The EU enlargement debate used to be about expanding freedoms and preventing conflict. But a lot of Europeans now think that whatever lies outside the EU?s borders can stay there.
A European foreign minister recently told me he could not remember when one of his colleagues last used the word "enlargement". Not in a perfunctory, tick-boxing kind-of-way, but as a serious expression of an EU country's foreign policy. It is easy to understand the reticence. The implementation of the Lisbon Treaty has proven more difficult than many assumed and is sucking the energy out of the EU system. There is no time to think about large projects, let alone ones of a constitutional order like enlargement.
Then there is fall-out from the Greek crisis which has made it hard for most European politicians to argue that the EU should be expanded further. If after twenty years of EU integration the Greek government cannot be trusted, who will take the Serbian government at its word, or the Kosovo authorities on theirs? If the EU expands, does it mean that Germany will have to bail out a new slew of poor, budget-fiddling states? Questions such as these has now made enlargement an issue of mass politics not elite foreign policy - votes will be won or lost in Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and France on whether to enlarge the EU further or not.
And this is key. For a future enlargement - the EU's fifth if it takes place - has no vote-wining rationale that can overcome the concerns of voters about migration, and large transfers of revenue. Enlargement used to be about the expansion of freedom, of reuniting a divided Europe by bringing the recently freed people of Spain, Portugal and Greece, and later the down-trodden citizens of Eastern Europe into the European mainstream. A few years after the EU's eastward enlargement, the talk turned to expanding the EU into Southeast Europe as a way of staving off further conflict.
The furtherance of freedom and the prevention of war were two persuasive arguments for EU enlargement that most politicians were happy to advance and most voters were content to accept. But neither of these arguments holds sway today among most Europeans. Watching TV, they see no enslaved people to free, no Berlin Walls to tear down. When they travel to Croatia on holiday - as thousands do every year - they do not see poverty, and a people in need of EU support; they see a beautiful, well-to-do country.
Finally, the governments of Southeast Europe look less keen to do what it takes to qualify for EU membership. Sure, when they are offered the prospect of visa-free travel they do what is necessary, but the EU has few other incentives as attractive as visa-free travel. Adopting the rest of the acquis communitaire - the body of law which states have to enact to join the EU - has proven effective at building potential member-states, i.e. polities that can comply with EU law, but also key to creating viable and effective states. However, it is not a process with quick-wins, and early rewards. It is a long-term effort, the benefits of which only come into view over time.
As such, it requires a real desire for EU integration and a willingness to trade short-term cost for long-term gain - a calculation that politicians in Southeast Europe are finding harder to make than their Central European counterparts. But it is not all the fault of local politicians. Even those who are keen on European integration struggle to craft a vote-winning, reformist narrative - because Europe is less attractive than before. Europe's economies have looked more vulnerable than those of many applicant countries. Furthermore, many of the ailments that EU membership was thought to cure -- like minority disputes -- have returned to haunt even EU states, as witnessed by the recent Slovak-Hungarian dispute.
The proponents of enlargement say none of this matter. They point to Eurobarometer, a Europe-wide poll, which shows there has been no significant decrease in support for enlargement in recent years. They also argue that enlargement has not been linear, but has moved in fits and starts. So it may slow down for a while, but it will pick up again. Finally, they argue that there is no alternative but to enlarge the EU. How else can the EU hope to deal with the problems in Southwest Europe - like crime, conflict, and illegal immigration? Only reforms can build the kind of states that can deal with these problems - and only the prospect of enlargement can drive short-sighted politicians to mend their ways.
The pro-enlargement advocates may be right in all these things. But they may still fail to convince Europe's leaders that enlargement should continue in the short or even mid-term - because EU governments think the price of enlargement is higher than the cost of stasis. To most Europeans, Europe is already free and whole. What remains outside the EU could stay outside. Unlike before, there is no an argument-winning response in favour of enlargement.
This does not mean enlargement is dead. But it means it could be on hold for at least a decade or so, with the possible exception of Croatia's entry into the EU in 2012 or 2013. It also means the EU and the applicant states in Southeast Europe may need to take a ‘slow food' approach to integration, benefiting from the process itself, rather than its nutritional value, i.e. the act of accession. EU leaders, in turn, need to do everything they can to keep some kind of enlargement process going - accepting the applications from applicant states, and allowing the so-called screening process to begin, whereby the EU determines the differences that exist between the national legislation and the acquis communitaire.
Everyone reared on fast food will find the change of pace difficult, but a slow food approach may be more beneficial in the end.
This piece was first published by Global Europe.
Read more on: Wider Europe
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.