Analysis: “Absorption capacity” – a fallacious concept?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Frank Vibert (Director of the European Policy Forum) argues that the debate on the EU’s “absorption capacity” is in fact “a diversion” from the real challenges facing Europe today.

Vibert sees four reasons to be “cautiously optimist” about the EU situation today:

  • On the economic side, signs or recovery in Germany and France as well as the good performance of the Euro can be contrasted with evidence of resurgent “Euronationalism” (for example, around the EuroNext/New York Stock Exchange merger). 
  • As far as constitutional affairs are concerned, the “pause of reflection” may give birth to a “more focused and practical approach to institutional reform,” but this will require strong political leadership, especially from the future German and French presidencies. 
  • Though enlargement is widely seen as one of the EU’s “greatest achievements to date,” many obstacles still loom in Turkey and southeast Europe.
  • When it comes to the EU’s power projection abroad, positive developments in Iran and in transatlantic relations should be balanced with the bad image of “EU agricultural protectionism” in the WTO realm.

A by-product of the alleged EU crisis, the debate on “absorption capacity” “suggests that there are empirical and objective limits to what current EU structures can accommodate, and that these limits have been or are close to being reached.” According to the author, this debate is “artificial and overblown,” since it would neither mean anything to European citizens nor help conceptualize the way out of the crisis.

The author stresses the “dexterous convenience” of the term, which manages to rally both opponents of the enlargement process (especially in its extension to Turkey) and supporters for further EU institutional reforms (hence new EU powers to increase its “capacity”). However, he dismisses the theoretical and practical foundations of the concept, which he thinks would merely serve politicians invoking a “non-political,” “objective” excuse to set barriers to enlargement rather than facing the political issues it raises within their domestic constituencies.

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