Europe wants to limit its growth

  • Should new countries be welcomed into the 28 member strong “Club Europe”?
  • How far should the EU boundaries extend?
  • The Commission is advancing gingerly.

Expansion of the European Union: continue or halt? The current mood leans more toward halting. On Wednesday the Commission reported on the candidate states’ progress toward inclusion in the Union. According to our information, no changes are foreseen aside from the proposal made to the present member states to grant “candidate” status to Albania, which is now simply a “potential candidate.”

The European Union’s growth seems to have stalled. The EU grew quickly from 15 to 28 states over the last 15 years. The European Commission is trying to do its job by keeping the flame burning. “The process is ongoing despite the economic and financial crisis.  It’s a tenable policy that works with another Union policy: intensification of its integration” noted Stefan Füle, Commissioner in charge of expansion.  The EU member states’ opinions have the same ring to them (according to the surveys). They are tired of the Union’s continued expansion while at same time being overwhelmed by internal problems and struggling with the candidate countries’ misbehavior.

Eight countries now have the status of member candidate or potential candidate. They will be heavily scrutinized. “A lot of progress has been recorded but much more remains to be done,” summarizes Pia Ahrenkilde, the Commission spokesperson.  “The level of candidate readiness will be judged using the measure of  ‘essential’ political and economical criteria,” explains Füle, “Economic and economic competitive governance, enforcement of the rule of law, the fight against corruption, functional institutions and basic rights for all, including minorities.”

Lithuania is presently taking its rotating semester-long turn at the EU presidency. Vilnius has bet on “neighborhood policy” rather than expansion, and more specifically, on the Union’s  “Eastern partnership”. This idea is to conclude association agreements with countries like Ukraine, Georgia and Moldavia. This would connect them to Europe instead of seeing them drawn back into Russia’s orbit. Moscow, which sees a containment policy in these actions, is livid. The process could move forward though, during a late November summit in Vilnius dedicated to the subject. On January 1, Lithuania will pass the torch to Greece.

Athens obviously has higher priorities than expansion. They include socio-economic, immigration and border control issues along with strengthening the Union by reinforcing EU and the Eurozone’s integration. It was in Greece, though, which exactly ten years ago that the Thessaloniki summit was promising a European future to the Western Balkan states, all of which were “potential candidates.” One decade later, the process is still ongoing.

Slovenia was able to become a member state in 2004, the “big bang” year when a block of ten Central and Eastern European as well as Baltic States became members all at once. Croatia, after ten years of negotiation, finally became part of the club last July 1, but Zagreb then immediately started playing hardball with “Brussels” by refusing to comply with Europe’s warrant. This gave cold comfort to the member states that are already reluctant to pursue expansion, although the controversy was solved a few days ago.

Croatia’s entry, the first in five years, could be the last for a long time to come. After Bulgaria and Romania entered in 2007, the member states became much stricter prior to accepting Croatia.  “In an atmosphere of difficult times for the EU, with a looming North-South divide, some member states are considering leaving the Union (editor’s note: the United Kingdom). There is a lack of interest in continued expansion. Efforts need to be made on both sides in order to pursue expansion,” admits Axel Wallden, who was Commission expansion director shortly before the official admission of Croatia.

Europe’s luster has dulled somewhat due to the old continent’s deep crisis. Turkey, tired of waiting, is showing signs of loss of interest in the project. This hesitation to join the club reached a climax with Iceland. A short report will still be published regarding the northern island’s progress prior to any decision to suspend negotiations. “It’s a way of keeping the door open, but the Commission does not draw any particular lesson from this failure with Reykjavik. It’s up to the countries in question to decide if they still want to join the Union,” states the executive branch spokesperson.

The Balkan states have been hit hard by the crisis, so there’s no hurry to take on “new problems.” The European entrepreneurs are now less enthusiastic about these newly emerging markets. Last year, the Commission’s “expansion strategy” could use Croatia’s imminent membership as an illustration to spin a positive narrative. This year’s theme, however, seems to be the status quo. Even if the fundamental goal remains unchanged, there is a need to stabilize the region and provide it with clear prospects in order to keep it from sinking into a kind of dead zone right in front of our eyes.

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