Quo Vadis EU III: At Europe’s frontier - has the EU reached its limit?


May 8, 2008
By Thorsten Arndt

 German Version

“Quo Vadis EU?” - The uncertainty inherent in the motto for this conference, organised by the Heinrich Böll Foundation, was clearly shared by the participants on 25th April at the Berlin House of Representatives. At this conference on the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), researchers and EU politicians discussed why there has been so little progress towards its objective of creating a “circle of friendly nations”.

The end of the policy of enlargement

The EU’s “neighbourhood policy” used to be synonymous with its enlargement policy. Through several rounds of enlargement member states introduced bordering countries politically, economically and socially into the “heart” of the union and then went on to accept them as full members of the club. Enlargement was seen as part and parcel of the progressive integration of the union.

Georg Vobruba, Professor of Sociology at the University of Leipzig, characterised the process in his introductory remarks as a self-reinforcing dynamic. As a result of the new member states’ overwhelming interest in securing prosperity and political stability, they supported rapprochement and then membership for each ensuing wave of new EU neighbours.

Now, the automatic impetus towards enlargement has waned. Public opinion in most EU countries remains highly sceptical of any new accession rounds, and not just in the case of Turkey. A significant proportion of Europe’s political elite is afraid that having more member states would heighten internal differences within the EU and block the political process. Reacting to these concerns, the EU Commission presented the ENP strategy paper in 2004.

Problems with the European Neighbourhood Policy

The idea of a “Fortress Europe” has always had its critics. It has now become wholly untenable given the international nature of most modern crises. The ENP is set to continue the EU’s “enlargement dynamic” (Vobruba), but on different terms. This EU programme offers its neighbours in Eastern Europe, the Mediterranean and the Southern Caucasus closer economic, political and cultural cooperation. Although there are many parallels between the new plans of action and the programmes and instruments of the old enlargement policy, some specialists point to two crucial differences.

1. Lack of accession prospects
Countries participating in the ENP no longer have any official prospect of accession. Rolf Mafael of the German Foreign Ministry defended the lack of a clear commitment to enlargement, reminding participants that accession is not ruled out later on. However Georg Vobruba countered that this may be too vague an incentive for many neighbouring states. Political and economical rapprochement, even in the past, has always involved high costs and risks in the short term, he stated. With no definite prospect of the “top prize” of membership, many countries would be left wondering why they should bother to comply with the EU’s onerous requirements.

Igor Zhovka, on the staff of the Deputy Prime Minister of the Ukraine, and Olena Prystayko from the President of the Ukraine’s National Academy for Public Administration echoed Vobruba’s assessment. In Prystayko’s opinion, the ENP will make no contribution to political transformation in the Ukraine. With Igor Zhovka, she argued on historical, economic and political grounds for Ukraine to be given a clear prospect of accession. Eugeniusz Smolar, President of the Center for International Relations in Warsaw, also believes there should be no problems with Ukraine joining in the near future. In his view, Poland is quite likely to put this on the agenda during the Polish presidency of the EU in 2011.

2. Ethical rhetoric but no action
Elisabeth Schroedter, member of the European Parliament, referred to a second potential gap in the ENP. The new instruments of the ENP, in Schroedter’s view, place far too little emphasis on human rights, constitutional reforms and democratic standards, unlike previous policies in practice. She believed that this decision has resulted in the EU’s current migration policy contributing almost nothing to a humanitarian solution of the situation of refugees in the Southern Mediterranean countries.

Annegret Bendiek from the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik referred in her speeches to the discrepancy between the EU’s rhetoric and practice in neighbouring countries. Constitutional norms and human rights were being ignored, particularly where resource-rich countries were concerned, in the interests of energy policy.

Omar Mestiri of the National Council for Liberties in Tunisia went so far as to accuse the EU of supporting repressive regimes through their actions. In Tunisia, he stated, despite falsification of votes, increased suppression of moderate political entities and large numbers of human rights violations, Europe is concentrating on signing economic agreements and collaborating with the regime in the “war against terror”, he stated. This failed strategy, he continued, has contributed to the rise in numbers of “jihadis” in Tunisia.

Minimum standards of human rights

Most of the conference participants, however, were of the opinion that Europe, in cooperating with undemocratic regimes, is pursuing thoroughly legitimate interests related to its own security and energy policy. Democratisation of the countries of the Southern Mediterranean or the South Caucasus is, in Annegret Bendiek’s view, unlikely to be implemented, even with well-intentioned EU programmes. However that was no reason to ignore violations of basic human rights. The EU could, for example, insist that the ENP partner countries sign the Geneva Refugee Convention before closer cooperation. In Elisabeth Schroedter’s opinion, political limits to an increased commitment at government level could be addressed by increasing local funding for non-governmental organisations and civil society projects.

Mediterranean Union versus East European Union?

The case studies of Ukraine and Tunisia presented during the conference clearly demonstrated that the EU faces an entirely different set of problems in the East and South of Europe. A few months ago, these contrasts led France’s President Sarkozy to propose the formation of a Mediterranean Union. However, Sarkozy’s idea of a new basis for relations between the seven Mediterranean states of the EU and the states of the Southern Mediterranean (including Turkey) was met with criticism from all conference participants. Rainder Steenblock of the Green Party in the German Bundestag reports a conversation with the French Foreign Minister in which he says the Minister freely admitted that France was pursuing its own economic aims with the new initiative. Jordi Vaquer i Fanes of the CIDOB foundation in Barcelona added that the French proposal had come about as a result of pressure from the Euro-sceptic Left which is opposed to any further deepening of the Union.

The idea of an East European Union as a counter to France’s initiative also met with no approval. Some experts did however argue for a regional division of the ENP. They felt that the programme in the East was inadequate in its current state since it could not satisfy the countries’ desire to join the EU. In the South, by contrast, the programme is mostly unnecessary since there is hardly any interest in EU membership or in sweeping political reforms.

Rolf Mafael of the German Foreign Ministry and Barbara Lippert of the Institut für Europäische Politik opposed a regionalisation of the ENP for two reasons. Firstly, a split was unnecessary since the ENP is already set up on a country-specific basis. The EU is therefore, at least theoretically, in a position to address the specific conditions in each neighbouring country. Secondly, the ENP’s internal function within the EU should not be overlooked. The programme operates as an important platform where the divergent interests of the member states can be balanced out.

Alternatives to EU membership.

Is there a way out of the dilemma posed by the dynamics of European development? Many experts insisted that future enlargement of the EU must be possible even without allocation of full membership. Dimitar Bechev, Research Fellow at the European Studies Centre and Lecturer in International Relations at Oxford, added that the institutional borders of the EU are even today far from unambiguously defined. Countries such as Norway and Switzerland are models of a successful alternative type of integration without the status of full membership.

In the case of the Ukraine, Olena Prystayko proposed a compromise of a “semi-membership” which might be based on limited and very specific agreements between the EU and the Ukraine without the aim of full membership. In Georg Vobruba’s view the ENP could provide a range of similarly diverse integration models falling short of full membership. Alternatively the status of EU membership could be redefined to allow future accessions.

Barbara Lippert argued against diluting EU membership in this way. The EU is an international legal entity and so there is a clear distinction between the different forms of integration and full membership. This standpoint on institutional diversity is ultimately a transitional phase for the EU, since full membership with all rights at the heart of Europe remains the most attractive option.

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