Professor: Enlarged EU is ‘slower’

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The enlarged EU is slower at making decisions and it remains to be seen whether the Lisbon Treaty will improve matters, Dr. Timothy Haughton, senior lecturer on Russian and East European Studies at the University of Birmingham, told EURACTIV Slovakia in an interview.

Timothy Haughton delivered a lecture in Bratislava on 8 February at a conference entitled 'Awkward and Compliant: The Preferences and Impacts of the New EU Member States'.

He was speaking to EURACTIV Slovakia's Zuzana Gabrizova.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here

The supporters of the 2004 and 2007 EU enlargements argued that the new member states would bring a new dynamic to EU integration when it comes to drawing up new agendas. Do you thing such expectations have materialised?

If we look at the EU today and we compare it to the EU in the first half of 2004, it is a different entity. The new member states have brought new agendas and new perspectives.

There was a change in EU attitudes towards the East, for example. We saw that very soon after the 2004 enlargement with the reaction to the 'Orange Revolution' in Ukraine. We see it to some extent reflected in the Eastern partnership.

Secondly, I think that the majority of the new member states are much more pro-liberalisation in terms of their economic agenda and there has been a strengthening of belief in the merits of the market. Although the global credit crunch has had a significant impact on the EU, the tendency towards protectionism is less strong today than it would have been five or six years ago if the new member states hadn't joined.

The Union has not perhaps been transformed as much as some people would have liked, but the EU works quite slowly and it becomes more difficult when member states have to come to an agreement. This is reflected very well in the sagas of the ratification of the Constitutional Treaty and the Lisbon Treaty. So it is perhaps not as dynamic as it once was, but we are entering a new era now and the new Lisbon arrangements could help improve things. We will see.

Overall, we have seen some changes, but not that many, which is perhaps not that surprising since these ten new states are much smaller and generally poorer, with less well-developed state capacity than the older member states.

Can we speak of some kind of common pattern in the priorities of the new member states? Take for example Slovenia, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, which you covered in your study, or the Visegrad countries [Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary]?

I think the underlying economic dependencies of these countries are a shared factor that is important. All of these states are very open in terms of the economy; they are highly dependent on trade with the EU.

That helps shape the attitude that tends to be supportive of general liberalisation and economic cooperation within Europe. Another kind of common factor which is important for these three countries is geography.

To a slightly different extent, but for geographical reasons, enlargement to the Western Balkans is seen as quite a positive thing.

Moreover, developing good relations with the East is important, whatever the mechanism used. Geography shapes their attitude in terms of the wider European agenda.

Some of these deep underlying vulnerabilities can play some kind of a role, which is intimately linked to questions of size, for example. So there are some commonalities, which we can see in Slovenia, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. But when we look at Poland, it is quite exceptional in some respects, so maybe it is more helpful to think about these things excluding Poland, and then I think we can see many more commonalities.

You mentioned that even when governments in these countries change, their preferences at European level remain more or less stable. How do you explain this?

Although governments have different ideological positions, politicians in these states are primarily interested in the domestic agenda. Robert Fico, for example, was elected by criticising the neo-liberal agenda of [EPP-affiliated former Prime Minister Mikulas] Dzurinda and [former finance minister in the same government Ivan] Mikloš. For him, the primary focus of politics is domestic.

Two European issues have been important to politicians like Fico – entry into Schengen and eurozone membership, which can be seen as the completion of integration. And that is only because he can sell it back to the Slovak electorate and say: 'Look, I got us into Schengen, I got us into the euro zone'.

For politicians like Fico, they know that they have limited power and influence at European level due to the size and strength of a country like Slovakia. He is more concerned about being prime minister and dominating Slovak politics.

Linked to that are the underlying vulnerabilities of states like Slovakia, which are linked to the structure of the economy. It is important whether business decides to locate here in Slovakia or in a neighbouring country.

For the current government in Slovakia, they would be shooting themselves in the foot if they started suggesting, 'yes, we are all in favour of the same level of taxation in Europe'.

From the outsider's perspective, and for non-specialists, the only visible motivations of Slovakia as an EU member are receiving EU funds – the more the better – further EU enlargement, and opposition to tax harmonisation. Do you think the government should better communicate its European priorities to the public, or is it better to keep this in Council meetings behind closed doors?

I am generally in favour of the benefits of engaging with your citizens, your voters and those who live with the consequences of your policies. In an ideal world I would like to see much more engagement between governments and citizens on what positions should be taken.

But slightly in defence of the government, I would like to make some comments. I do not mean to be critical of the media, but let's face it – European policy areas are quiet, dull and quite boring. The position on a very complicated European directive is hardly likely to be something that your editor would say: 'That sounds like a fascinating topic, let's have a big story on it!' I am not criticising: they have to sell newspapers.

Many ordinary voters are not so concerned about the European level. However, there are decisions made in Brussels that are mainly technical, but could have very serious impact on the lives of ordinary citizens.

I can see how difficult it is to talk about this. There are only 24 hours in a day. Most people do not want to talk about the details of these things, and it is often only when the consequences of those policy areas are felt that someone says: 'Hey, why haven't we talked about this? How is it possible that someone signed up for this?'

You can put lot of things online these days. I would advocate as much transparency as possible. The only danger with transparency is that the nature of politics is that certain deals have to be struck in private.

Recently Robert Fico vocally claimed that Slovakia was interested in securing the energy portfolio in the new European Commission. Since this did not happen, it was interpreted as a personal failure and a failure of Slovak diplomacy.

I would perhaps say it it was not a personal failure, but the right strategy wasn't used. The problem is that energy has become such a significant issue in Europe at this time that it was going to become a portfolio that a number of states wanted to have. So there is always a risk that when you articulate an interest in particular portfolio that you know other states are going to be interested in, you stand the risk that you are not going to be successful.

On the other hand, you do want to make people very well aware this is the portfolio that you want. If you make those feelings very public, it can be problematic. What is important is that the president of the Commission knows what your preferences are, but when you make it too public and you do not get it, it looks like you have not been successful.

But for a country like Slovakia I think it was worth trying to push for that portfolio, due to the importance of the issue for Slovakia. But it was unlikely that Slovakia would be given that. In politics you sometimes have to make a big song and dance and push, so that even if you do not get your first choice, you might end up with something approaching it, so that you can sell it back to your electorate and say: 'Well at least we have got this significant portfolio'.

Some people said that Poland was successful in pushing for the Eastern Partnership because it was able to bring Sweden on board as its key ally. Do you think the best way for the new member states to bring forward their initiatives is to find allies among – if possible – older member states?

Smart states within the EU realise that to get anything done, you need allies and in any policy area that might involve a significant amount of money, it is not a bad idea to have a net contributor member state involved, because it then gives the impression that yes, it is going to cost some money, but this is going to be money well spent. Because most of the net contributors do not necessarily object to the amount of money that is to be spent at the EU level. What they care about most is that the money is well spent.

Yes, it makes sense to make allies sometimes with the old member states. It makes sense – not necessarily to have just one ally – but it is very helpful to have a number of different allies. it is especially good if you can get one of the big member states on board.

Sometimes you achieve that by allowing them to take some of the credit for pushing the agenda. If what really matters at the European level is that you want a particular policy introduced, than to some extent you have to swallow a little bit your domestic ego and accept that someone else will also share credit for this. But if the primary objective is getting things changed then it doesn't matter.

By working with other member states in pushing initiatives you increase your visibility at the European level and you help to create the image that you are a positive and constructive state.

Coming from the UK, one of the biggest problems we have had over the years is of saying 'no, no, no' to so many things, that when some good ideas are generated by the Brits, the other states are quite suspicious of what our real motives are.

So, it is important for small states to think smart as well.

After the October 2009 European Council, French President Nicolas Sarkozy criticised the Visegrad countries for meeting in advance to coordinate their positions on the agenda. But isn't he doing exactly the same by meeting Angela Merkel before every other summit?

He was trying to send a message that you shouldn't have this kind of meeting, but these things happen. That is a normal way of preparing for a summit, you get your allies on board, and you have common positions.

If he is so opposed to this, then perhaps he should reflect on the working of the Eurogroup, when it decides its position on a financial matter and then goes to Ecofin with a common Eurogroup position. What is the difference between that and agreeing on the Visegrad level?

I can understand why he made that criticism, because he is unlikely to be in favour of anything that potentially can dilute the power and influence of France. He is perhaps worried that if this kind of grouping meets regularly, that they will arrive like a solid block behind a particular initiative and maybe make it difficult for France to get its way.

If we are talking about Sarkozy, we have to remember that he is a politician that likes to be at the centre of events, a politician who likes to dominate and run things. Just look at what Sarkozy was like during the French EU Presidency.

As your study showed, the new member states often have no position at all. Is this necessarily a bad thing?

No. There is not enough time to do everything. Good strategic thinking for a small state like Slovakia, Slovenia and even the Czech Republic is the recognition that you need to think what your priorities are, you need to think about your capacity and what your administration should be focusing on.

There are lots of issues discussed on the European level that are not very significant for a number of countries. These are ones that you should not force your civil servants to spend hours and days and weeks and months trying to prepare very complicated positions on.

But there are other areas where it clearly really does matter. So for a country like Slovakia, by putting a lot of effort into developing proposals on energy makes a lot of sense. Good government is about choosing and is about focusing and strategic priorities.

Slovenia and the Czech Republic held their presidencies under the old system of the Nice Treaty. Do you think Slovakia has missed something in this respect?

It is a very interesting question. We are only a month into the new Lisbon arrangements. Nobody quite knows how it is going to work, so the short answer is – wait and see.

We have the semi-permanent president of the Council, but it looks like Van Rompuy is taking this largely as a kind of a chairing role. Ashton has got an awful lot on her plate in this double-hatted role. Solana had a huge amount on his plate: she has even more.  

You still have a presidency that runs many aspects. The Spanish are still a significant player, even if they do not chair all the Councils. Spain still has potentially quite a significant role in shaping the agenda.

In a funny kind of way the new arrangements brought in under Lisbon maybe will help the smaller countries, because they will not have to worry so much about European summits and foreign affairs, but to focus on policy areas, which are more important for a country like Slovakia. So maybe it will work out better. The rotating presidency is still in place; it has only been decapitated to some extent. But states like Slovakia will still have the opportunity to leave their mark.

Would you say that holding the EU's rotating presidency so soon after accession helped Slovenia and the Czech Republic to better articulate their positions at European level?

I think holding the EU presidency is very good in a number of ways. It is good because it makes leading politicians aware of how they should behave. I think actually, crucially, what is helpful about holding a presidency – and of course this will not change with the new arrangements – if you take specific policy areas like agriculture or justice and home affairs, that the administration from these countries, the civil servants, have to be given more knowledge about the European level, they become much more 'Europeanised', aware of how things are done on the European level.

So for Slovenia and the Czech Republic, yes, there were benefits on the high political level – it is always nice to be in the centre of events and be shown shaking hands with the great and the good and having big, well-known politicians coming to your country from all over the world.

But one can argue what is really beneficial is the impact on the administration. Civil servants become much more aware of how the EU works. This has longer-term effects felt long after today's politicians have left the political stage.  

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