Analyst: perceptions about enlargement differ in ‘older EU’

Yves Bertoncini, photo Notre Europe

Yves Bertoncini [Notre Europe]

The perception of enlargement varies widely in the older members. Germany and Spain are globally satisfied, but there are specific difficulties in countries like France or the UK, where people insist more on the negative consequences of the recent enlargement, Yves Bertoncini told EURACTIV Serbia in a recent interview.

Yves Bertoncini is the director of the Paris-based Notre Europe – Jacques Delors Institute. He spoke to EURACTIV Serbia’s Smiljana Vukojicic Obradovic.

On 1 May, the EU marked the tenth anniversary of the so-called big enlargement. What is your opinion on the impact of the enlargement on integration within the EU?

This big enlargement has had no major negative effects from an institutional point of view. It has not blocked the functioning of the EU, and has only slightly increased political heterogeneity within the EU, as the UK was there before.

From an economic and social point of view, this enlargement has intensified the internal competition between EU countries, and has produced strikingly negative effects (especially as regards relocations) as well as noticeable gains for the older member states (in terms of exports and stability). It has also led to a real convergence move, at the micro-economic and macro-economic levels.

Finally, the big enlargement has not really damaged the diplomatic consistence of the EU, contrary to the fears expressed at the occasion of the 2003 Iraq War debate.

The Ukraine crisis reminds all the EU countries that unity makes force when they are confronted by international challenges and threats. In this regard, the enlargement is a useful contribution, given the fact that the EU28 accounts for only 7% of the world population.

Would the EU today admit those countries as members under the same conditions like 10 years before?

The present approach is less emotional than during the immediate post-Cold War period.

Above all, the EU and national authorities have drawn lessons from the recent crises and the failures they have observed in countries like Greece.

It has become more difficult to join the Euro area (see Latvia’s two attempts), the Schengen Area (see Bulgaria and Romania) and even the EU at large. There is a stronger insistence not only on the commitments, but on their real application, on the basis of the rule of law, and with the support of effective public authorities.

The positive consequence will be that the new members of the EU will definitely be ready to join at the end of their negotiations, with fewer negative side effects right after their accession.

What is the prevailing sentiment when it comes to enlargement?

The perception of enlargement varies widely according to the countries. All the countries which have joined the EU during the last decade are globally satisfied. Many of those who have welcomed them are globally satisfied as well (Germany, Spain, etc.).

There are specific difficulties in countries like France or the UK, where people insist more on the negative consequences of the recent enlargement, mainly in terms of social competition or free movement of people. This can naturally influence the perception of future enlargements, even if the negotiations with countries of the former Yugoslavia seem to be widely understood and accepted in principle.

The Ukraine crisis raised the question about the extent to which the EU is ready to confront Russia or eventually risk another “cold war” for defending Ukraine. Is the role of the EU as a leader on the international scene at risk?

Europe is a continent with two major pillars, namely the EU and Russia, whose coexistence is absolutely indispensable for the stability and prosperity of all of us. It seems wise to consider that countries like Ukraine, Georgia or Armenia should find their place in between the EU and Russia, without joining the one or the other.

Having said this, there is clear asymmetry between the EU and Russia in the Ukraine crisis. The former is reluctant to use military force, because its very nature is to promote the peaceful settlement of disputes. The latter is more ready to support the use of force, including via unofficial soldiers. The EU has already adopted political and financial sanctions vis-a-vis special targets and could be lead to adopt economic sanctions if Vladimir Putin doesn’t lower the pressure put on the Kiev interim authorities, including in the perspective of the 25 May elections.

Some European countries are probably reluctant to adopt such sanctions, which will affect both the EU and Russia, but it’s much more doable for them than sending troops.

The international credibility of the EU is clearly put at test in such a crisis, as it was the case in the post-Yugoslavia’s one in the 1990s. And the attitude of the USA will once more be a key element in the resolution of the ongoing crisis.

The rise of the right political parties in the EU is much in focus. Is it a real threat to EU values?

There is indeed a rise of radical parties in Europe, with the radical left but also and mainly at the right. The extreme right parties can indeed threat the EU values, especially the spirit of reconciliation, the non-discrimination principle and the free movement of people.

There is then a need to fight against them, but also a need not to give these parties too much importance in the political game, given the fact that they should remain rather marginal in terms of seats in the majority of national parliaments, and even more at the European Parliament.

How do you assess the current situation in Europe in terms of further integration? Is there enough political will for further strengthening ties between EU countries? What are the main challenges?

There is now a clear twofold dimension as regards further European integration. In the recent period, it has made significant progress in the framework of the Euro Area, for example as regards the bail-out programmes and the creation of a banking union. But such further integration can also be undertaken at the EU28 level, for example, to address energy-climate or migration challenges.

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