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Europe D66 European Parliament

Involving Europeans in the enlargement

   Sun 07/05/2000

The enlargement of the EU is too important to leave to just governments and technocrats. But to gain public support for the upcoming enlargement of the European Union, the process needs to be changed radically.

On 9 May it will be Europe day, this year for the fiftieth time. The Dutch government is emphasising this joyous fact by letting a 'Euro train' ride through the country in which politicians from the Netherlands and other countries discuss the coming enlargement of the EU with the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. A good idea, finally something other than the eternal public information by means of governmental PR. It is high time that the government gives publicity to this important subject. But it is an illusion to think that this guarantees the public's involvement in the enlargement. For that, the accession process must be changed radically.

According to the latest Euro barometer polls only 27% of EU citizens feels that the enlargement is important. Apparently Europe does not yet realise what enormous changes the enlargement will bring about. The policy makers are so enthusiastic about their Big Political Project that they have forgotten that it will influence everyone in Europe. It shows a paternalistic attitude to think that with a little public information support will come all by itself. More is needed to guarantee involvement in the enlargement: people, companies and NGOs must be partners in the process.

Of course right at the end of the process the accession treaties have to be approved and ratified by the parliaments in question. But that's no more than a yes or no to the end result and anyone who dares be a spoilsport at that point must have what it takes. What we need is real, public control of the accession process. And for that, openness must already exist now. The negotiations are currently being carried on by government representatives and Commission officials in closed meetings. It is practically impossible to gain insight into what is being discussed.

The term "negotiations" is misleading: after all the outcome is already known. The candidate member states will have to adopt the entire EU legislation (the acquis communautaire). What the discussions are actually about is the length of the transitional periods which the accession countries receive for the various legislation dossiers. Poland, for example, will say that it will implement the agricultural regulations within 3 years. In that way it will receive European subsidy as soon as possible. The EU, urged on by France whose farmers cannot compete, will perhaps ask for 8 years. If the end result is 7 years, it must also be understandable and acceptable for consumers in the Netherlands. Perhaps they wanted to welcome the cheap Polish products far earlier, but are being confronted with a fait accompli. As long as the discussions are held behind closed doors it is impossible for NGOs, companies, MPs and the general public to influence the process or even determine on which grounds a transitional period has been awarded. The result is that Europeans are alienated from this drastic change in their lives.

There is absolutely no guarantee that the access of Eastern European agricultural products is not being postponed because French farmers cannot deal with the competition. It is not inconceivable that in the final process, the rights of Romanian gays (who are still ending up in prison) are traded against opening up the Romanian market to milk from the EU at an earlier stage. Public support is needed for all these kinds of drastic decisions. Objective facts must be decisive. In the above example, it should revolve around the reliability of the Polish food inspection. Where political deals are closed, this should occur in public with democratic control. Only then can the enlargement receive the support of the population.

In the past, deals in closed chambers have already saddled us with the Strasbourg seat of the European Parliament and the many other imperfections which the EU has. The governments have to realise that they no longer have the automatic mandate to decide what they want without having to account for it.

A large conference in Maastricht at which the head negotiators of all the acceding countries were present recently showed that it really is possible to make public the course of the negotiations. The Slovenian government, for example, is obliged to submit its starting points to the parliament for approval prior to the accession discussions. In this way Slovenia is not only ahead of the other candidates with regard to openness but also ahead of the Netherlands and the other member states. However it would be extremely easy to simply publish both the stakes of the candidates (the so-called position papers) and the reaction of the Union on the Internet.

The current president of the EU, Portugal, stated in Maastricht that there was no risk at all that lack of public support would lead to a set-back. After all, "only fringe groups are against the accession". This is an incorrect representation of matters. There is no broad public support. Warning sounds are coming from many sections of society about the way in which the enlargement is now being prepared, such as recently in this newspaper by Giscard d'Estaing and Helmut Schmidt (20 April 2000). What the EU showed in Maastricht was a rare display of naivete, which is not only inconsistent with the opinion polls, but also with the mood in the candidate member states, where the fear of competition with the highly qualified workforce and products from the EU is starting to grow.

The closeness surrounding the enlargement furthermore plays into the hands of the populists, who make easy abuse of the population's lack of knowledge and who without any rejoinder play on gut feelings. Of course it is possible that more openness in the first instance leads to an increase in public scepticism. The governments must overcome their cold feet and invest in future support for irreversible decisions. It is precisely at this time that the Europeans have to realise how much work still has to be done before the Eastern European countries can participate in the EU as fully-fledged members. In the longer term, public scepticism can only be overcome by transparency. Further failure to implement openness will only increase the calls for delay.

The enlargement of the EU is too important to leave to just governments and technocrats.