EU cements ‘absorption capacity’ as the new stumbling block to enlargement

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EU leaders brought in more transparency for future Council meetings and sealed ‘absorption’ as the new rhetoric joker on enlargement at the EU Summit.

Enlargement

The concept of ‘absorption capacity’, which was the champion of Christian Democrats from Germany and Austria until the Commission picked the term up in its November 2005 enlargement strategy paper, will now be formalised: “The Commission is invited to provide a special report on all relevant aspects pertaining to the Union’s absorption capacity, at the same time as it presents its annual progress reports on enlargement and the pre-accession process,” the Council conclusions say. 

“We are keeping all our commitments; at the same time we recognize there are some concerns in our public opinion regarding the scope and pace of enlargement,” said European Commission President Jose Barroso. But referring to the absorption capacity, he stressed that “this is not a new criterion – I repeat, not a new criterion – for new candidate countries.”

Other participants at the summit, however, were not this clear. Chancellor Schüssel stressed that the concept equally involves the EU as well as candidate countries, adding that he favoured the German term “Aufnahmefähigkeit”, which has more positive connotations, over “absorption capacity”, which is, he said, a poor translation. In addition to the definition currently in place – “the capacity to act and decide according to a fair balance within institutions; respect budgetary limits; and implement common policies that function well and achieve their objectives” – Schüssel said, the term also has a cultural dimension. He stressed, however, the importance of the financial dimension, which he said was not sufficiently discussed in previous years when talking about the prospects of enlargement. 

French President Jacques Chirac said that “we should continue with enlargement, but in a process that is controlled and better understood.” He explained that the ‘absorption capacity’ was about both a financial and a political capacity. The latter of the two concerned the views of the populations which should “be able to say if they accept or not,” Chirac underlined. This applies very concretely in France where the inclusion of Turkey will be submitted to a referendum. 

Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen explained that the absorption capacity was about “the capacity to take in new members”, but he underlined that this was “not a new criteria” for EU entry. However, Rasmussen added that the Copenhagen-criteria for enlargement entry, agreed at the Copenhagen European Council in June 1993, were not criteria either. 

This leaves some confusion since even the Commission calls the EU’s political and economics demands vis-a-vis future member states as the ‘Copenhagen criteria‘. And they have indeed become the central yardstick by which the Commission assesses the readiness of future candidates.  

Swedish Prime Minister Göran Persson declared himself “dead against” any new barriers, and added that it was “not up to the incoming countries to take responsibility for the absorption.”

 

Reflection period and EU constitution 

The Parliaments of three countries – Belgium, Estonia and Finland – ratified the EU constitution under the Austrian Presidency, jumping the cliff of 50% of the EU’s 25 member states, 15 of which have now paved the way for the constitution. But the remainder includes such potentially problematic candidates as Poland, the Czech Republic, Ireland, Denmark, Sweden and the UK, along with France and the Netherlands, where the constitution was already turned down. 

Already prior to the Council, it was clear that the ‘Reflection Period’ that governments have prescribed themselves to think of ways out of the constitutional crisis would be prolonged, the question being only for how long the prolongation was going to be. The Council rather disappointed those whose hopes rested on the German Presidency, during the first half of 2007. 

EU leaders may have considered the six-week time span between the elections in the Netherlands and the end of the German Presidency too short to achieve significant progress, and they may also have considered the following Slovenian Presidency in too weak a position. Whatever their reasoning has been, they decided to prolong the reflection period not only for one year, but for two, until June 2008. Hopes now go to France to use the impetus of its Presidency, during the second half of 2008. Until then, EU leaders want to use a pragmatic, flexible approach, labelled by Schüssel as a “swing course”, to find more support for the constitution. 

Germany will be reconciled with a “recommitment to Europe”, as Commission President José Manuel Barroso called it. The ‘Berlin Declaration’ will be signed on 25 March 2007, at the Spring Council under the German Presidency. 

 

Transparency of the Council’s work

In accordance with decisions taken back in 2002, the Council will experimentally introduce more transparency into its work. Votes and deliberations as well as legislative proposals will be made public. This applies, however, only to decisions that are taken in the co-decision procedure and possibly to a few other debates, if the Council decides to admit the public. At Council meetings, debates on non-legislative items may also be held publicly. After a six-month period, the Council will evaluate the practice and decide whether to carry on with. 

 

Euro Zone

Unsurprisingly, the Council followed suit with the Commission’s and the European Central Bank’s recommendation and opened the door for Slovenia to join the Euro in January 2007, citing the country’s “high degree of sustainable convergence”. Schüssel said Slovenia was also an encouraging example for other countries willing to join the Euro Zone, because it showed that any country fulfilling the criteria could do so. 

This is for the time being not the case for Lithuania, the second contender for euro introduction. Schüssel commended the Baltic country “for the convergence it has achieved so far” and its “stability-oriented policies”. Still, the Council made it clear that Lithuania’s still too high inflation cannot be balanced by its high growth rate – a signal to other contenders to take euro criteria literally. 

 

 

It was not an easy exercise for Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel to present a positive balance sheet after the 15-16 June summit two weeks before his EU Presidency ends. The British Presidency which preceded his own had snatched the possible big success story with the December 2005 deal on the financial perspective away from him.

On the disputed Services Directive, the flexibility of the Austrian Presidency contributed to an agreement with the other institutions - but since this approach had the smack of giving in to the Parliament, it did little good to the Presidency's prestige. 

Significant progress on the EU constitution remains out of reach until general elections to be held in the spring of 2007 in the Netherlands and France - the two countries where 'no' votes in referenda brought the ratification process to a standstill in the spring of 2005. 

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