Migration crisis morphs ‘enlargement fatigue’ into realpolitik

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

Turkish elections sticker. Berlin, 11 November. [Joel Schalit/Flickr]

The migration crisis is putting pressure on the EU to re-open accession negotiations with strategic neighbours. But it should take care not to compromise its values, writes Peter Van Elsuwege.

Peter Van Elsuwege is professor of European Union law at Ghent University.

When he started his term in office a year ago, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker expressed a general feeling of “enlargement fatigue”. The message was clear: no major progress was to be expected in the process of EU enlargement in the coming five years. And yet, recent developments seem to point in a different direction. In its conclusions of 15 October 2015, the European Council asked to “re-energise” the accession process with Turkey. At their meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Davutoglu on 29 November, the 28 EU leaders confirmed the unfreezing of accession negotiations. A few days later, High Representative Federica Mogherini announced the opening of two negotiating chapters with Serbia at the OSCE ministerial council in Belgrade.

Both developments are remarkable, particularly in light of the European Commission’s regular reports on progress towards enlargement that were published earlier in November 2015. The report on Turkey emphasised an overall negative trend in respect for the rule of law and fundamental rights, such as the freedom of expression and the freedom of assembly. With respect to Serbia, the report was less critical, and applauded among others the country’s constructive role in the region, not at least with respect to the normalisation of its relations with Kosovo. Nevertheless, the Commission and others have observed that corruption “remains widespread” and that “the private sector is underdeveloped and hampered by weaknesses in the rule of law”. In an enlargement policy which is value-driven and focused on the “fundamentals first” principle – as reaffirmed in the executive’s latest strategy paper – the opening of negotiations with Turkey and Serbia is at least somewhat paradoxical.

Obviously, the recent evolutions in the EU’s enlargement process can only be understood in the light of the ongoing migration crisis and the growing understanding that this challenge cannot be tackled by the EU member states alone. This is very clear with regards to Turkey, since the promise of opening new negotiating chapters is part of a package deal on activating the country in what is diplomatically called “cooperation on support of refugees and migration management”. Also with regard to Serbia, migration management is a crucial issue. The country is part of the famous Western Balkan route to the EU, and the Commission has appreciated the constructive role it has played, particularly after Hungary unilaterally decided to build a fence along the Hungarian-Serbian border. In comparison to certain uncooperative EU member states, the Serbs suddenly became the “good guys”, even though NGOs like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International reported that asylum seekers and migrants experienced harassment and abuse from the Serbian police.

Hence, the EU’s enlargement policy is moving in the direction of a pragmatic Realpolitik. (A similar trend can be observed with regard to the European Neighbourhood Policy). Of course, the question remains how the new pragmatism can be reconciled with the official discourse about values and norms. In contrast to previous enlargement waves, the current candidates openly challenge the pre-accession criteria. Turkish President Erdogan’s authoritarian tendencies and controversial statements concerning democracy, press freedom and equality between men and women are well known. In Serbia, the government explicitly refuses to align itself with the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) as far as relations with Russia are concerned. In other words, there are still some very hard nuts to crack before further EU enlargement becomes a tangible prospect. Opening accession negotiations might be an interesting tool of engagement with neighbouring countries, but the risk that this is nothing more than a shadow game, where all parties use the same carrot without necessarily caring about the fundamental European values, should not be underestimated. 

Subscribe to our newsletters