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Central/Eastern Europe: Analyst Warns EU Enlargement Could Take 20 Years

London, 27 November 1997 (RFE/RL) -- A top British analyst says the enlargement of the EU to include the Central and East European countries may take 20 years or more, and threatens to draw new dividing lines.

Kirsty Hughes, head of the European program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, also says it is doubtful whether any of the 15 EU member states really is in favor of eventual membership for all 10 transitional countries that have applied.

Hughes spoke last night in London on the theme: "Enlarging the European Union -- Rhetoric and Reality?"

Hughes said West European politicians repeatedly say that the EU is moving ahead as fast as possible with the enlargement process which they depict as a historical, political and moral imperative.

But she said the reality does not match the rhetoric. She said the enlargement process is moving slowly, and likely to continue even more slowly. She said the commitment of member states is shaky and varied; there is an almost complete unwillingness to pay for new members; and the EU lacks a clear strategy for enlargement.

She also said that Germany and France are vying with each other to make promises to the Central and East Europeans which they have no intention of meeting by the target year 2000.

Hughes said the EU has to enlarge if it is to be relevant to the new "European landscape" and to adjust to post-Cold War realities. She added: "We've already seen the EU fail in former Yugoslavia. I don't think it can afford to fail in Eastern and Central Europe."

She said German Chancellor Helmut Kohl was quoted recently as saying that if all 15 EU leaders were asked to vote in private on enlargement, he was not at all confident of a majority in favor.

Hughes said geography and economic interests play a big part in determining the different EU countries' interest in enlargement.

She said Germany, Austria and the Nordic countries have more interest in enlargement than other EU nations as they need peace and stability on their borders and benefit from bigger trade flows.

Even so, Germany has ambivalent feelings about the cost of enlargement, and also about opening up its borders to East/Central Europeans because of the impact on domestic opinion.

Hughes said it was "incredible" to hear a proposal from the German Social Ministry that there should be restrictions of the freedom of movement of Poles for 20 years after EU accession.

She said France has no great immediate interest in enlargement, and is concerned about harm to its relationship with Germany, as Bonn restructures its security and economic interests to the east.

She said, although Paris supported Romania's bid for NATO membership, France is opposed to plans to greatly expand the union. She quoted a French official as saying to her: "A 25-country EU? We talk about it all the time. Think about it, never!"

She said Britain is exceptional because it is a genuine supporter of enlargement. However, critics charge that Britain is primarily interested in weakening the European integration process, and sees enlargement as a way of diluting moves to political union.

Hughes said Spain and Portugal are cool about enlargement since they don't want to see their EU funding diverted to the east.

She said the EU failure to adopt a clear strategy for including the East and Central Europeans threatens new dividing lines being drawn across southern and eastern Europe. The European Commission's has recommended that five "fast track" countries -- Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovenia and Estonia -- should be invited to the initial accession talks.

But this marginalizes countries like Bulgaria and Romania. The EU should show a commitment to both by opening up its markets for their farm goods, give them a time frame for accession talks, and lift visa restrictions imposed on Bulgarians and Romanians.

Another source of friction is the commission's proposal to allocate the five "fast track" countries 77 percent of its funding for transitional countries, with only 23 percent going to the rest -- Bulgaria, Romania, Latvia, Lithuania and the Slovak Republic.

Hughes said: "At the moment the trend is to open up increasing gaps between the front runners and the laggard countries."

She predicted that the EU will evolve as a "rather strange, patchwork" institution over the next five, 10, 15 or 20 years.

In summary, she said that enlargement will be a difficult process to keep on track; that there is a lack of European leadership and a genuine commitment to the ideal; and a failure to grasp the "big strategic challenge of redefining the European Union."

She said: "The big danger is that a mismanaged enlargement will lead to a weaker or splintered EU, or an increasingly irrelevant EU in the 21st century."