Europe after the Eastern Enlargement of the European Union: 2004-2014

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EU attitudes towards enlargement, ten years on

Ten years after the first eastern enlargement, attitudes in the EU towards further enlargement – both among publics and among Member State governments – have become noticeably more negative. Of course it should not be forgotten that the incumbent Member States were also rather reluctant about the 2004 enlargement. The EU’s reluctance to commit to the goal of enlargement was a longstanding source of frustration for the post-communist applicant countries. The Member States did not acknowledge enlargement as a shared objective until 1993; it took until 1998 to start accession negotiations with the first post-communist countries; and, as mentioned above, the accession treaties were distinctly unfavourable to the new members. Even in Member States, where the government was among the strongest supporters of enlargement, such as Germany or Austria, public opinion was distinctly negative. Nonetheless, public opinion has become noticeably more negative about enlargement since 2004.

A recent review of the literature on public opinion towards enlargement in the EU reveals increasing hostility among EU citizens.  As of 2012, EU-wide representative surveys show a net negative opinion towards enlargement. And even when earlier surveys still indicted net support, underneath the aggregate support there was considerable, and growing, opposition in many of the old Member States, most notably France, Germany and Austria. In these countries, public opposition to enlargement remains strongest. There also seems to be an east-west divide in attitudes towards further enlargements: in all old Member States, except for Spain, a majority of the population opposes further enlargement, while in the post-communist Member States – except for the Czech Republic and Slovakia – the majority supports enlargement.

Although there is still a gap between the attitudes of elites and public opinion, the position of Member State governments towards further enlargements has become more openly hostile, partly in response to public opinion. Just as public opinion is most opposed to the accession of Turkey and Albania, these two countries also are the main focus of open opposition from Member State governments.

In France, changes to the constitution since 2005 make it compulsory to hold a referendum on further EU enlargements, unless the two houses of parliament, meeting in congress, endorse it with a demanding 3/5 majority. This constitutional change was a response to perceived public opposition and evidence that the failed ratification of the draft Constitutional Treaty in France was partly due to hostility to opposition to enlargement (even if the treaty had no link to enlargement). Politicians in Germany and Austria in particular have openly questioned whether the accession negotiations with Turkey should lead to accession, and suggested instead a vaguely defined ‘privileged partnership’ (which ignores that Turkey already enjoys such a privileged partnership with the EU and it is difficult to identify measures, short of accession, to make the relationship closer).

More generally, a sense of ‘enlargement fatigue’ has characterised Member State government attitudes especially since the accession of Romania and Bulgaria in 2007. The uncertainty surrounding ratification of the Treaty of Lisbon after the failure of the Constitutional Treaty, combined with the economic and financial crisis from 2008, made the member states and the Commission reluctant to accelerate the ongoing enlargement processes. For example, when Montenegro and Albania submitted their formal applications for membership in December 2008 and April 2009 respectively, several Member States, led by Germany and The Netherlands, took the unprecedented step to block the Council’s request for the Commission’s opinions on these applications (which had hitherto been considered an automatic, technical act) for several months. Moreover, although the Commission recommended granting the status of an official candidate country to Albania, a number of Member States in the Council have so far – as of May 2014 – opposed even such a symbolic step.

At the same time, the negative impact of hostility to enlargement on the prospect of further enlargements should not be overstated. There has been much progress towards membership across the would-be members in South-East Europe, maybe with the exceptions of Bosnia-Herzegovina, where progress remains limited, and Turkey, with which accession negotiations (opened in 2005) have stalled (at least partly due to the failure of the Turkish government to recognise the Republic of Cyprus as well as recent restrictions on civil liberties by the AKP government). Otherwise, however, Croatia joined in July 2013. Montenegro and Serbia have started accession negotiations. (The Former Yugoslav Republic of) Macedonia has obtained candidate status and the only obstacle to the opening of accession negotiations is a veto by Greece while the dispute over the country’s name remains unresolved. Kosovo – although not recognised by five member states – has concluded the negotiations for a Stabilisation and Association Agreement.

Such progress notwithstanding, the clearest indication of a prevailing ‘enlargement fatigue’ in the EU is the success of opponents of enlargement in introducing a renewed emphasis on the EU’s ‘absorption capacity’ as a key requirement for further enlargement.  The condition that the EU could only enlarge if it was able to absorb new members without jeopardising the momentum of European integration had been one of the criteria listed by the Copenhagen European Council in 1993. It had been controversial for being a condition that was outside the control of the candidate countries and could therefore become an instrument for reluctant member state governments to stall enlargement.  In the event, the notion of the EU’s absorption capacity did not play a major role in the 2004 enlargement. In 2006, the Commission made an attempt to define in clearer and more functional terms what this notion entailed: the impact of enlargement on the EU’s budget and its ability to implement common policies, and on effective and accountable decision-making.

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