EU Agenda: How Large a European Union?

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The history of the first 40 years of European integration has been one of enlargement. Initially six states signed the founding 1957 Treaty of Rome;by 1986 the Community had grown to 12 and in 1995 to 15 member states. The question is whether bigger is necessarily better and just how far the expansion of this democratically based economic market can go without jeopardising the integration process. Simply, are widening (enlargement) and deepening (greater economic and political integration) mutually exclusive objectives?

In July of this year the European Commission gave its initial recommendations on enlarging the European Union based on both economic and political criteria. Of the 12 applicant countries, six were given 'priority status' for negotiations to commence -- Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Slovenia and Cyprus. Five -- Romania, Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania and Slovakia -- while not rejected outright, were designated to a second wave of prospective membership. Turkey's membership, a perennial dilemma, was once again stalled.

The Commission's opinion, however, is just the start of a long and far from certain process. The 12-13 December meeting of the European Union's Council of Ministers chaired by the current Luxembourg Presidency will finally determine those countries with which negotiations will commence in 1998. It is widely expected, however, that the Commission's proposal will be accepted.

The negotiations demand detailed expertise across an increasing range of sectors. If past experience is a guide, many of the discussions will be hard-fought and complex. Optimists consider a five-year period the minimum, pessimists up to perhaps a decade. Each application is dealt with individually and membership will not necessarily occur simultaneously for all six. The key issues of concern already identified by the European Union include the administrative shortcomings in the six priority countries; poor environmental standards; agricultural support; nuclear safety; and the problem of organised crime.

An established precondition for entry is that all new member states have to accept what is called the acquis communautaire (all existing policies and procedures). Current policies do not constitute an a la carte menu. Consequently, the cumulative decisions of 40 years and the treaty reforms such as Maastricht and Amsterdam define the status quo. At best, applicant states can negotiate lengthy transition periods in certain sectors such as the common agricultural policy, as well as lobby for assistance in meeting the European Union's policy standards. …