Lessons learned from recent EU enlargements and ideas for the future of an even wider Europe shaped recent EURACTIV roundtable discussions held in Paris and Berlin.
France 'obsessed by Turkey'
As EURACTIV France pointed out on its blog, in Paris the enlargement debate inevitably focuses on Turkey's accession bid, no matter which experts are invited to events and irrespective of the agenda tabled for discussion.
"The debate on Turkey is mainly French," recognised Philippe Perchoc, president of the 'Nouvelle Europe' reflection group.
The paradox, he explained, is that the French are not afraid of the Western Balkan countries joining the Union, despite the fact that they know even less about the Balkans than Turkey.
"In Sweden and Great Britain or in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, people are more reluctant [to accept] the Balkans, where the political stabilisation process is still ongoing," he said, comparing attitudes.
Referring to a much-publicised proposal by French President Nicolas Sarkozy for a "privileged partnership" to be offered to Ankara instead of full-fledged accession, Perchoc turned to MEP Philippe Juvin (from Sarkozy's UMP, affiliated to the European People's Party) and asked him directly: "Turkey is a candidate country […] How can you have such a contradictory discourse?"
Rather surprisingly, Juvin acknowledged "the ambiguity of the debate and the lack of courage of French politicians".
According to Yuhishthir Raj Isar, a professor at the American University in Paris, "Turkey is the Ottoman Empire, the Muslim devil," a way of thinking drawn from the European Christian imagery.
Raj Isar, who is himself of Indian origin and specialises in investigating modern political challenges by examining ancient backgrounds, explained that the issue of EU borders was not a "geographical but a conceptual problem".
"The history of the European continent shows that Europe is only a succession of appropriations of the European concept, according to the time and the place," he argued.
"Countries which will have fulfilled all [the EU's] accession criteria will be more European than EU member states," claimed Bahadir Kaleagasi, international coordinator of the TUSIAD association, which represents the Turkish business community.
Enlargement to Turkey will be a "test of credibility" for the EU and Turkey, said Kaleagasi. "Within 3-4 years, the country will be 100% compliant with the 'acquis communautaire'. Will the EU be ready and will it still have the same force of attraction?" he asked.
Was the 2007 enlargement a mistake?
Most participants at both events agreed that EU enlargement policy had become "tougher" since the 2004 and 2007 enlargements.
"The [European] Commission strongly pays attention to the issues of corruption and organised crime," said Marzenna Guz-Vetter from the Commission representation in Germany.
"The enlargement of 2007 [Romania and Bulgaria] was premature," said Guz-Vetter. "It was a clear political decision."
She acknowledged, however, that "the new membership of the ten countries [in 2004] has been a great economic success".
"Unfortunately this success was not communicated enough," she deplored.
Thomas Silberhorn, a member of the German parliament for the CSU fraction, was even more critical, claiming that the premature accession of Bulgaria and Romania triggered a relapse in the reform efforts of these countries. This turned out to be a severe burden for internal relationships in the EU, said Silberhorn, who also chairs a CSU task force on foreign affairs, defence and Europe.
Silberhorn warned Ukraine and Turkey against harbouring "too large expectations". The EU door will be open to Iceland, he said, before warning that current struggles about fisheries rights and the country's financial situation are not particularly helpful.
Meanwhile, the Western Balkan countries have a clear perspective of joining the EU "but due to the experiences with Bulgaria and Romania, we have to return to the path of virtue again," Silberhorn said.
Participants in Paris also spoke of "fatigue or indigestion" among members of the enlarged Union. They agreed that the last two enlargements were "perceived badly because they were not explained enough in the East or in the West".