Enlargement: Why not a gradual approach?

On 17 October the European Council refused to start accession negotiations with Northern Macedonia and Albania.

The conclusion under the heading ‘Enlargement’ reads – one sentence! – that the European Council ‘will revert to the issue of enlargement before the EU-Western Balkans summit in Zagreb in May 2020’.

A simple, but unsatisfactory approach.

Peace and stability are the fundamental objectives of European Union cooperation.

The success of EU cooperation is illustrated by the fact that the number of member states has increased, from 6 in the fifties, to 28 at present. The possible withdrawal of the United Kingdom doesn’t alter this finding, if it is only because still quite a number of third countries have applied for membership. Apparently, the way we cooperate attracts others to be part of that process.

Of course, it is easy to argue that the states ‘in the waiting room’ are not as yet ready for accession. No wonder, if one thinks for a moment about the history of these countries, where they come from. The events organised these days in the framework of the commemoration of ‘30 Years after the fall of the Berlin Wall’ should remind us that 30 years ago we were living in quite a different Europe: Europe was divided between East and West; there was an Iron Curtain; we experienced the end of a long Cold War in the framework of which Central and Eastern Europe had been dominated by communism; and peace – what’s in a name! – on our continent was ‘protected’ by deterrent systems of nuclear weapons.

But look, only 30 years later, what we have achieved!

This means we must recognize the problems the potential and candidate member states are faced with in their respective processes of reforms and modernization. Instead of criticising them for not having made enough progress, we must support them in their efforts to overcome these problems.

We should thus not wait to start negotiations for accession until the crucial conditions for membership – democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, to mention the most important – have been fully fulfilled. It is better to assist them, with all means available, in meeting these requirements and, in parallel, to organise the process how to involve them in the current EU policies through a ‘step by step’ approach.

Why, for example, not allow countries like North Macedonia and Albania to attend meetings aiming to coordinate our national foreign policies? We also could go one step further, and involve them in other security areas – think of our asylum and migration policy or the combat of international crime – as well. These are common problems which can best be solved by common solutions.

Participation in the internal market cooperation can then follow once these countries have established a proper market economy system.

Certainly, before allowing third states to participate in each and every area of EU cooperation, all conditions for EU membership (the so-called Copenhagen criteria of 1993) must be met. Having said that, these requirements must also be maintained, and enforced, all along the process, by the way not only with regard to new member states but towards all member states.

However, that should not mean that the accession negotiations cannot begin. Leaving states that have a clear desire to accede to the EU outside our cooperation framework for too long, can only add to the unrest already widely existing at our external borders.

Peace and stability on the European continent, and freedom and democracy as the primary tools to achieve these objectives: that is what EU cooperation is all about. All European states subscribing to these objectives and having the ambition to implement them should be entitled to take part in that process. They cannot be endlessly refused to participate therein.

With regard to enlargement, therefore, a timely but gradual, step by step, approach is to be recommended.

Jaap de Zwaan

TEPSA Secretary-General


Photo credits: https://europa.eu/newsroom/highlights/special-coverage/enlargement_en