EU Forum

Perspectives on EU enlargement from aspiring member states: “We want to compare ourselves with the best”

18 Oct 2012 - 00:00

Since the fifth enlargement round of 2004 and 2007 the criteria for accession have been raised considerably. The EU demands 100% perfection from candidates. The 2012 Commission report on the EU enlargement strategy and the progress made by the aspiring member states stresses the strict and fair conditionality approach. It can easily be argued that this change in the enlargement policy is unfair towards the current (potential) candidate states. But the roundtable participants didn't dwell on feelings of injustice or sorrow. Instead they showed a great deal of pragmatism and work ethic.

The majority of the young diplomats from the Balkan and Turkey didn't look at the stricter conditions as a question of fairness. Yes, there are double standards in the EU and it is easy to point out some EU member states which do not meet the criteria of the accession process, but the rules of the game have simply changed. In the past enlargement rounds the decisions on accession of new member states were more political in nature, whereas now the focus is on the technical process and the implementation of all the criteria. "The EU learned its lessons from past enlargement rounds and has raised the bar for us". Sure, these new circumstances are frustrating at times, but the current candidates have no choice but to accept that and play by the new rulebook.

Some of the diplomats even embraced the tough EU benchmarks and European values as a way to improve their own country. The road towards membership will be long and difficult, but it will be rewarding in the end as it forces states to adopt reforms on the rule of law, democracy, the protection of minorities and more. For some, the strict criteria even sparked a motivation to demonstrate that the current candidates are capable of better results than the predecessors of the fifth enlargement round. As one of the participants firmly stated: "Our goal is to compare ourselves with the best". Countries like Romania and Bulgaria, which are still struggling with political problems and corruption, definitely do not serve as an example for the Balkan region.

The EU dictates that all internal problems need to be solved before countries are given the green light for accession. At the same time Brussels is not very actively involved in resolving the name issue between Macedonia and Greece, the differing opinions over the status of Kosovo between Belgrade and Pristina, the necessary reform of the political structure in Bosnia Herzegovina and the complications between Turkey and Cyprus. Some participants in the roundtable discussion think the EU should be more involved in these matters and put pressure on individual member states to not use their veto to block any progress. Others feel the EU should not be involved at all in internal political matters. If European leaders ignore what is going on in the direct neighbourhood, the EU and the enlargement process might lose credibility.

An interesting distinction was made between EU membership as a tool and a goal. Regardless of the end goal of eventual membership, the accession negotiations as a tool to implement the necessary reforms may be even more important. This argument especially applies to Turkey, where the perspective of eventual EU membership remains uncertain for various political reasons. If Turkey joins the EU it would be the largest member state which would mean a considerable shift in power within the EU and its institutions. For the Turkish participants the reason for EU reluctance is clear: "If you are Messi you don't want Ronaldo in your team".

Changing rules, new conditions and a loss of political will in the member states have raised the bar for the Balkan countries and Turkey. But, the general view among our young diplomats is that all the difficult reforms will be worth it. Not only to get closer to membership, but because it will benefit their own country and contribute to a brighter future.

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