Interview: The EU’s integration capacity

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Talking to EURACTIV, Alexander Stubb MEP, gives his opinion on “enlargement capacity”. Stubb is rapporteur to the European Parliament’s Committee on Constitutional affairs, which is to draft a report on the “institutional aspects of the EU’s capacity to integrate new member states”. He argues that institutional change is a condition for enlargement.

How do you define the EU’s institutional capacity to integrate new member states?

“It is impossible to provide a universal definition for the Union’s integration capacity. Each enlargement is different and based on two elements: number of member states and time. The EU’s institutional capacity to integrate Greece in 1981 was a rather different from the big bang in 2004.”

How is this “capacity to integrate new member states” different from the Commission’s definition of “enlargement capacity”?

“There is no real difference. My argument is that the Union needs to be ready for each enlargement on three accounts: institutions, budget and policies. If it passes the litmus test on all of these, then the Union is ready to enlarge. It is important to stress that integration capacity is the responsibility of the current member states, not the applicant states.”

Commissioner Rehn recently at a press conference spoke of a “functioning capacity” rather than an “absorption capacity”. Does this go in the direction of your idea of the “institutional aspect of the EU’s capacity to integrate new member states”?

“Yes indeed, but there is a small difference. Rehn is a functionalist and I am a federalist. He is more focused on policies. I am more focused on institutions.”

Do you think there should be an enlargement pause before there is any further institutional reform?

“It is a legal fact that we cannot enlarge on the basis of the Nice. The treaty tells us that we have to adjust the size of the Commission when we reach 27 member states. In that sense Croatia can’t join before some form of institutional settlement is found. Politically I believe that we need a constitutional treaty before further enlargement, but I do not consider it to be a condition or a requirement.”

How many more members do you think the EU will be able to integrate?

“I am not in the business of predicting the future. I am also firmly against the idea of defining the borders of Europe. I do, however, believe that we must stick to our commitments, i.e. the ongoing negotiations of Turkey and Croatia, and the membership perspective of the Western Balkans. If Norway, Iceland and Switzerland were to file for membership, I would be delighted.”

What possibilities are there to make the EU institutionally fit to integrate a large country such as Turkey?

“The Constitutional Treaty would be a good start, but I stress, just a good start…” Stubb also said, without wanting to predict the future, he thinks that the more federal the institutions are, the easier it is to make decisions on enlargement or treaty change. He argues that in the future, every decision in the EU should be taken by majority in the future and not unanimity.

He further added: “Turkey as such is not an institutional problem, it is a political problem. Whatever we decide, the institutions should follow.”

Sinan Ülgen, President of the Turkish think tank EDAM, argues that if the EU wants to apply “absorption capacity” as a criterion for EU entry, then it only makes sense to do it before the start of accession talks and not at the end. What is your opinion on that?

“The “absorption capacity” is not a legal criterion. It is a prerequisite of the EU as such, but it has nothing to with the candidate state in question.” He said that it had always been used to pressure the Union to transform, and added: “that’s how I think it should be taken.”

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