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Europe Democracy around the World D66 European Parliament

Open up the enlargement process

   Thu 04/11/1999

Speaking at The Second Decade, a conference attendented by ministers, parlementarians and diplomates involved in the enlargement process of the European Union, Lousewies van der Laan (MEP) urged to open up the enlargment process. She stressed the ever increasing importance of civic involvement in the futher developing of the European Union.


I, like most people, remember precisely where I was when the wall came down ten years ago. I was sitting in a student house in Amsterdam with some friends watching it on TV. I am not ashamed to say that I was moved to tears. I had visited my sister in Moscow, which was then still the Soviet Union, on numerous occasions and had decided that communism went against everything that I hold dear. I so much wanted everyone to share in the wealth of the EU: the peace, the prosperity and the individual choices we have.

Now it seems the romance of that moment has become overshadowed by the bureaucracy of the process. Who can keep romantic visions of a unified Europe alive when we are drowned in jargon about position papers, bilateral screening, community acquis, in and pre-ins, transition periods and catch up facilities?

Mr. President, this conference comes at the right moment. In my opinion, and that of many others in the European Parliament the discussion about enlargement is still too much the remit of a small number of well informed technocrats and politicians. The fundamental discussions are not taking place, especially not in public.

Deepen the debate

The current debate about enlargement is superficial and oversimplified. The standard line to take is that “the Union must ensure that it has completed its reforms before the enlargement takes place”. But besides a political intention such a statement means very little. There is no agreement on which minimum changes are really required. The intergovernmental conference will start in a couple of months and there is still no agreement about the agenda. In the meantime, the fundamental questions are not being addressed.

Examples of these are: How much money are we willing to pay for the accession? Should the European Parliament ratify accession if there is no qualified majority voting in foreign policy? How do we ensure that a country with a long transition period in environment will not hold back new legislation? Should all criteria be weighed the same way? If Romania complies in all areas except the protection of homosexuals is that a sufficient reason to keep them out? (By the way, my answer to that last question is yes).

In the Parliament these types of questions are now focussing themselves around a decisive theme: what minimum changes do we need to see – both inside the EU and on the side of the applicants - in order to vote for enlargement?

Open up the debate

The only way to start facing these fundamental questions is to radically open up the enlargement debate. It is still too much the realm of political elites. If we look at the statistics about enlargement we have to wonder if our leaders are truly democratically elected. Public support for enlargement is steadily decreasing, while decisions on accession move ahead. I have here the recent Eurobarometer, which indicates that only 42% of the EU population is currently in favour of enlargement.

Yet, expressing concerns about a possible public backlash appears to be a taboo, especially among us enlightened and liberal politicians. It appears that we must somehow forge ahead in the hope that sooner or later the masses will overcome their anxieties and fall in line. Personally I don’t think that will happen.

However, people voicing concerns run the risk of being branded as being anti-enlargement. And discussion is stifled by both sides. Anyone who points out that the Union needs to be reformed before enlargement is caricatured as being “against enlargement”. Those who point out that enlargement should go ahead even if reforms are inadequate are pushed aside as Euro-sceptics, who use enlargement to block deepening of the Union. We now urgently need to move the debate beyond these platitudes and make room for the real concerns on both sides.

We need to face the fact that there is opposition to enlargement. Some of it is unorganised and based on ignorance.. But other opposition is well organised and based on real concerns. Concerns like organised crime, product safety (I was in the Commission at the time we had to put an embargo on Polish milk) and matters which are more difficult to quantify such a women’s emancipation. All these voices need to be given a place to speak.

A second, more drastic, step that needs to be taken is too open up the accession negotiations to the public. The negotiations are carried out in secret, largely by technocrats. When a country is granted three years extra to adopt a certain directive how can NGO’s, public interest groups and business find out if these 3 years are truly needed? The negotiations need to be broken open. The position papers of the governments should be available on the Internet. Citizens, NGO's and businesses should be stimulated to get involved. Both the EU and the applicants need to explain to their citizens the deals they make and why.

Thirdly, the Commission should urgently be asked to write a report on the costs of non-enlargement. (Those who follow European integration will recall that it was the so-called Chechini-report on the costs of not completing the internal market, that gave the push to complete the internal market.) A report on the costs of non-enlargement will help dispel the myth that enlargement is a favour to the applicants at costs to the EU taxpayer. At the same time the costs of current and future EU integration needs to be made clear to those who pay. I propose that we do this by putting in place a European tax which replaces the untransparent system of contributions to the EU budget that we currently have. It would become clear to the taxpayers that our current contribution per person to the EU is the same as an annual subscription to a quality newspaper. It would dedramatise additional costs and in general involve people more in the European project.

Fourthly, we need a European public area to hold this debate. Whether on the Internet, through TV or written media we need to find each other to ask the right questions and find the answers together. This conference is a step in the right direction, as is your website, Mr. Secretary, but they are only mall steps on a long road ahead.

Finally, the citizen’s of Europe should know that their opinion counts. Therefore binding referenda need to be held both in the EU and the applicant countries about the enlargement.

Focus the debate

Besides opening up the debate there is one other issue we need to deal with: the question of naming a date for accession. When I was still Spokeswoman to Commissioner Van den Broek I remember how we would both shake our heads in disbelief every time Kohl or Chirac would proclaim that this or that country would join the EU by the year 2000. As the negotiations got under way the voices died down. But now the calls are starting again. Some of the future member states say need dates to keep up support for difficult reforms. Others do not want dates because these may coincide with elections at which their voters will ask them why membership has not yet been achieved.

I do not believe in dates. I think they can raise undue expectations and frustrations. But most of all I think it is a contradiction to first say that countries must meet the criteria for membership and then to set a date which is not somehow conditioned by those criteria. In that way we lose credibility on both sides. Setting a date also creates the fiction that the moment of membership is some kind of watershed. It is not, as many recent new members can tell you. The real watershed for Central and Eastern Europe has already come and gone. It was (and to some extend still is) illustrated by the economic crisis in Russia. This affected most applicant economies much less than it would have done five years earlier. It was not the probable membership of the EU that protected the economies. No, it was the steps that were already taken by the countries themselves that saved them: creating stable currencies, creating export markets to the west, adopting transparent business legislation, having competitive markets. The real benefits come from the work being done, not from that final medal of membership.

Every politician coming to power after the collapse of communism would have made these points their policy priority. There was no EU needed for that. The EU membership has simply the added advantage of focussing the minds, providing countries with ready-made legislation and of footing part of the bill. But the process of reform was always needed with or without membership, with or without a date.

Concluding remarks

Mr. President, I have tried as you requested to be open and honest. I have also made six specific suggestions as to what the priorities of the Dutch governemnt should be.

The integration of Europe through the European institution is one of the great success stories of post war Europe. There are moments of reflection that I have in the EP when it still amazes me that French and German Christian Democrats are arguing against French and German Socialists, rather than French and Germans fighting each other. That kind of cooperation is what we want for people everywhere and it is a privilege that we find ourselves at a moment in history when we can share these ambitions with our neighbours. But we need now to give this historic process back to the people we claim to represent on both sides and give them a voice in the process.