Belgium to move quietly on EU enlargement policy

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The upcoming Belgian EU Presidency has not specifically cited enlargement among its top priorities but is widely expected to help Croatia and Iceland reach important milestones in their accession bids over the next six months.

Croatia is expected to conclude its EU accession negotiations during the Belgian EU Presidency, while Iceland will formally start membership talks, political analysts told EURACTIV.

Although officially Belgium is being "discrete" as to its intentions (see 'Background'), Croatia can expect to finalise membership talks during Belgian Presidency, which starts on 1 July, according to Piotr Maciej Kaczy?ski of the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS) in Brussels.

Indeed, a referendum in Slovenia two weeks ago appears to have cleared the main obstacle to Croatia's EU accession (EURACTIV 07/06/10). Days later, the Netherlands and Slovenia lifted their vetoes of two key negotiating chapters, raising hopes that the country could soon become the bloc's 28th member (EURACTIV 15/06/10).

As for Iceland, EU leaders recommended opening accession negotiations at their recent summit on 17 June. 

Accession 'to be based on merit'

Yves Leterme, Belgium's caretaker prime minister, said enlargement would be "one of the priority dossiers" for the Belgian EU Presidency, whose foreign policy agenda is expected to be dominated by EU efforts to put in place the bloc's new diplomatic service.

Speaking in Brussels alongside European Commission President José Manual Barroso on 26 May, Leterme said EU accession "should be based on merit" and take into account the Union's "absorption capacity" as well as the accession countries' administrative capacity to integrate the body of EU law.

"I believe that both the European Union and the countries concerned should be taken seriously," said Leterme.

Balkans on the back-burner?

CEPS analyst Kaczy?ski, however, expects the candidacies of Western Balkan EU hopefuls to be kept on the back-burner. Belgium is expected to make progress on visa liberalisation with Bosnia and Albania (EURACTIV 27/05/10) and will "maybe have to deal with the status of Kosovo," he said, but not much more than that.

The International Court of Justice is expected to rule in late July on the legality of Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence, proclaimed on 17 February 2008. Five EU countries – Spain, Greece, Cyprus, Romania and Slovakia – opted not to recognise the independence of the former Serbian province.

Kaczy?ski rejected suggestions that Belgium would try to block visa liberalisation talks with the Balkan countries after experiencing a wave of ethnic Albanian asylum seekers in October (EURACTIV 12/03/10), arguing that, on the contrary, Belgium would probably refrain from being seen as pushing its own agenda during the presidency.

But he conceded that the Netherlands, a country with which Belgium coordinates its foreign policy in the Benelux framework, could pay the idea lip service as Belgium's "spokesperson" for certain issues, citing immigration as an example.

"Poland was the spokesperson for the Czech Presidency [first half of 2009] and the Czechs will most certainly be the spokesperson of the Polish Presidency [second half of 2011]. It's a normal thing because the country holding the presidency cannot speak aloud," he said.

A populist and anti-immigration party led by Geert Wilders came third in general elections in the Netherlands last week (EURACTIV 10/06/10). It is still unclear whether it will join a possible coalition government led by the liberals.

Enlargement was one of the top priorities of the previous Belgian Presidency in the second half of 2001, when the EU's ten newest members from its biggest ever wave of enlargement were holding accession negotiations (EURACTIV 21/06/01).

This time, however, enlargement does not feature among the presidency priorities, which are spelled out on the Belgian prime minister's website as follows:

  • A socio-economic component that aims to foster sustained and sustainable growth;
  • a social component that aims to promote social cohesion;
  • an environmental component that aims to support the transition to a low-carbon economy;
  • a freedom, security and justice component that aims to establish an EU policy on justice, home affairs, asylum and migration;
  • an external action component that aims to consolidate the EU's role as a force for global peace and security.
  • 1 July-31 Dec.: Belgian EU Presidency. 

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