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Estonia: Analysis From Washington -- How Attractive Is EU Membership?

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 23 October 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The European Union's willingness in its negotiations with applicant states to make certain exceptions to the rules governing current members appears likely to have the unintended consequence of convincing some applicants that EU membership may not be as attractive as they had thought.

At the same time, offering such exceptions will have an impact on current members, by making it less likely that at least some of them will vote for expansion and more likely that the EU itself will become a multitiered structure rather than the union its original creators intended.

All these possibilities were suggested when Estonian officials announced on Thursday that experts at the European Commission have granted Estonia an exception to the ban on hunting wolves and beavers and may do the same for the hunting of bears and lynx.

Hanno Zingel of the Estonian Environmental Ministry said that this was because unlike in the EU, these "are not protected species for whom special nature reserves have to be created." But he added that this decision may not in fact be final since it must go through several more layers of the EU bureaucracy where representatives of other member states may object.

Such concessions to local conditions have a key and perhaps inevitable part of the ongoing EU accession process, as officials in Brussels attempt to square EU regulations with conditions in the applicant countries. Indeed, without some willingness to make such arrangements, any EU expansion eastward would likely be impossible.

But there are at least three reasons for thinking that such concessions on such relatively minor points are almost certain to become obstacles to the future development of the European Union.

First, many of the applicant states only recently have gained or regained their ability to make decisions for themselves, and many people in them are unlikely to be entirely comfortable with handing over such decisions to yet another foreign bureaucracy and thus exchanging some aspects of their sovereignty to protect others.

In all three Baltic countries and in many other Soviet bloc states as well, the drive to recover independence a decade ago was in the first instance an effort to take back powers that had been seized by Moscow. For at least some, the bureaucrats of Brussels may as a result of this process remind at least some in these states of the nomenclature officials in the Soviet capital.

Second, as Estonian Foreign Minister Toomas Hendrik Ilves pointed out last week, few of the applicant countries will benefit if the European Union becomes a multitiered or multitracked organization, a development that is ever more likely to become a reality if the EU and applicant countries negotiate ever more concessions to local conditions.

Many current members are certain to press for more concessions to their own local conditions if the EU offers them to applicant states, and if the EU refuses to grant them, such refusals are likely to weaken the institution as a whole.

And third, many current members are certain to view this process of making concessions to applicant states as one more reason why any enlargement should be put off. After all, analysts and officials in some of these countries have already suggested that demands by applicant states for concessions show that the latter are not ready for inclusion in the European Union.

Somewhat perversely, these objections almost certainly will become more widely heard if the issues involved are at least superficially relatively small as in the case of rules for hunting wolves in Estonia.

None of this means that enlargement will not happen or that the applicant states will not decide on their own that being inside the EU is better than not being a member. But it does suggest that the process is likely to be far more complicated, slow, and contradictory than many had expected.

And such a pattern in turn appears likely to lead ever more people in some of the current member countries and also in the applicant states to question where the EU is in fact going and what benefits they will receive from either its maintenance or expansion.

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