Not long ago, the DG for Enlargement moved to a new address, from 200 to 15, Rue de la Loi, Brussels. What seems like a question of logistics, not policy, matters. Never in the past twenty years has enlargement fallen to such a low priority for the European Union. The old address of the Directorate General for Enlargement was the Berlaymont, the centre of the Commission—symbolizing the centrality and importance of the enlargement process for the EU. Now, it is housed in a non-descript office building a few hundred meters away. This symbolic removal from the center of EU and the Commission’s headquarters is not just a coincidence, but reflects the problem of enlargement. Although the EU is in accession talks with three countries (Turkey, Serbia and Montenegro) and four more are waiting to start talks, the DG is a shadow of its former self. The atmosphere of decline was reflected in recent months in rumors circulating that the next Commission might not have a Commissioner solely responsible for enlargement. This would be for the first time since 1999 that the EU would not have dedicated enlargement commissioner. Such a scenario seems somewhat unrealistic, considering that there is a need to have 28 Commissioners, one for each member state and thus, enlargement will probably stay on. The question is, however, whether this will be filled by a forceful commission pushing the agenda, or not. Judging the by the gradual decline of the profile of the enlargement portfolio over the past decade, the signs are ominous.
This sense of decline is also reflected in key member states. Popular support for enlargement was never particularly high and governments have pursued it despite their citizens’ skepticism. The latest Eurobarometer puts a clear majority of EU citizens against enlargement (52% over 37% for) with number around 70% against it in France, Germany and Austria. The highest level of opposition to enlargement is in Austria with 76% against (and 16% for). While Turkey is certainly the bête noire of enlargement, opposition to having Kosovo, Albania and Serbia join are not significantly lower.
These numbers have been steady, at least since the beginning of the economic crisis. However, in recent years numbers have been particularly high and amidst broad dissatisfaction with the EU and governments due to the economic crisis, governments have been more responsive.
The Austrian coalition agreement from late 2013 for example remains committed to towards EU enlargement in the Western Balkans (as opposed to requiring a referendum for Turkish membership). In addition to the accession criteria, the new/old Austrian government emphasis the ability of the EU accept new members as key criteria for membership, a clause that can be used to easily delay further accession.
The German government has followed a similar line, keeping the door open, but while noting the ability of the EU to join, it also underlined the need to strictly enforce the member ship conditions, in effect signaling a strong monitoring by individual member states.
Beyond these mentions of enlargement, more important is the degree to which enlargement is not a central feature of the foreign policy of Germany or Austria, as these countries have been two key promoters of the enlargement process within the EU. The German government declaration at the European Council in December 2013 mostly focused on the cases at hand, Serbia and Albania, but offers no larger strategy vision or even re-affirmation of the Thessaloniki promise of full membership. The government declaration to the German Bundestag did not even mention enlargement and noted that “25 years ago the wall came down. 10 years ago we saw the beginning of the EU Eastern enlargement. Further borders in Europe could be reduced. Today, we Germans and we Europeans are unified to our fortune.”
While the statement implies that enlargement is not complete, this is not spelled out and the unification of Europe appears already done. At best, this declaration could be taken as the German government viewing the enlargement to the Western Balkans as a done deal, even if not technically completed. At worst, it is a sign that there is no real support for enlargement which continues below the radar as a low level process and is used to reward individual countries, but not as a strategic vision.
Recently the UK, conventionally a strong support for enlargement, has taken a sharp turn against enlargement. In his comment for the Financial Times, PM David Cameron threatened to veto further enlargement if labor mobility or he and the tabloids term “benefit tourism” is not restricted.
Other governments have shied away from such a populist used of enlargement, but this approach might become attractive after the EP elections when Eurosceptic Parties are likely to take a much larger share of the vote than they have to date.
Finally Greece, holding the presidency of the EU in the first half of 2014 has taken a much more subdued approach towards enlargement after having been an important member state in promoting the Western Balkans joining the EU 11 years ago. In essence, the Greek presidency program does not devote much space to enlargement and follows the general “yes, but” approach: Enlargement has been successful, but countries have to undergo the most demanding accession process yet: “The accession process today is more rigorous and comprehensive than in the past, reflecting the evolution of EU policies as well as lessons learned from previous enlargements.”
While enlargement is going on as a process managed in Brussels, for most member states, it seems to be out of sight and mind, or at least at the margins. This could be seen as a pragmatic and maybe also helpful approach to keep the process ongoing when publics in the countries have grown weary of countries joining. Yet, enlargement through the back door will become tricky as citizens are ill prepared to accept the next enlargements, and as a number of countries will not need ‘just’ enlargement, but a more comprehensive EU engagement to overcome their domestic or bilateral difficulties.
As member states have become more involved into the accession process and claim their right to scrutinize the candidates independently from the Commission, there is the risk that the already slow enlargement process will be even further kicked down the road.
Although it might not be the most popular post in the new Commission (if it indeed remains one), enlargement will be a place for a Commissioner to leave a mark and revive the process. The significance might be easily overlooked now, but if the EU cannot complete enlargement and transform the countries of the Western Balkans, the credibility of its transformative power is seriously jeopardized.
Florian Bieber is a Professor of Southeast European Studies and director of the Centre for Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz, Austria. He studied at Trinity College (USA), the University of Vienna and Central European University, and received his PhD in Political Science from the University of Vienna. Between 2001 and 2006 he worked in Belgrade (Serbia) and Sarajevo (Bosnia & Hercegovina) for the European Centre for Minority Issues. He is a Visiting Professor at the Nationalism Studies Program at Central European University and has taught at the University of Kent, Cornell University, the University of Bologna and the University of Sarajevo.