EU Enlargement: Receding Into An Uncertain Future

LONDON: Now that NATO expansion is a reality, both its new members and those who were passed over will turn their eyes to the European Union. But one often overlooked upshot of the recent, failed EU summit in Amsterdam casts doubt over the prospects for EU enlargement into Eastern Europe. It has long been obvious that EU enlargement would be a more difficult and protracted process than some Western politicians implied. But the Amsterdam deadlock underlines how difficult it is likely to be, and raises doubts about whether it will happen at all.

Some Western leaders seemed to promise that enlargement could be a fast-track operation, at least for the front-runners. Two years ago, Chancellor Kohl of Germany set the year 2000 as the target date for Poland to join the European Union; and last September President Jacques Chirac of France endorsed this target in a speech to Poland’s parliament.

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Such a time-table is not just implausible: it is impossible. Membership negotiations are not due to start till 1998, and it is unlikely that any can take less than two years. Also, they cannot be concluded until the EU agrees some essential internal reforms, including reform of the common agricultural policy and the regional and other structural funds. Finally, these reforms, and the accession treaties for the new members, will have to be ratified by all existing member states and by all new member states.

These reforms will be difficult to negotiate, because they involve re-opening of old bargains and a rebalancing of economic concessions and advantages between member states.

Farm policy, for example, cannot be extended to Eastern Europe in its present form; partly because it would be far too expensive for the Community budget, but mainly because such a sudden increase in farm price levels would inflict damaging distortions on the economies of candidate countries. One solution might be to scale back price supports in Western Europe; but this would incite fierce resistance from farmers, especially in poorer countries with larger farm sectors. A third option might be that new members could only take part in the farm policy after a long transition.

Similar problems are posed by the regional and structural funds, long used to compensate the poorer member states for their relative disadvantages compared with the most industrialised members. By the same logic, regional policy ought to be a means of benefitting Eastern Europe. But appling existing regional policies to both Eastern Europe and Western Europe is impossible, because it would cost far too much; but if it were suggested that the regional fund should be mainly diverted to Eastern Europe, voters and parliaments in Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain would resist any scaling back of their traditional subsidies.

These and other reforms will involve fierce struggles of national vested interests, which means that they will not be settled quickly; until they are settled, however, the negotiations with candidates from the East cannot be completed. All in all, it seems unlikely that any new member state can expect to take its place in the Council of Ministers before 2002-2003, and some observers believe the date could easily slip to 2005 or beyond.

But even this more plausible time-table now looks more doubtful since the failure of the Amsterdam summit. The primary purpose assigned to this negotiation was to prepare the European Union’s institutions for enlargement, by reforming its rules in such a way that a mega-Europe of 25 or 30 states would not be paralysed by sheer weight of numbers.

In practice this means two things. First, the governments need to agree to extend the use of majority voting in the Council of Ministers, so that decision-making would be easier. But second, and much more important, they need to readjust the relative voting weights of the large and small member states.

Small members of the EU have more votes than would be proportional to their population, and they have enjoyed this voting premium for forty years. This was quite manageable in the early days, when there were only three small members and three large. But it would be much less manageable in a mega-Europe, when the small members would outnumber the large nineteen to six, and a minority of the Union’s population could have a hefty majority of the votes.

In effect, the member states have tacitly recognised that the problemsof enlargement to Eastern Europe could not be handled without dealing, in one way or another, with the question of federalism. This is not to say that a mega-Europe must become a fully fledged federation; but it is clear that it would have to move further in a federal direction than it is now. So long as the relative voting weights of the large and small countries remained unchanged, the member states could skirt round the federal question. But once they broke the mould, they were forced to address the question of the relationships of the nation-states to each other and to the Union.

At Amsterdam EU members were totally deadlocked on this voting issue. They pretended that they could postpone the question until after Eastern enlargement was well under way, but nobody should be fooled. For the moment, the omens are not good. Not long ago, Chancellor Kohl used to press urgently for more majority voting, but at Amsterdam he had swung round in favour of keeping unanimity in several key areas. Lionel Jospin, France’s new Socialist Prime Minister, seems unsure about how far he is really committed to the European Union. And Tony Blair’s New Labour government seems only a shade less Euro-sceptic than the Conservative government he replaced.

Yet the fact is that the question of voting weights, and with it the question of federalism, are both now well and truly on the table. Until they are addressed, it is difficult to believe that enlargement will get very far.