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EU: Enlargement Strain Tells

  • Breffni O'Rourke

The European Union appears to be facing a period of disarray as a result of a number of different factors that have come together at once. These factors include the unexpectedly severe riots which accompanied last month's EU summit in Goteborg, the Union's continuing loss of popularity among its citizens, and the divisive debate about the Union's future development. There's also Ireland's recent rejection of the Nice Treaty, which has cast uncertainty over the eastward enlargement process. RFE/RL correspondent Breffni O'Rourke assesses developments.

Prague, 11 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The European Union appears to be entering a difficult period as the result of a combination of factors. In one way or other, many of these strains are related to the eastward enlargement process, which is meant to culminate in the admission of the first new members in 2004.

First of all, a wide-ranging debate is now underway among EU members on the Union's form and structure after enlargement. This debate is being carried on in an unusually frank manner and, as Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt puts it: "No subject must be taboo." Belgium began its six-month EU presidency on 1 July.

But the debate is serving to highlight the wide differences of opinion between those members -- like Belgium and Germany -- favoring ever-deeper European integration, and those -- like Britain and Sweden -- which oppose further centralization of power in Brussels at the expense of national sovereignty. The debate is causing public confusion, and for the moment it's hard to see anything but an uncomfortable compromise emerging from the planned 2004 inter-governmental conference, or IGC, that is meant to set out the division of powers in the Union.

An additional complicating factor is Ireland's surprise rejection in a referendum last month of the Nice Treaty. That's the document which is designed to reform EU institutions to enable them to work effectively in an expanded Union. Its rejection by 54 percent of Irish voters has cast a shadow on both the Union's internal reform and the enlargement process.

Exactly why the Irish, who have gained much from EU membership, voted down Nice is not clear. Opposition to having East Europeans join the Union does not seem to have been a large factor. But a well-organized campaign for a "No" vote was able to play upon fears that EU integration is moving too fast and that individual nations will lose their identity. Those fears are being stirred in part by the debate on the EU's future.

Steven Everts, a political analyst with the Center for European Reform in London, says people feel insecure when confronted with rapid change, and may turn their back on it:

"For decades to come, people's primary loyalty will go to, and will remain with, their national political system. Sometimes there are people in Brussels, or journalists, or analysts, who lose sight of the fact that there is this gap, whereby sovereignty and authority are transferred to one level, but loyalty remains with another. That's the gap we are dealing with, and the tension between the two will probably remain for some time to come."

European Commission President Romano Prodi says that if the Irish do not pass the Nice Treaty at a second referendum next year, then the planned 2004 IGC may have to be rescheduled for an earlier date so that other arrangements can be made for the EU to fulfill what he calls its "solemn commitments" to start admitting Eastern candidates.

Then there's the issue of popularity. Recent polls show declines in the EU's popularity among citizens in many member states, and indeed also in candidate member states.

A recent Finnish poll shows how diverse are the roots of the problem. In the survey, only 49 percent of respondents said the EU had a positive impact on Finland's development -- sharply down from 62 percent last year. Once again, fears for diminished national sovereignty were one of the factors cited. So was concern about the negative impact of EU policies on local farming. There was also a fear of increased immigration and diminished social security.

Adding to the public confusion is lack of understanding about EU policies. A recent survey by the EU's "Euro-Barometer" agency indicated that almost 80 percent of respondents did not feel well-informed about enlargement, and 85 percent did not feel involved in the debate on that process.

A spokesman for the European Commission recently said the commission is "worried" by the situation, and he called on member states to keep their public better informed. Political analyst Emil Kirschner, of Britain's Essex University, says that the EU, with its opaque and bureaucratic processes, has long suffered from a communication deficit with the public:

"People have never understood perfectly well what is going on [in the EU], and it's a long story why that is so. But clearly the Irish referendum and formerly the Danish one in 1992 (that initially rejected the EU's Maastricht Treaty) are signals that there is a gap between leaders and followers, or citizens, and the EU will try very hard to amend this situation."

Capping the series of unhappy events was last month's severe rioting in the Swedish city of Goteborg, the site of the EU mid-year summit. The rioting appears to show that the EU is now squarely in the sights of the anti-globalization demonstrators who previously had concentrated on international institutions like the International Monetary Fund. EU leaders have expressed shock at being the target of such fierce protests, pointing to the high priority given to environmental and social issues by the Union. But Kirschner says more such protests can be expected in future:

"The EU is a global actor, and in the eyes [of the demonstrators] it is exploiting the Third World through its unfair trade practices, as they see it. So I think, yes, we will probably see more of that. That's why the EU already has decided to have its key meetings [in the future] in Brussels and designate probably one of the old castles [there] which are very secluded."

All this is happening against a background of the EU taking a larger role in international affairs than ever before. The Union is active in diplomatic efforts to seek peace in the Balkans and the Middle East, and is forming its own rapid reaction military force, which will give it for the first time an independent military capability. But even that is a controversial project, not least because several EU members -- like Ireland, Finland, and Austria -- are militarily neutral and are worried that their neutrality is at risk.

A recurring theme in many of the problems facing the EU today is popular concern that continuing European integration will led to a loss of national sovereignty. That preoccupation may mean that the EU "federalists" -- that is, those who favor speedier integration -- may have to go more slowly, or risk losing public support for the European project.