RRF sparked problems among member states and candidates. At the heart of the matter was the delegation of responsibility and participation in the decision-making process within the force.
Thus, conflicts arose between EU and NATO affiliated states that were to participate in the RRF. The tension was especially heightened between non-EU NATO members who were aspiring for membership (Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Turkey) and the major stakeholders in the EU with respect to this new formation (UK, France, Germany and Italy).
Turkey's pledge for the RRF was a clear statement of its problematic relationship with the EU. This ambivalence of EU-Turkey relations arises from two sides. On one hand, Turkey is of extreme strategic and geopolitical importance for the EU, especially when relations with the Middle East are concerned.
On the other hand, it is a country that—even on a purely bureaucratic, let alone political level—will have to carry out significant, often very sensitive, reforms before it can be healthily acquiesced. Recently, the conditionality imposed on Turkey (involving settlement of long-standing conflicts with Greece over Cyprus and the Aegean) became too high to accept. Hopefully, the current stalemate between the EU and Turkey will be resolved in Nice.
Hold your breath
It will not come as a big surprise that there are still a lot of "ifs" and "buts" hanging in the air. However, many of the uncertainties of expansion may shortly be disappearing. For Europe has taken a path from which there is no turning back.
Ivana Gogova, 6 December 2000
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