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Analysis: Where Does Europe's Enlargement End?

By Luke Allnutt

(Click here to see RFE/RL's "EU Expands Eastward" webpage.)

The European Union has always remained deliberately vague about where its borders lie. Provided countries fulfill the 1993 Copenhagen criteria -- guaranteeing the rule of law, human rights, and respect for minorities, as well as having a functioning market economy -- technically anyone can join. In the late 1980s, Morocco -- with its eyes on the market just 16 kilometers across the Straits of Gibraltar -- applied to join the union, only to be told it was not European enough.

Following the accession of 10 mostly Central and Eastern European countries on 1 May, one of the big questions is: Where next? If all goes well, Romania and Bulgaria (and possibly Croatia) will join in 2007. In the event that they meet the demands of Copenhagen, the remaining countries of the western Balkans and Turkey are probably next on the list, perhaps sometime in the next decade.

After that, the choices become less palatable. Ukraine is still trying to make the right noises, but its enthusiasm for reforms remains laconic at best. Moldova, Europe's poorest country, has a flimsy civil society and a glacial pace of reform. It is burdened by Transdniester -- a pro-Russian breakaway region that is a lawless paradise for gangsters and arms dealers. Belarus, hamstrung by the erratic populism of autocratic President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and its unreformed Soviet-style economy, is a particularly unattractive prospect.

Farther east, there are the countries of the South Caucasus: Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. The latter's "Rose Revolution" in November brought the region back onto policymakers' radar screens, but subsequent tensions over the breakaway republic of Adjaria represent a major step backward for Georgia. Armenia's strongman president, Robert Kocharian, has meanwhile responded ruthlessly to public demands that he respect the courts and the ballot box. Azerbaijan remains isolated from the European family over shortcomings like the continuing battle for Nagorno-Karabakh, the government's stubborn refusal to release political prisoners, and a general lack of respect for democracy and human rights. The stakes in the CIS are considerably higher, as those former communist countries are part of Russia's "near abroad." With that in mind, it is difficult to imagine these countries joining the EU in anything less than two decades.

That is not necessarily a gloomy prognosis. John Palmer, the political director of the Brussels-based European Policy Center, thinks that after the countries of the western Balkans get accepted, "we might see the end of classic enlargement."

The recurring nightmare for many European politicians is that the inclusion of dubious democracies would seriously discredit the union.
That could usher in a multispeed Europe -- one that allows for a certain amount of differentiation. European politicians have always balked at the term, for all its connotations of a Europe divided between dunces and high-flyers. More recently it has been seen as French President Jacques Chirac's Plan B -- an opportunity for France and Germany to forge ahead with an inward-looking European agenda after the failure of the European constitution talks late last year.

Yet a multispeed EU might be the only way the union can expand further while maintaining the standards laid out in the acquis communautaire and not overstretching the purse strings of the richest member states. The recurring nightmare for many European politicians is that the inclusion of dubious democracies -- like Moldova or Ukraine -- would seriously discredit the union. The EU would become an ailing franchise, the political equivalent of a fast-food giant letting any old greasy spoon hang its global logo above the door. Even the Eurovision song contest would garner more respect on the international stage.

Early signs of the EU's willingness to embrace differentiation can be seen in the Wider Europe program, which is a framework for countries in the western NIS and southern Mediterranean who will soon find themselves sharing a border with the union. Countries in the Wider Europe program have been offered the prospect of full participation in the EU's market and its four fundamental freedoms -- goods, capital, services, and, eventually, people -- provided they adhere to certain core values and show concrete progress in political, economic, and institutional reforms. The ethos of the program is "Integration, Not Membership."

In the future, if the EU abandoned its open-door policy, states on the fringes of the union would not become full members of the union, but there would be some elements of shared sovereignty. Europe might become what has been termed a "union of concentric circles," with an inner core that accepts the acquis communautaire in full, monetary union, the Common Agricultural Policy, and then wider circles of countries accepting decreasing levels of commitment.

Europe a la carte exists already to some degree, most notably with the single currency, and the European Policy Center's Palmer says these types of ad hoc alliances and groupings will become more common. Countries will club together and pursue various shared policy interests.

There are several significant problems with such a differentiated approach. The first, according to Jonathan Lipkin, an analyst for Oxford Analytica writing for, is "how overlapping coalitions of states could find a way to put in place coherent and effective administrative and enforcement mechanisms."

The second is that prospective partners, or members, might not go for an "accession lite." Anything less than full membership "just doesn't do it for these countries. It's not enough," says Gergana Noutcheva, an enlargement expert at the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels. And as financier and philanthropist George Soros wrote in a syndicated column for Project Syndicate in March, "The most powerful tool that the EU has for influencing political and economic developments in neighboring countries is the prospect of membership."

Further expansion will also require a good deal of housekeeping. The brouhaha about the draft constitution in December illustrated the shortcomings of the decision-making process within a larger union. Without reform, the situation would only get worse. "The bigger the EU gets, the national veto will become more a source of paralysis," Palmer says. That means the union will have to rely more heavily on qualified majority voting (QMV) in the future.

The likelihood and extent of further expansion (in terms of political will and popular tolerance) will depend largely on how this most recent wave goes. Enlargement fatigue has already set in. The richest EU states are worried about the cost of integration and are currently sparring with the European Commission about capping the budget. Europeans outside the Euro-elite tend to be lukewarm about EU expansion. According to a November Eurobarometer poll, 54 percent of the French public opposed enlargement.

It would only take a few high-level scandals (diseased Slovak chickens or embezzled structural funds earmarked for a children's hospital in Poznan, perhaps) for the mood to swing further against enlargement. Britain's recent backpedaling over migration after a few scaremongering stories in the tabloid press about the imminent arrival of job-stealing, welfare-sapping Eastern Europeans showed the impact that public opinion can have on government policy.

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