Analysis: Absorption capacity – old wine in new bottles?

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This paper, issued by the European Policy Centre, argues that a definition of absorption capacity will have little or no impact on the public’s opinion of enlargement.

The authors note that the issue of further enlargement has become a very contentious issue for member states. However, the history of the EU is one of enlargement and will continue to be so if one takes into account the impending accession of Bulgaria and Romania in 2007 and the further candidate countries waiting to join at a later date. This process of enlargement has coincided with deeper integration and indeed, the two processes have even proved to be ‘mutually reinforcing’. The paper notes that the December 2005 EU Summit saw a revival of the long-running debate over the link between the two processes – a debate that is centred around what is now described as the Union’s ‘absorption capacity’.
It is argued that the basis for any sensible debate on the issue must be based upon acceptance of the fact that membership of the EU is likely to exceed the 30 mark in the mediumterm, that on the other hand, such an expansion does raise questions over the institutional set-up, competences and the policies of such an ‘ever wider’ Union. However, we must be pragmatic in our outlook, the authors write, and accept that, although a country such as Turkey may never be ready to accede, we should not adopt a ‘fundamentalist’ approach and reject its candidacy out of hand.

The paper continues by stating that enlargement has not been managed as successfully as possible in recent years, and that a number of problems are identified. Firstly, EU citizens have not been adequately prepared for the admission of new members. The second issue concerns political control over enlargement negotiations. The admission of Cyprus, despite the fact that many important issues were yet to be resolved, is listed as an example of a case where the EU did not use its most powerful foreign policy tool, the prospect of enlargement, as effectively as it could. Finally, accession negotiations should be concluded only when both sides are reasonably satisfied. The paper claims that the current awkward situation of Bulgaria and Romania shows that negotiations with both countries were concluded prematurely and hurriedly.

The paper concludes by stating that acceptance of any future enlargement will depend on the public’s perceptions of how the EU works and on people’s ability to identify with the whole project. This implies that no definition of the Union’s absorption capacity – no matter how thorough and objective it aims to be – can or will be a decisive factor.

The debate is expected to intensify with the Commission’s presentation of a report on the issue in early November.  

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