The United Kingdom, the historical advocate of an active EU enlargement policy, including towards Turkey, has shown a change of tone at yesterday's EU summit (20 December).
Even though he still sees enlargement as 'one of the EU’s greatest strengths', Cameron, who has called for a restriction on the EU’s freedom of movement principle ahead of the lifting of labour restrictions for Romanians and Bulgarians on 1 January 2014, wants to find new control mechanisms before new members can join.
This development may appear as a paradox. For many years, British governments have pushed for an EU enlargement that would gradually transform the Union into a loose federation of member states.
“As we contemplate countries like Serbia and Albania one day joining the EU we must find a way to slow down access to each other’s labour markets until we can be sure this will not cause vast migrations […] I look forward to find a way to continue with enlargement but in a way that regains the trust and support of our peoples,” Cameron said, speaking to the press in Brussels on Friday.
On the eve of the EU summit, the largest British tabloid, The Sun, hijacked the Commission’s Berlaymont building walls to project an anti-immigration message thereby pressuring Cameron to toughen the tone, especially towards impoverished Eastern European countries, waiting in line to join the EU.
“When a new country joins, we have to look into what kind of transition controls we put in place. As I said […], it may be necessary to look at new mechanisms: percent of GDP, rates of wages, I don’t want to see what happened in the past,” he added, calling for a treaty change at the press conference.
But EU diplomatic sources claim this is just empty rhetoric.“If he was serious about changing the rules, the UK would have raised the question at the previous General Affairs Council, whose conclusions on enlargement Cameron endorsed. No other member state is raising this question in such a hysterical way. Enlargement policy is going on as it is without changes.”
Another EU source confirmed there had been no debate on this issue at the Council and that the “UK is isolated on the issue.”
“What Cameron said to the leaders is that he wants a discussion on this topic right before the next enlargement. That’s probably Montenegro in about five years’ time and Cameron will be gone by then. Believe me, comes summer we won’t even talk about this anymore. This is aimed at his domestic audience before 1 January,” he said, referring to the lifting of labour restrictions for Bulgarian and Romanian nationals.
Negotiations with Serbia
The big “winner” of the EU’s timid progress on enlargement is Serbia, who will be starting EU accession negotiations on 21 January 2014, a date determined by the Greek presidency earlier this week. But Serbia’s accession path looks thorny.
Despite the EU leaders’ green light, Serbia’s normalisation of relations with its neighbour Kosovo is still being closely monitored, “so that Serbia and Kosovo can continue on their respective European paths, while avoiding that either can block the other in these efforts.”
Kosovo broke away from Serbia after the 1999 war and proclaimed its independence in 2008, which Belgrade still refuses to recognise. An EU-facilitated dialogue started in 2011 and helped both countries smooth their relations.
Zoran Milanovic, the Prime Minister of the new EU member, Croatia, a former Yugoslav country who fought against Serbia in the early nineties, and whose country now has the power to veto Serbia’s EU membership, warned: “I expect Belgrade’s authorities to behave better on questions such as the heritage of war, minorities’ status […] We have not put barriers so far, we are we well-intentioned, and it is in our interest that Serbia becomes a member of the EU. But we all need to understand that the criteria in the EU are very demanding.”
Tirana’s hopes to get a candidate status with the EU, a first step that precedes the start of the negotiations with the EU bloc, were also dashed.
The Dutch parliament announced prior to the Summit it would block Albania’s progress due to concerns about the level of corruption and organised crime in the country. But the Netherlands were not isolated in their move. The UK, Germany, France and Denmark also said the granting of candidate status to Albania was premature.
“We are not currently supporting a move to candidate status for Albania,” David Cameron confirmed, adding: “There are quite a lot of steps that need to be taken before candidate status would become appropriate. I think we should use these steps to encourage putting in place measures against corruption, organised crime, and in favour of rule of law.”
According to the Commission, Albania has delivered on EU requirements and should be granted the status of candidate country. However, decisions regarding enlargement can only be taken by consensus of the member states.
Other enlargement countries include the tiny states of Montenegro, Macedonia and Bosnia Herzegovina.
The former is well on the way to becoming the next EU member state. The EU praised its progress in the reforms, although serious criticism regarding Podgorica’s “peculiar understanding of the rule of law” was voiced by foreign private investors on this website.
The two other countries are still far away from a serious breakthrough on their EU path and face many domestic challenges.